Guest column by Melanie Peron | ​Letter to the teacher I was

When a former student asked me recently to share something on my teaching experience in the DP, I wasn't sure I had anything to say. Then, as I was going through old files, I came across my first teaching philosophy. The novice teacher I was proudly stated that her main goal was to make students responsible. The epithet enabled her to launch into a pompous description of what a responsible student was in her mind: a student who was never late to class, religiously turned in assignments on time, scrupulously followed directions, was totally engaged in their learning process and infallibly participated in class. It sounded so crisp, so professional, so teacher-like. As I am reading it today, I am petrified. The commonplace jargon only conjures up military images of perfect little students. Did that make me a drill sergeant?

The teacher I was forgot one thing: life happens.

More than a decade later, my goal is still to help students be responsible. Yet with another definition attached to the adjective: "able to choose between right and wrong for oneself."

2015 was tragic in many ways, not least of all in France, where the year began and ended with terrorist attacks. At the beginning of this semester, in the course I teach about France from 1789 to 1944, I pledged to my class that I would try to give sense to life even when things did not seem to make sense anymore. In return, I asked them to pledge to be kind to themselves, be kind with each other, and to take walks and get deliberately lost. Our cynical selves might read the last sentence and chuckle. What does being kind to oneself mean? To realize that it is okay to make mistakes. The mistakes we make are precisely what remind us that we are not the machines my younger self had imagined in the classroom - and there is comfort in this. Being kind to ourselves makes us more ready to be supportive of others. In times of turmoil, solidarity is the most sensible response. As for asking students to walk, it is a way to teach them to slow down and rediscover the ability to live in the moment. Life on campus is too often synonymous with going fast and finding short cuts. When they "botanize on the asphalt" (as the poet Charles Baudelaire beautifully described the flâneur's activity), with all their senses wide open, they are ready to experience the city more intensely. Walking, if it is lived as an aesthetic practice, triggers magic moments through the rediscovery of our surroundings, the streets become texts for us to read and we let ourselves approach life as the imaginative children we once were.

Between my two selves - the novice teacher I was and the more experienced teacher I am now - life happened. Difficult moments made me realize that being responsible should mean first and foremost being flexible, compassionate and taking care of one another. I believe it is the only way to help students give a sense to our future. As the historian Patrick Boucheron said in his inaugural speech to the Collège de France last December: "Why take the trouble to teach, if not precisely to convince the youngest among us that they never arrive too late? In this way, we work to preserve our debt to youth."

This is how I see my responsibility as an educator.


Melanie Peron is a Penn professor who teaches "Intermediate French," "French Civilization from the Beginning to 1789" and"Modern France: 1789-1945." Out of 1,730 Penn professors who taught at least four undergraduate courses since spring 2009, she is ranked the tenth-highest on Penn Course Review in terms of "instructor quality."