What is a teacher?
I find myself grappling with this question here at the close of my first semester of teaching English. It’s been a whirlwind; I’ve found few moments to sit back, take a deep breath, and contemplate. So here I go, the week of Christmas, pecking out a few observations of first-year teaching.
I’m working hard to conquer and understand the ins and outs of our curriculum. I’ve decided that I really like the stability of a curriculum but that a curriculum can be very confining.
One of the biggest surprises of first year teaching has been sickness. I was sick five times between August and November. Apparently, stress and sixty-five dear little germ-holders do not mix well. So now I’m trying to get my rest, and I’m gorging on vitamins. But the worry of future sickness makes me feel even more stressed out.
Another surprise is the amount of busy work that teaching entails. It’s my job to sit down and read through vocabulary assignments and poorly written comp assignments by students who (about English) don’t give a flying fart in France. Yes, that’s how I spend my time.
Or filing. I hate filing! What a waste of time. I get really sick of these (what seem like) meaningless tasks. However, these “meaningless” assignments are, in some ways, foundational roots. And someone read through my daily work in eighth grade so that I would not turn out to be an ignoramus.
Another thing I’ve realized is that I do not hate teaching. I do not dread going to school. I think: that is a good thing.
How teaching complements my career goals: teaching 11th and 12th grade composition has been a really great experience for me because I am learning better writing techniques. It’s surprising how lazy I can be with little things like parallelism and subordination. But great writers have mastered these basics. I’m enjoying teaching these tools, editing for these tools, and applying these basics to my own writing.
Also, I’m spending a LOT of time reading literature in order to teach it. One of my biggest complaints of both my high school and college education is poor treatment of the classics. So I am excited to spend time studying some of the great works of literature that I have never encountered before.
I should probably mention here something about lesson planning, but I would be careful to broach this subject outside the brotherhood of teachers. Those in the brotherhood understand the necessity of lesson planning, and explaining it to people who are not teachers always brings extremely depressing responses like, “You spend THAT much time working outside of 9-5? And you get paid THAT much? I would NEVER be a teacher.” Says the ungrateful person (OR STUDENT!) who is going to make so much more money than you and never once thank the elementary teachers that got them there in the first place. Non-teachers do not realize that we teachers have made a choice to sacrifice our lives and a lot of personal comforts (and luxuries) for students because we feel called to teaching and because we want to make a difference. Wise people will realize, then, that it is in their best interest to forego these demeaning, unsupportive comments. People: SUPPORT YOUR TEACHERS. Teachers who spend a lot of time with children and young people are extremely aware of (and sadly, used to) ungratefulness, and ungratefulness is even MORE disgusting coming from adults.
This is actually something that I’ve dealt a lot with this semester. I get so aggravated that all my waking moments are spent either in the school building or in lesson planning. I had this moment where I shook my little finger at God and griped, “You know, I get really tired of spending my time sacrificing my LIFE for people who don’t care at all!”
And God’s like, “ … …”
And then I grew up.
So when I ask myself the question: “what is a teacher?” here are a few responses that come to mind.
A teacher celebrates choice. When a student makes a personal reading choice, a teacher celebrates that choice even if it is not the best choice. While the teacher may not have chosen that book, the student is demonstrating ownership of his/her education. This is important in English education. Students must have successful reading experiences before they will attempt more difficult material. So, for example, a “teacher” will overlook the fact that a student exchanged a Holocaust narrative for Si Robertson’s Si-Cology for his book report book. (Ahem.)
A teacher does not take it lightly when vulnerable eighth grade boys ask, “How do you study for an English test?” This question once again demonstrates ownership. Eighth grade boys do not ask how to study for tests. This question shows that something is awakening in the student. He realizes he does not have study skills, and he is actively seeking knowledge in this area.
A (junior high) teacher rejoices with the magic 6: “I’m sorry. That was my responsibility.”
A teacher forgives cultural mishaps in Catholic basilicas. Because. Junior highers are not adults. Yet.
And then in closing: I can’t end this post without sharing some of my best blunders from this semester.
One of my favorites: catching myself doodling on a student’s homework. I have a student who is obsessed with all-things-England. Many assignments this student turns in feature some reference to England or London. One day I was grading this student’s work, and before I knew it, I had drawn a whole British flag on the paper. Suddenly I remembered that I WAS THE TEACHER! I was quite embarrassed, and I tried to smooth it over with some academic comment, but there it was: the doodled flag.
Another good one was in 5th grade English class, when I was reminding students that a certain assignment was due and accidentally let my teenage self rear its ugly head: “Do you know when that is due, bee-tee-double-you?!”
The 5th graders didn’t notice the text speak at all, but a sixth grader smirked in the corner. Oops.
And finally, one of the worst content mistakes was teaching (and TESTING) that Emily Dickinson was a British poet. Um. Oops.