Monday, March 19, 2012


Students walk into the room, shouting, laughing, cursing, shoving one another. ‘Play fighting’ is very popular, especially after lunch. From the moment that they enter the room, they are energized, buzzing with gossip and stories and things that they are dying to say out loud –and so they do. Then they remember that they are in school, and glance slyly towards the front of the room, to see if the teacher is also talking, or if there is something that they are supposed to be doing. If what they are supposed to be doing is not apparent in that ten second glance, they relax, and return to their conversations.

There are a lot of moments of realization in teaching. There’s the day that you learn that the students need to be DOING something at all times – just listening to you talk is not enough. There’s the time when you see how awesome it is to teach a class of kids that are actually engaged in what you are teaching them, dying to participate, on the edge of their seats. Then you eventually realize that they need to really be invested in their goals, or else they are fine when you tell them that they will get a zero. There’s the day – a long way in – when you realize that they hear you better when you talk than when you yell. There is the time that you understand how to make sure that the lesson is manageable for kids at all levels, when you master the art of differentiating your lessons. It takes a lot of days to learn how to be good, but it takes about one day as a teacher to realize that you have to have a plan, and that it has to be good.

You learn when your class is wildly out of control, and other teachers walk by scornfully. You learn when you try to lead them down the hall in a straight line, and half of them run off of it. You learn when they curse at you, and challenge you, and push you to make good on your threats – and you can’t. You learn when after forty minutes, your room looks like a battle zone, your voice is hoarse, and your appearance disheveled. You learn, despite yourself, to be good at your job.
It’s hard to keep up with what research is trendy right now in education. Every year there is a hot buzz word, and every year there is a new philosophy that gets carved in stone, right over the old one, so that modern education becomes an illegible cave drawing.

One year we are told we need to make information more accessible, by creating crutches for the students. The next year, we are told we have taken it too far, and the students have forgotten about independence – we have to take the crutches away. Some years we think kids learnt o read by reading books on their own level, and other years that’s simply not rigorous enough, and we must focus on teaching them to cope with ‘complex texts’. The research changes, the methods, the philosophy, and certainly the vocabulary. They morph over the summer, so that you have to learn new words to describe the same old stuff each year, until it all loses meaning.

The truth, however, is that no matter what words we use to describe out jobs, no matter what research we cling to in a moment – it will change by the end of the year. What won’t change, however, is the reality that it is miserable to teach a class where kids aren’t learning. There is no worse feeling than grading a pile of tests in which everyone has failed. There is no way to feel more pathetic than to not be able to control a bunch of thirteen year olds. There is nothing that tears you apart than a year spent futilely forcing knowledge onto resistant bodies, without ever figuring out how to open them up to it.

We learn to teach because it makes our lives better to be good at our jobs. When I first entered the work force, I lamented that after college – you don’t get grades and feedback very regularly, so you don’t always know how you are doing.
Well, I suppose I ended up in the right field, because in teaching you always know how you are doing – every second of every day. If you are unpopular, you are told. If you are boring, it is screamed at you, both verbally, and through the actions of your unrestricted students. I even know if I am gaining weight, or looking tired, because my students don’t censor themselves – they don’t feel that they owe me anything. They don’t lie to make me feel better.

The new teacher evaluations, and the data reports – those do a lot to our esteem, but they don’t change the truth – they don’t even really reflect it most of the time. They can make the humiliation that we may feel in front of a room of kids, something bigger, that we have to feel in front of our peers and families. But they can’t let us know how we are doing any more than the audience we speak to each day. They, in the end, are the expert judges that we plead our case in front of daily.

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