5 things I learned teaching.

It is not yet time to give you an update on what is happening, because I frankly do not know.  I’m still in the process of trying to make a very significant life change (again, because that’s how I roll), and it has proven very difficult thus far.  So in thinking about what’s to come, I have lots of unknowns and empty spaces and that is profoundly anxiety-producing and not something I could even begin to write about, except on a meta-scale, and of course, that’s why I have a journal.

For purposes of What If and Why Not, however, I thought a reflection on the past couple of years, as I (hopefully) make my slightly awkward exit from the wonderful world of teaching was in order.  Without further ado, ladies and gents, a few tidbits I may have already known, but teaching made that much clearer.

1. High school kids don’t realize teachers are people.  Neither do lots of college students. I should have learned this lesson as a student, because it was seriously the case for me, and most of the people I grew up with.  Until a certain age, depending, of course, on the person and their relationship to certain aspects of society (authority, family, friendship, etc.), certain grown-ups are…let’s say not as human as one’s peers.  There is a profound disconnectedness between adolescents and adults that I have always worked in my career to bridge, occassionally with some success.  But faced with a group of 30+ students, who must learn what many don’t want to learn, who must do homework none want to do, who must prepare for tests and speak in class and answer questions and and and…it’s impossible for kids to realize we’re in it together, and they are the end result of all our collective labor.  Having said that, it’s not always a bad thing.  I think it belongs to the realm of thinking your parents infallible and all that.  The dichotomy between “real person,” i.e., peers, and “pseudo person,” i.e., doctors, teachers, parents, etc., can help young people make sense of a very complicated world.  But that’s for another post.  However…

2. Far too often, teaching becomes Us vs. Them. Teachers, even if they’re annoying, even if they’re crap at their job, are nevertheless people who have dedicated their lives to helping children and young people better understand the world around them and prepare for exams and more difficult classes to come and then life after that. So what do they get in return?  Quite often (of course not always) parents who feel undermined by them, students who feel oppressed by them, administrations who demand far too much from them, politicians who underpay them, and a society who tells them they should be laughing with all the vacation time they get.  By the end of the year, I totally understood why my colleagues went on about the importance of solidarity between teachers.  Totally.

3. The Boyscouts are right.  The idea of coming to class unprepared was an absolute nightmare for me.  I planned weeks in advance, and then had all my individual lessons planned to the minute.  That absolutely worked in my favor, and I’d do it the same again given the same circumstances (Heaven help me).  But things can change.  In rural France, if one’s students are bussed in from the countryside, they just don’t turn up when it snows.  Et voila, there goes 70% of my students.  We never had Internet access in my classrooms, but sometimes even the projector would go berserker and overheat, or better yet, sometimes my room was suddenly being used for a test no one bothered to tell me about.  This is where the British maxim from WWII came through loud and clear:  Keep calm and carry on.  No, I wasn’t dodging Nazi airstrikes, but I was leading a crowd of 35 15-year-olds through the corridors of a school where all classes were in session, going from office to classroom (and sometimes back again) to find a place to start my class.  Luckily this only happened a few times, but still.

4. It is profoundly easy to romanticize teaching.  This is why there are so many TV shows and movies about it.  Listen:  they are almost exclusively chock full of absolute shite.  No matter how hot Ryan Gosling is, there is no way on Earth that a regularly-using crack and heroin addict could come across as a good and inspiring teacher.  Zooey Deschanel might have inspired an entire generation of teachers’ wardrobes (or just mine), but I have yet to meet a teacher that can come to class hung over and function effectively, and New Girl does it like twice an episode.  And film after sitcom after one-hour drama tells the same story of the classroom-classroom-classroom, which is really more of a mix between a theater and a TED talk, but whatevs – I’ve had classes like that.  It can be magical, fine.  But that’s only a fraction of what teaching is!  Much more of it is planning and re-planning lessons, grading the same bloody paper 150 times, with the same bleeding mistakes on every stinking one of them (!!!), disciplining students, writing exams and exercises to match your curriculum, and dreaming about what it was once like to have the headspace to read a novel.

But I even found myself romanticizing it!  Maybe it was survival, because I knew I’d have to go back, but within a week of holiday, once most of the papers were graded and with an idea of how I would proceed in the upcoming weeks, the bad memories started to fade away and the good ones came crowding in, putting a much-needed spring in my step just in time to get back to it. The reality is that it is an incredibly exhausting and demanding job, where newbies can easily find themselves working 3 hours for every hour they’re paid, where a difficult class can mean a whole year of constant struggle.  If it’s one’s calling, it can be deeply rewarding, and it is indeed one of the most noble professions.  If it isn’t, no matter how romantic, it’s just one hell of a hard job.

5. Never, ever under-estimate the significance of your active kindness on another person. Even faced with 34 teenagers I wanted put in prison (just for one night!), one kind student could make everything okay again. An anecdote: At the end of a particularly hard class with my difficult Secondes (15-16 years old), A, a student who really liked me, even in spite of the terrible grades he got for most of the year, waited until everyone had left and said, “Don’t worry about them, Madame.  They’re just assholes.” I let the bad word slide, thanked A professionally and told him to have a good weekend, but inwardly I hugged him and told him he was the best, most wonderful, most excellent student ever, and slept far better that night than I would have otherwise.  That whole class ended the year more or less swimmingly, and that student never stopped being my silent cheerleader, but he wasn’t the only one.  Most of the kindness we impart is taken with a grain of salt, but there have been many moments where students or teachers or supervisors or administrators or parents have said or done something at a moment where their words made the difference between a very good and a very bad weekend.  I’m sure everybody can relate to this one (so pay it forward).

There you have it.  Writing has been impossible for the past several months because I’ve simply had too much to do, and I’m not sure it will get any easier, even as I have more time to spare, because I am, quite honestly, freaking the &*%@ out right now in the absence of news re: my future.  I’m working on it.  Hubris and anxiety keep me silent.  As soon as I get a handle on all that, I’ll let you all in on it.

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5 thoughts on “5 things I learned teaching.

  1. Antonia :) says:

    I just wanted to say that you are an amazing writer. Writing should be specific enough to capture certain images but broad enough for many people to relate to, like an excellent painting, or any piece of art. This is exactly what you do, I may not be a teacher but, as a nurse, I can relate to the overall message of this piece. Thanks for starting my day with a smile and a reflection. I love you. Time to go to work!

    • Ann says:

      you flatter me, but compliments make me swoon. reading your praise i decided to have a re-read on what I’d written and realised i seriously need to stop overusing the word ‘profound’. blech.
      your’s is a vocation equally romanticized and equally noble…and you are far nobler than i as you’ve worked toward it from absolute grassroots. in another life you’d have made an amazing teacher, too.
      who knows? maybe you’ll take a page out of my book in 10 years and make a wild and ludicrous change in profession!

  2. suncitymom says:

    Excellent post; but then I might be just a tad prejudiced. And, I am fully confident of the fact that as difficult as it was with so many different age groups on so many different levels, you made an excellent teacher; but then that’s who you are. You will always go above and beyond to do a good job! Good to see you take a few minutes to jog down your thoughts once more.

  3. Amazing piece, thanks! What an amazing, gifted and generous writer you are Ann. I’d love to read more.

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