Here are a few ideas I’ve concluded to be true about teaching, but need to keep relearning again and again.
First of all, it’s not really a “job”. At least, that’s not how I think about it. When you go to work, do you feel like you’re clocking into an eight-hour shift? Or, do you just sorta float in and out of work mode, like I do. Maybe that’s just the way that a person without kids feels about it, or maybe that’s just how every salaried person feels about work; I don’t know. Personally, I’ve always felt that teaching is simply this thing that I go and do, and I’ve never really considered not going and doing it. (Other than those first few years. But my mom was right – if you can make it to Christmas, you can make forever.) I almost always refer to it as going to school and not going to work, as if I’m just a kid on my way to fulfill the duties of fourth grade. And at some point I came to the realization that in order for me to be able to love a job, I also have to have the experience of hating it. It’s kind of masochistic. I will only ever truly love a job that at times challenges me literally to the point of breakdown. That’s what makes it a passion, I think. I’ve had other jobs that only mildly challenged me, and they bored me and frustrated me due to my lack of autonomy (I don’t make a good subordinate). I dreaded going to those jobs. Teaching allows me that position of autonomy, but also overwhelms (nay, forcefully drowns) me with responsibility, some of which is self-imposed, I’m sure. Sometimes it just really, really sucks. But it’s nothing that I can’t get over. It’s nothing that the students can’t make worth it.
Second, from September to June, I know that I will never be “done”, so I try to remember to make peace with myself whenever I just don’t feel like doing any more. I could literally go on lesson planning forever, even throughout the summer, and there’s simply no need for that. When I’ve put my heart and soul into my work for roughly 8 to 10 hours in a day, that’s enough. That’s plenty. And some days, I don’t put my heart and soul into it. I barely put my pinky toe into it. (On those days we play dodge ball and I deal with all small person complaints of any nature by putting a hand to the face and wordlessly pointing in any direction away from me.) But, in general, I bust my ass for it every day, and I go to bed exhausted and satisfied.
A third truth that I keep forgetting is that there will always be someone who appears to be a better teacher than me. I think that no matter the teacher, they will know someone who is more knowledgeable/ experienced/ confident/ fun than them. They might feel admiration or even jealousy towards this teacher, but the fact of the matter is that by working with these talented educators, they are getting better, too. And who’s to say that they are better? What does that even mean? In whose eyes? In fact, there are probably things that I do better than these teachers I think are better (but it’s definitely not teaching math.) Either way, it’s not a competition, unless you want to make it one. Nobody gets paid more for being better, just for being experienced, and we are all getting more experienced by the day. By the block.
Finally, the truth is that teaching is pretty fun. (Except when it’s not fun, like the times you have two unresolved parent complaints, a pile of failed tests, some hate art directed at you, and IEP’s to update by yesterday.) But most of the time, it really is fun. There is so much room for creativity and freedom of choice, and not everyone is blessed with such liberties at work. I can watch Labyrinth with my students and be the first to explain David Bowie. We can read powerful books like The Breadwinner and I can witness minds opening up before my eyes. We can go skating and my students can watch their teacher suck at something. We can construct things, explore things, hot glue things, summarize things, eat things… there’s just so much fun to be had. I even took my students to see Jurassic World last year and did nothing educational about it. (Sorry Sheryl.) When things get heavy, I need to remind myself that it’s usually fun, and the hard times aren’t the norm. And if they do become the norm, it’s probably just time to switch grades, not careers.*
*I wrote this in a Dayquil-induced trance and take no responsibility for typos or grammatical errors. I should have taken a sick day yesterday but I had prep and my Menace was absent so I really didn’t want to waste it.
One blog post I’ve been writing in my head for some time now is about the types of students you unfailingly see in your class year after year. They are like sacred archetypes, reincarnated through cohorts and siblings for all of eternity. Here are my top ten:
1. The Hypochondriac
This student is always sick/injured/thinking they have a headache. Always. He or she misses several phys. ed. and QDPA periods but might possibly be making up for it with the exercise acquired by routinely walking to the office to call home. They will experience pain or discomfort in every corner of their failing little body, and they will manage to allegedly sprain that spot behind their ear. This student is also a constant hoarder of the office’s ice packs.
2. The Micro Manager
This student is just making sure that you are aware that you are teaching a class. He or she (but let’s be honest, it’s usually she) has the timetable memorized and will let you know if you “forget” to put QDPA on the daily schedule. She will also remind you (frequently) about upcoming school events and due dates. She has the ability to raise your blood pressure by repeatedly inquiring about the status of items on your to-do list that you haven’t even had a moment to deal with yet, but the truth is that she also saves your butt on several occasions, and if it weren’t for her, class photos might never have happened.
3. The Nooner
The Nooner is permanently out to lunch. He or she has no idea what day of the week it is, but more fascinating than that, doesn’t seem to care to. This student never completes their homework, not because they’re lazy but because they sincerely weren’t aware they had any. Their expression vacillates between a careless grin and a blank stare when you ask them the location of pretty much anything. He or she did not hear you say that forms are due tomorrow, library is cancelled, or put your work in the bin when you’re done, and he or she definitely didn’t hear you explain why there’s a mistake in Question 6 and how to fix it. The Nooner is possibly your most frustrating student because their level of oblivion is so outrageous, but at the same time, you’re mostly just kind of jealous and wish you could also avoid life by living in such blissful ignorance.
4. The Menace
There is always one King Menace, and he or she (but usually he) has the crippling power to disrupt disruptions. His main goal is to ensure that no learning is happening for anyone, at any time, under any circumstance, ever. He is always engaging in some serious shenanigans, but when you call him on it, his eyes will get all big and he will insist that he wasn’t doing anything! (which, if we’re talking about work, is technically true.) He is the student who, after you’ve spent ten minutes convincing your class to settle down, will reach in his bag for a pencil and pull out a diaper, much to his surprise as anyone else’s. Hilarity ensues. How his brother’s diaper ended up in his bag can only be chalked up to, because of course it did. The most surprising fact about the Menace is that he is typically quite bright, but can’t sit still long enough to do anything about it.
5. The Scrutinizer
At any given time, this student is pretty sure that what you’ve just said is inaccurate. He or she will attempt to find an exception or loophole for everything you say. The Scrutinizer will verify all of your math calculations and ruthlessly point out your errors. They will also be first to inform you if you made a typo in that word. The Scrutinizer will inevitably become that person who feels it’s their societal duty to correct everyone’s grammar in the comments section.
6. The Role Model
This student makes you feel like you could probably be a better person. They really have their shit together. He or she completes the homework you briefly mentioned but forgot to officially assign, making you feel guilty because you don’t even really want it anymore. He or she can be counted on to take money to the office, deliver an accurate message to another teacher, or supervise the class while you run to the photocopy room for the handouts you forgot. (The Role Model wouldn’t have forgotten.) He or she will work with anyone and is courteous and cooperative. They never complain or roll an eye, even when you know your lesson is just terrible. This student gets all E’s on their learning skills, and their next step is to take on a leadership role by becoming your new mentor.
7. The Silent Asian
This is by no means intended to be a stereotype, but more of a field observation after a few good years on the job. I can think of at least six years out of my eight during which I’ve had a Silent Asian student. This student would prefer to say as little as possible, at least to you. He or she is hearing absolutely everything you’re saying, but you almost forget they are in your class until they ace a unit test. You never know what this student is thinking and you’re always slightly worried about making them feel uncomfortable with your extroverted ways. They are mysterious and aloof and often full of surprises. One year it turned out that my Silent Asian student was using a lot of F-bombs on Facebook and some parents got upset. I definitely thought that was hilarious.
8. The Time Bomb
This student can be recognized by the slow motion crumpling of their face anytime things get mildly tense. He or she is an emotional explosion waiting to happen. What sets off the Time Bomb is anyone’s guess. It could be a stolen pencil or the accusation of stealing a pencil. The Time Bomb has literally zero coping skills and causes you to heave the heaviest of sighs. They cry so often that no one even looks up from their paper when it starts. I’m pretty sure I was a Time Bomb.
9. The Awesome Nerd
This student is super nerdy and it’s awesome. They are indifferent to the opinions of others and totally embrace their weirdness. You wish you could make them promise to never change, even when society tries its best to claw out their individuality. This student always has a unique perspective and interesting things to say, and you almost wish you could continue conversations with them over coffee (…almost.) They wear cool t-shirts and have rad hair. Today my Awesome Nerd had Sponge Bob figurines clipped to his glasses (why? not sure) while he explained to everyone that he just realized that there can be no one definition of beauty because everyone sees the world so differently. He’s eleven. Like I said – awesome.
10. The Pig Pen
The Pig Pen is named after that Peanuts character who walks around in a permanent cloud of debris. Their desk looks like it was just burglarized and it might as well have been because they can never locate any of their possessions. The Pig Pen has piles and wads of loose leaf paper in every cranny of their soul, along with broken pencil crayons, Tupperware lids, and juice-stained permission forms. He or she is constantly crafting something that involves cutting paper into a million tiny pieces and getting marker all over their desk and face. There are probably three moldy sandwiches and some fruit turning into wine in their desk but you don’t dare go in to find out. You spend a significant amount of your time trying to get the Pig Pen to put away their handouts/ pick up their orange peels/ locate the caps to the markers/ find a pencil, ANY pencil. The deadliest of combos is a Pig Pen Nooner. If you come across one of them, switch careers.
I think teachers in Ontario need to lighten up a little, so I’m doing what every millennial does and I’m starting a blog about it. I’ll admit right now that I don’t really know how to blog and I actually find the word blog kind of annoying, but I have this intense need to share my experiences with other teachers. After another long contract negotiation battle in which the government played public opinion like a finely tuned fiddle, educators around the province are feeling a little disillusioned about just how much anyone even values this job anymore. Teachers used to be heralded as mentors and role models, encouraging youth to reach for the stars and become the best they can be and blah blah blah aspire. Welp, it seems that those days are dying. The sad truth is that the students don’t know how to value us (not enough perspective), the public doesn’t want to value us (not as gratifying as resenting us), and the government doesn’t care to value us (not enough return).
So we need to start rediscovering the value ourselves. And I think that a lot of the value comes from those tiny, day-to-day moments that we witness in the adult isolation of our classrooms; those moments that my current principal files under: “Yep – that just happened.” Those moments in which we witness children discovering that real lessons are actually learned in a way that is backwards to how we lesson plan : first the experience, and then the (often painful) understanding. There are no practice questions before someone asks you if you can swallow a battery. Usually these lessons are pretty hilarious – but only in hindsight.
It’s easy for us teachers to feel alone and disconnected from the larger picture of education as we sweat out poorly conceived math lessons for an audience of ambivalent tweens. Spending extended periods of time with children and teenagers causes us to lose our sense of what reasonable behaviour even looks like. When a student is acting out or being just plain – for truly a lack of a better word – ridonkulous, I find myself immediately turning the blame inward, wondering how I failed to predict and deter the situation that is inspiring such an outrageous level of ridonk. I feel a deep, overwhelming sense of responsibility for every single event that transpires in the four walls of my classroom, and that, fellow teachers, is just as ridonkulous as the twelve-year-old kid who decides to try swallowing a battery.
Combine the isolated but intense nature of our job with relentless public criticism and you have a recipe for weary educators. So join me as I reflect on this career, and help me find value in it by sharing in my foibles and misadventures in the classroom. And hopefully, by reading my posts, you’ll feel a little less alone and a little more okay about your job.