Teaching

Of Joy and Being Led

It is the nature of objects in motion to stay in motion. We don’t always have to try and steer. 

Friday, I finally managed to get a handful of students outside for a preliminary bit of ultimate frisbee. This came after several explanations that there are not going to be “tryouts” unless we somehow conjure more than twenty people. We had…three.

While I was doing some pretty standard exercises to teach those three students to throw forehand, I had the opportunity to watch a bunch of other students playing soccer.

My school has good soccer teams. It’s one of the few positives we get to check on the list of “stereotypes you expect for a school with an 85% Hispanic student body.” We also have a terrible “field” that once had grass but is now a broad swathe of bare dirt surrounded by knee-high weeds. It’s dusty. It’s hard enough that even hard ground cleats won’t give you much purchase. One of the goals has been broken since February.

So that’s the scene: Anglo English teacher watching Latino middle schoolers play soccer in the dust. It’s that scene that goes somewhere in the first third of the inspirational movie (be it a sports or education movie). Maybe I’d be played by Kevin Costner.

Here’s the thing: they didn’t need me. At all. Soccer practice had been cancelled, so there were no coaches on hand. The students had one goal. They were playing a free-for-all scrum that involved yelling at each other in English and Spanish (and with more profanity in both than they’d admit) and occasionally claiming to represent (or claiming somebody else represented) countries from Chile to England.

And they were happy. Joyful. I see many emotions as a teacher: pride, resentment, happiness, fear, anger…I do not often get to see joy, the pure exultation in the moment.

Part of it was kids being kids, of course. Freshly-minted teenagers need to play, and they don’t generally play around the people who assign them grades or decide whether they get to start the next game. They don’t even necessarily play when they know they have an adult audience. The students were ignoring me, which I’m sure helped them to be happy. (No comment on whether the same applies in class.)

Aside from the contact high of being around the really happy, though, watching the middle schoolers play their game made me think of this blog post. (Mr. Rad’s blog is fantastic. It also makes me pine a bit for Minneapolis.)

My school is a charter. It comes with uniforms for the students and a laundry list of things for which they can get positive or negative points. (I sometimes wish they had houses so I could actually say “5 PRS for Gryffindor.”) We have block scheduling. The default assumption is that the students will sit quietly whenever asked, for whatever portion of 90 minutes the teacher requires. They have a painfully short lunch break. They spend a ton of time being told what to do and, more often, what not to do. Some days that seems necessary to get the 28 thirteen and fourteen year-olds I have in my room pointed in the same direction and learning. I try my best to give the students opportunities to speak, to each other and to me. I try to listen  .

The striking thing about “Mr. Rad’s” post, though, is that he calls for getting beyond listening. He calls for us (meaning privileged white males) to be led. That’s a much, much harder thing. Listening can be a passive process. When you’re listening, it’s easy to do so selectively (ask any teacher). Being led, though, requires active following. It requires more than Bill Clinton’s “I feel your pain.” It means going beyond “How can I help?” to “What needs to be done?” and even further to “What do you want me to do?” It’s hard. It’s hard as a teacher who’s pushed to wield authority. It’s hard as somebody for whom society has been built.

For me, that meant going over and inviting (and only inviting) the kids playing soccer to try ultimate. A few of them did. We had a game that was about as slapdash as you’d expect on a short field with five of the six players involved unable to throw a forehand more than ten yards. Most of the kids, though, stuck with their soccer game. We played around them. After five or six extremely long points, the soccer players who’d been playing ultimate went back to playing soccer. They invited me to play, too, and I tried for a bit.

They didn’t need me, though. Not there. They were doing fine without my help. Isn’t that what we aim for as educators?

Finity

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Humans are bad swimmers.

The shape of our bodies lends itself to climbing trees, running long distances, using tools…and creating lots of turbulence when we propel ourselves through the water. Even Michael Phelps expends a fair amount of energy that doesn’t move him forward.

Being a first year teacher is like learning to swim: you splash and flounder and far, far too much of your energy is spent on turbulence rather than propulsion. You’re inefficient—dreadfully inefficient—but you’re in deep water so you don’t really have much choice but to keep swimming. You expend enormous amounts of energy on the little things: keeping track of papers, filing lesson plans, attending meetings. Then, too, there are the more important things that aren’t directly part of teaching content: classroom management, staying on the same page as your administrators, understanding how the standardized tests work. It’s all turbulence and splashing. There is not, as a first year teacher, that much energy left over for propelling yourself and your students toward actual content knowledge.

We do it anyway, though. How could we not? We love our students. Whether we’re fresh out of school or fresh out of an alternative certification program, we’re teachers because we care about the work. We can wear our cynicism about the system for everybody to see, but it hasn’t had time to deepen and become bitter. We give teaching everything we’ve got.

Here’s the thing, though: that extra energy? It has to come from somewhere. Whitman wrote “I am large, I contain multitudes.” First year teachers put most of our internal multitudes to work on teaching. We get a little boring. We do things like eat raw almonds for lunch because we didn’t make it to the grocery store or because we were thinking hard about the day’s lessons and forgot to pack a proper meal. We don’t get enough sleep. We have to remind ourselves that our kids at home are not our students. Sometimes, we have to hunt down that one of our multitude who washes dishes and does laundry. (That one is really good at hiding.)

Our multitudes are finite. Our energy is finite. For me, writing is one of the things that slipped for a while. NaNo was a bit of a train wreck—I didn’t have a plan when I started, spent the first weekend writing some game stuff, and was still at zero words of actual draft two weeks in. By the end of the third, I decided that continuing to gun for 50K was not going to be at all fun, so I stopped. I did write a few thousand words more before November was out, but it was back to writing for fun. There will be Camp NaNo in April and in July, and (shockingly) I don’t require it to be NaNo to write.

I do require time and energy. I have to find space in the finite. I have to decide, day to day, whether I’ll get more out of washing dishes or writing a few paragraphs, whether to spend a spare twenty minutes jotting down ideas for lesson plans or character development (or sleeping). I have to remind myself that I’m more likely to waste time playing games when I’m tired, and that those twenty minutes would almost always be better spent sleeping.

And teaching never really goes away. It’s nearly as bad as grad school for thoughts of “I should be working” lurking always in the back one’s mind. It doesn’t feel as much like being stalked by a monster as the dissertation did, but it still takes a remarkable amount of headspace. There are constantly things to fix, different points to emphasize, procedures to tweak to make things run more smoothly. I think about particular students. I think about particular lessons. I try to figure out different ways to explain things to my ESL and SPED students…and how to give my GT students something that will actually make them think. Teaching, like art, will fill as much space as you give it.

Finity is a bitch. But I’m learning to be a better swimmer.

Infinite Recursion

I remember, during my first year of T.A.ing a writing-intensive course, asking the exasperated rhetorical “who taught these kids how to write?” It was one of our favorite things to complain about in the T.A. office. Why couldn’t these college freshmen understand the concept of a thesis? Why did one particular student insist on ending every single paragraph of her paper with a summary sentence? (And why did she believe so thoroughly that she was right that it took confirmation from six other T.A.s before she would accept that I was onto something when I told her to stop doing that.) We blamed teachers. We blamed testing and the bizarre standards that go with it. In short, we blamed high school for college problems.

Now I teach middle school. The other day I listened to a colleague explain in detail how she could tell exactly which teacher her problem kids had the previous year. There’s a temptation to blame elementary teachers just as thoroughly as we used to blame high school teachers in the T.A. office. (We also blame parents, mind. Especially for discipline problems.)

I’m sure that if I end up teaching high school, I’ll be immersed in complaints about middle school teachers. That’s the way it goes: when you find a mess, you blame the last person who was in the room. We could run it all the way back to “why weren’t you reading to your kid when she was six months old.” (Seriously, though, read to your little kids! And your bigger ones.) And when we run it back that far, we can start going bigger: Why were you born poor? Why did you inherit that poverty from your parents? Why are achievement levels at your neighborhood elementary so bad that you can get an academic all-star just for meeting grade level expectations? Why?

“Who taught these kids how to write?”

That’s the wrong question. Not entirely wrong, because if we are going to change outcomes and improve the system, we eventually have to get at the systemic questions. Right now, though, we need to shut up about whoever had our students last. I’ve known good teachers and bad ones. I can’t think of a single one who didn’t care about his or her job. Some care more than others, but you don’t stay in teaching if you are not trying to help students learn.

We have students for a few hours each week. That’s it. Regardless of the level we’re teaching at, the students will spend more time outside our classroom than inside. We have to work with what they bring in with them, warts and all.

The question we need to ask ourselves is “how are we going to teach these kids to write?” (Or to understand science, solve math problems, understand history, or whatever.) Blaming other teachers won’t answer that question. Sometimes, when you walk into a messy room, the only real answer is to start cleaning it up.