Category Archives: Teaching

It Begins (Again)


Teaching is one of those jobs that carries all kinds of asterisks and disclaimers. And it’s not a job for the faint of heart.

But one thing it has going for it — that not many jobs do — is an enforced sense of renewal and rebirth.

You spend a year going through the mud with your students. You get embroiled in their lives. Sure, you find out all about their grades and their academic progress. Definitely you discover all their little behavior … quirks. (Let’s call them quirks.) Sometimes you find out about their parents and their lives outside of school. (Often, this answers many questions you may have had previously.) And depending on what kind of teacher you are, you find out a lot more. You learn how they talk to each other. (Frightening.) You learn about their relationships with each other. (Ew.) You learn what they think of other teachers in the building. (Yikes.)

But it doesn’t stop there. By the end of the year, you know what makes them laugh. What makes them upset. You know what they’re going to do before they even do it. (Tyler, in the fourth row, is gonna ask me what a metaphor is when I talk about this story, even though I’ve explained it a dozen times this year, and when he does, Tevin, next to him, is gonna sigh and roll his eyes — and probably swat him — because he’s tired of hearing my spiel.)

You come away from the school year, in other words, covered with their gunk. And not just the students’ gunk. Gunk from other teachers and their frustrations that you have to listen to in the workroom, the mailroom, before the faculty meeting. Gunk from the seemingly endless meetings, by the way, that could have been e-mails. Gunk from the unpleasant encounters you had with parents, from the stress about the extra time you had to spend in the building at the expense of your family time, from the piles and piles and piles and piles of paperwork.

And in most other jobs, you’re stuck with all that gunk — because as soon as one job is done, it’s right on to the next. No downtime, outside from the occasional vacation (which only puts the gunk aside for a little while, to be picked up and re-applied upon your return.)

But teachers get that summer break. And what I’ve learned in my eight years (help!) of teaching is that it’s a rare educator that comes back in the fall still gunked-up. The summer lets you really clear your head, lets you drop all the baggage of the previous year — the gunk, bit by bit, just falls away.

We get to start the new year, every year, clean and fresh. Maybe not smiling and bright-eyed (we’re out of the habit of waking up early after all, but this is why coffee exists), but at least optimistic that the year ahead could be a good one.

Maybe we make some changes to the way we run things; maybe we don’t. Maybe we’ll have a magic combination of minds in our classes that makes every day teaching a joy; maybe we won’t.

But whatever the new year brings, we get a chance to start it un-gunked. Clear-headed. Renewed, reborn. Maybe even a little bit hopeful.

My first students will breach the doors in a little under an hour.

To those about to teach, I salute you.

See you on the other side.

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Who Knows The Words to Their Alma Mater?


It’s 5 AM on a Saturday and I’m awake. Not for a workout or a run or a writing session, but for graduation.

Not mine, but that of a bunch of kids I didn’t know until a year ago.

So, I’m gonna go out there, hope the rain holds off, give them a handshake or a hug (as they like it) and see these kids one more time before I probably never see them again. Try not to cry. (That won’t be hard. My heart is a dessicated lump of fossilized bone.) Try not to make them cry. (Just kidding. It’s fun making graduates cry. Easy, even. Kind of a game I play. They’re already dizzy with emotion, all you have to do is hit them with an “I’ll miss you so much” or “I don’t know how this school will be the same without you” and you get a flood, easy.)

Watch and ruminate as they step over the threshold into the rest of their lives.

And then, maybe, come back to the house and throw something on the grill, having taken no such step myself. (Assuming the weather holds off.)

Teaching is weird.

This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.


You Can’t Fix It In Two Days


Once, there was this guy.

He taught high school, and he was at least passing average at it.

And for months he told his students that grades are cumulative, and that work left til the last minute would become unmanageable and impossible to finish on time and would make everybody’s life harder.

But as everybody knows, students of high school age have already learned everything they need to know about the world, and furthermore, they’re not interested in the half-baked school or life advice of a guy twice their age, thank you very much.

Then, when the last day of the semester drew near (as it inevitably does — time is insatiable and all that), the students realized that their grades were not what they wanted. And the time of the great panic began, as it does every year, and as it will every year without end, amen. The teacher’s door was beset in the wee hours of the morning by the very same students who had scorned him just a few short months ago. The teacher’s inbox was inundated with e-mails asking for details on that one project, um, I think it was on Antigone? The teacher’s phone rang non-stop as parents, suddenly realizing that their children might not pass and might not graduate and might therefore live in the basement forever, became infected with the panic as well; calling to beg, to plead, to cajole and to appeal to the goodness in the teacher’s heart.

Unfortunately, there was no goodness left in the teacher’s heart. It had burnt up like the last log on a Christmas fire, it had blown away like the leaves on an Autumnal wind, it had withered and rotted away like an overripe banana. After the months of banging his head against the wall, trying like hell to get the students to take an interest in themselves and their futures and maybe, I don’t know, just maybe, putting the cell phone down for a second, all that was left of the teacher’s good will was a shriveled husk, a sad, blackened, neglected scrap of cardial tissue.

And the cries of student and parent alike fell not upon deaf ears, for the teacher was more than happy to listen to their tales of woe and recount them over a glass of wine with his wife or to blarg about them anonymously on his tiny corner of the internet (being sure to omit all personal details and thus absolve himself of any legal liability, naturally). No, the teacher’s ears were not deaf to their pleas, but his ears were indifferent as the sunrise. For you can no more undo in a few days of frenzied work what you have spent an entire semester building.

Momentum matters.

So has it been for ever. And so, sadly, shall it be for all time.

…And that’s why I haven’t been posting a lot lately. Regular programming will resume when the summer gets here. If the apparent flow of time over the last few weeks is any indication, that should be in approximately three years.


A Lament


A student at my school died last night.

To be specific, she was a student of mine.

I can’t say I knew her particularly well, but I knew her well enough for the tragedy of a young person’s death to be bigger than that; this was the death of somebody who I taught, whose presence in my class I enjoyed and appreciated, who lifted up the students around her with her energy and enthusiasm.

This was a girl who had plans for college, who worked two jobs in addition to attending school, who found a way to be a positive influence in a setting where it is so much easier and commoner to be negative.

Since I teach her, there was a parade of teachers through my classroom today offering sympathy and prayers. (And I won’t begrudge people their prayers in a time like this.) But one of them said something that gave me pause.

She said, “the world just doesn’t make sense sometimes.”

And I found myself unable to agree with that. Quite the contrary, the world makes perfect sense. It just doesn’t always operate in a way that we approve of or enjoy.

The loss of any life is tragic to somebody. The loss of a child is tragic to a community. Tragic or not, these things happen all around us, all across the country, all over the world. It is the absence of these tragedies from our immediate lives that blinds us to them. The world carries on in much the same way every day, but because we don’t endure a tragedy this day, we feel like the world makes sense (of a sort).

But when it strikes close to home, suddenly the world ceases to make sense?

No. The world operates as it always has, but on this day, my community, my school, my classroom, has been visited by a tragedy. But it is still normal. It is still commonplace. Death, even the death of somebody young and undeserving, is a part of life.

It’s sad. It’s a shame. The loss of potential is devastating. Who knows what she might have been?

One of the novels I teach is Night, by Elie Wiesel. And no matter what we do, no matter how many videos or pictures we show the students, I never really feel that they get it. It’s impossible to describe the loss of life on such a scale to somebody so young. Six million deaths is too much to process, like the size of the universe, or even the fact that light takes eight minutes to reach our tiny blue sphere from the sun.

But a single life, plucked from their very ranks and extinguished? Taking with it all her hopes and dreams? All her happiness and vitality and struggles and pain?

I fear they will understand that all too well.

I sat in the room with them today, while grief counselors filed through and while students walked the halls with tissues pressed to their faces to the sound of the shuffling of feet and the snuffling of noses. And I saw them looking for answers. Looking for meaning. And while I’ve always had a healthy dose of self-doubt as a teacher, I felt for the first time completely inadequate. And yet, we must find a way to offer these students guidance. We must find ways to encourage them to seek meaning, to pursue their potential, to affect the world in whatever way they are able.

It’s times like these that I understand why people turn to God for answers. But the truth is, the answers that we want to think come from God, really only come from within ourselves.

The world is what it is. Whether it makes sense to us or not, whether we like what we see in it or not.

Today the world is poorer by one, and maybe that’s not a big deal. But the world of my community is poorer by one, and that’s a big deal indeed.

 


The Spring Slump (Do Your Homework)


Spring is that time of year when teachers really feel like they’re spinning.

Spring break is in sight, and beyond it, the shimmering oasis of summer vacation. The long slog through the school year has taken its toll, and we either embrace or evade the exhaustion that it brings; either way, a payment is due, and that payment will be settled in extra sleep or extra stress or extra drinking or extra crying. Or extra all of the above.

Of course, the students see the same oases that the teachers do, but without any of the adult grasp of importance of finishing what you start, or long-term goals vs short-term happiness, or simple good sense. So the kids start to lose their minds a little bit, they start to embrace the summertime laziness a little early, they start to really just kind of get on your nerves.

Teaching is one of those jobs in which the working year starts off hard and only gets harder, as we have to find ways to keep students motivated while their internal motivation is circling the drain. Or, just as likely, we have to deal with a cascade of students who are suddenly failing and can’t grasp why. And of course, behind the tidal wave of suddenly incapable students is the even bigger, louder wave of parents who don’t want to believe that Johnny hasn’t turned in any homework for over a month.

It’s a tough time of year for teachers. I get a little jaded. From the start of the semester I preach and preach to my students — to my high school seniors, even! — the importance of laying solid foundations NOW. Setting good study habits, doing the reading and the writing on schedule, getting the grades of which they are capable on the front end so as to establish good momentum to carry them through the year, to insulate themselves against the senioritis which inevitably creeps in around this time of year.

And yet. It is March, and I find myself preaching again, this time that for those of them who do not see the grade they want, the time to work to fix it is NOW. The time to repair the damage is NOW, before the leaks flood the hold and become irreversible. And the next day I look out into the classroom and I see the tops of heads, their eyes aimed at their cell phones instead of the text of Macbeth. I hear them talking about whatever the kids talking about these days instead of their thematic analyses. I see them putting their heads down and sleeping in class instead of even simply trying to passively absorb anything going on in the classroom.

Soon it will be April, and their 68s will have turned into 62s and 57s, and I will rail again that grades can be recovered and redeemed, but only if they take action NOW, only if they stop the bleeding, cauterize the wound, infuse some initiative, and work to save themselves. And still, I will sit in my classroom alone at 7:30 in the morning, ready and on-call to offer them the help and the time to save themselves, but as useless and unappreciated as a street magician.

And then it will be May.

And they will flock to me like seagulls on an unattended Big Mac.

What can I do to bring my grade up?

Can you give me some points for this?

Oh, you wanted me to turn that in?

Is there any extra credit?

And that’s when teachers begin to have aneurysms.

Every year, I feel like the blind man who sees the future and tries to warn the city of the impending disaster, and who gets ridiculed for his trouble … until the volcano erupts. Of course, by the time the volcano erupts, I will be lounging on Tybee Island and drinking a very cold, very alcoholic beverage.

Cocktail, Tropical, Beverage, Drink, Glass, Summer

If you are a parent and you have a kid in school (and I mean, from elementary all the way up to college, to be frank), this is the time to watch them extra closely. Teachers can only push so hard; kids need the push from mom and dad too.

If you’re a student reading this, know that the number one determining factor in your success is yourself. Mom and dad and your teachers can push all they want, but if you don’t care about your grades (or, gasp, the things you’re learning in class), none of that will matter.

Didn’t mean to end up preaching.

Not that I’m much of a preacher.

It’ll be all right. God never gives us more than we can handle. Because God doesn’t exist. He can’t give us anything. Whatever life has given us, we can handle it. When we can no longer handle it, we die.

…Man, that took a dark turn.

Here’s a picture of a bunny to cheer things up. It’s topical, too, because of Easter … because rabbits who deliver chocolate eggs totally have something to do with this … holiday? … can you even call it a holiday since it happens on a Sunday?

Whatever. BUNNIES!

European Rabbits, Bunnies, Grass, Wildlife, Nature


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