I got a call from a teacher friend yesterday. She calls a lot, actually. She likes to use me as a sounding board as she plans out her curriculum and lesson plans. Yesterday she was formulating a plan for an independent reading project, but over the years and countless phone hours we’ve hashed through job applications, challenging students, and administration difficulties as well as mountains of curriculum ideas. Truthfully, she’s very good at her job, so my end of the conversation usually ends up sounding like various forms of the phrase, “yeah, that sounds good.” Occasionally I offer ideas or raise a concern or two, but mostly, I think she just needs to talk through whatever it is that she’s planning, and I’m an understanding ear willing to listen.
I like it. I feel like it keeps me fresh, keeps my brain engaged in a field that could have easily passed me by time after time. It’s funny when I compare our career trajectories, though. We like to say we’ve had some very similar experiences. We met in college and went through our first year teaching at the same time. A few years later we found ourselves job hunting again at the same time. We’ve both worked in an urban demographic for a year, and both left knowing that it wasn’t the right place for us. We have a similar way of relating to teenagers, both enjoy teaching literature more than writing, and share many pedagogical perspectives.
Subbing in three different schools at once offers some unique insight into the teaching world. I think I notice it more now because the three schools I’m in now vary so widely in size and demographic. Between my observations of teachers in each setting and my conversations with my personal teacher friends, I’ve thought a lot about an individual teacher’s ability to do their job well. What factors separate a good teacher from an average one? What’s the balance between training, setting, and natural talent? After letting these thoughts percolate for a few weeks (yes, I’m behind on my blog posting, I know), I’ve reached two conclusions.
Through circumstances that can only be considered coincidence, I’ve found myself reading a lot about the educational situation in Pakistan lately. OK, I’ve read two books related to the topic, which isn’t a lot, but enough to get me thinking – especially since I never really set out to learn about it in the first place.
First I read I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai, because I was curious about the 17-year-old girl who became the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Talk about remarkable teenagers, right?? Now I’m reading Three Cups of Tea by David Oliver Relin. My mom gave me the book because she liked it, but it ended up in storage before I got a chance to read it. After unpacking our book boxes, I’m finally able to catch up on things like this. Relin tells the story of Greg Mortenson, an adventurous mountain climber who accidentally stumbled on the needs of the children in the remote Pakistani villages. Through sheer dedication and determination, he has gone on to build several schools in Pakistan.
Life is full of change, completions and beginnings, starting over and moving on. I attended a college graduation party this weekend. We had senior awards chapel this morning in school, and in a little over a week, those seniors will graduate high school. This is the time of year that we celebrate all that. This is the time of year that we acknowledge achievements and impart advice for the next step.
So here’s what I’ve learned:
Life comes in seasons. There will always be change. There will always be goodbyes, transitions, and new starts. I’ll admit that my life is an extreme example of this, but even without constantly relocating, life will never stay exactly as it is now. And that’s OK.
About two months ago, the principal made an announcement to the school informing everyone that he’d hired a former student to be a new English teacher next year. Given my tentative situation as a long-term sub, all my students assumed that meant he’d hired another teacher instead of hiring me on permanently. They came rushing up to my room after lunch, expressions frantic, asking “you’re not coming back next year?!”
The only answer I could give them was “I don’t know.” It’s a complicated situation. I’m still in the running, but I know he is considering other teachers for my position, too. This new teacher he’d hired was a whole separate situation and had no bearing on my job. However, I wasn’t at liberty to discuss most of the details with my students. While I tried to assuage their fears as well as I could, I also couldn’t give them the certainty they wanted. So they expressed their teenage outrage at my tenuous position and what appeared to be the hiring of my replacement. “We should tell them that we want you back,” they announced. “We should start a petition for them to keep you!” And honestly, if I’d encouraged the idea instead of discouraging it, they probably would have done it.
“Are you going to teach us how to do taxes?”
The question caught me off guard. Taxes belong in a life-skills or applied mathematics course, not English. However, I followed her logic and addressed her question. We were talking about writing resumes (as part of their career research project), and in her mind she associated one adult life-skill with the other.
No, I’m not going to teach how to do taxes. I don’t even do my own taxes. I send all my W2’s and other paperwork off to an accountant who makes sense of all our relocating and student loans for me. I said as much to my students, to which they responded, “What’s a W2?”
And therein lies the crux of their inquires. They know they don’t even know the basics. They know there’s a world of ambiguous “adult responsibilities” waiting for them down the road, and they know that traditional education leaves many of these responsibilities unaddressed. Sure, we all had to figure it out and we did OK, but I get why they’re asking questions. Adult life can be an intimidating prospect.
I could do my job in this classroom, no problem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I may step on some toes with this one, but if what I’m about to say bothers you, just know that I’m speaking from a very specific point of view (that of an English teacher). I’m not opposed to the overall presence of technology in education; I just don’t want too much of it in my field. Though I’ve mentioned it in casual conversations at work, I haven’t “officially” shared my opinion in faculty meetings simply because I’m still a long-term sub, not a permanent addition. I’m not in a good position to rock the boat too much yet. When that time comes, I’ll be diplomatic, but until then, I’ll stick to just blogging my thoughts.
When we reached a certain scene in Hamlet, I decided to switch things up and have students delve a bit deeper into the psychological aspects of the characters. I gave them a modern translation to use side-by-side with Shakespeare’s words and asked them to explain and respond to two different speeches in the scene. One of them was my favorite speech in all of Hamlet (and possibly all of Shakespeare), spoken by Claudius on the topic of prayer. I’ve always been fascinated by this speech, so much so that I memorized it for a competition in high school. I admitted this to my students. They looked at me like I was crazy, and said as much to my face. “You memorized this? By choice?!” they said, shaking their heads in disbelief.
“Hey,” I replied with a shrug, “Everyone is nerdy about something. This just happened to be mine.”
“Quiet game, everybody!” The speaker is one of the more vocal guys in the class, the one who usually riles up the others, but they have work to do today. The quiet game was his favorite strategy to get himself to focus. “Five minutes. One, two, three, go.”
And the room silenced.
The absolute silence only lasted for a few seconds, but the spirit of the game continued, with comments kept to quiet murmuring mostly on topic with their work. They’re all seniors, this class full of students taking college writing. They meet in my room, but I’m not teaching the class. My predecessor still teaches it, giving them their assignments online and occasionally coming in to meet with them in person. On a regular day, third period is a glorified study hall for them (and me). It’s a chance for them to meet together and focus on the work for this class, but they’re free to work on whatever they want. If they have a more pressing assignment in another class, they work on that instead and save the college writing work for another time. And there are days when they don’t have much to do at all, so they tend to converse and browse the internet instead. I’m pretty “hands off” with this group. I don’t even have a syllabus for the class, much less access to their individual assignments. If they choose to focus on the course work, good for them. If they choose to do something else, that’s up to their discretion.
I had already started writing this post when three students came into my study hall asking if they could survey some of the kids in the room. As they circulated among the class and asked their questions, it became harder and harder for me to simply sit quietly and listen. The survey was on racism in America today, and in my eavesdropping I caught wave upon wave of the naiveté that inspired me to write this post in the first place. These kids have good lives. Their families are well off. Aside from the handful of Korean exchange students, our school doesn’t have much in the way of diversity. They’ve never seen the impact of racism in action – which led them to conclude that racism is now a non-issue. I cringed inwardly, already mulling over ideas for bringing up the topic in class some time.
I love my job. I love this demographic, though not always for the reasons people expect. For the most part, my students are awesome – respectful, trustworthy, and motivated. But man, they’re naive.