An Even Dozen (Years in the Classroom)

Every once in a while, a student who thinks she wants to be a teacher will ask me, “When did you know you wanted to be a teacher,” and I answer her by saying, “I never did want to be a teacher.” That’s the truth, I didn’t. When I was studying English in college, people would say to me, “What are you gonna do, teach?” and my reply would be, “God, I hope not.” No, I didn’t know I wanted to be a teacher— until two or three years after I became one. Teaching had to grow on me, and when I think about it, now I have trouble picturing my life without teaching as a part of it.

This year made an even dozen years in the classroom for me. I began teaching creative writing in the fall of 2003, and when the recession hit in 2008 and 2009, the widespread staff cuts meant that in the 2009–2010 school year I would start teaching twelfth grade English too. And during those twelve years in traditional secondary education, I’ve also taught creative writing courses to distance-learning students, to incarcerated men, and to middle-grade students in a summer camp, as well has having taught a couple of semesters of college composition. I’ve spent a lot of hours trying to impart reading and writing skills to other people.

Teaching has taught me a few things, too. First and foremost, take nothing for granted. A teacher can’t assume that his lesson plans will work, can’t count on technology to function properly, or really can’t even count on his class meeting going uninterrupted for an entire period. The well-meaning guidance counselor may have other plans; the class-ring sales rep may be coming; another teacher’s field trip may run long; some drama may have happened earlier in the day; it may secretly be “senior skip day.” A teacher also can’t assume that students will do their assignments, that they will pay attention to instructions, that they will come to class with their textbooks, or that they will even show up to class! The principal may need to speak to someone; the lunch lady may hold onto someone for being too messy . . . Take nothing for granted.

The second thing I have learned is: I barely know anything about my students, certainly not enough to judge any of them. I only know what they tell me, which isn’t much. The traditional secondary education set-up is not conducive to teachers and students developing any kind of interpersonal relationships, since we unilaterally monopolize the allotted time and they are only given four minutes to get to the next class. There’s no time to get to know each other. Then as teachers, we often assume the worst: that kid’s zeros in homework come from laziness or insolence; that other kid’s silence just serves his manipulative ends. These demonized portrayals are sometimes true, but usually something else far less sinister is going on. What I’ve learned to do is ask: you seem to be struggling, what’s going on? I don’t know anything until they tell me. If they do tell me, I can help, or show some consideration, or discuss second chances. But if they don’t, there’s nothing I can do. I still don’t assume the worst, though.

The third and final lesson I’ve gotten from these dozen years – roughly two thousand school days – too many people think they understand the field of education, when they don’t. Just because a person has been a recipient of education, just because that person spent time in many classrooms with many teachers, doesn’t mean he or she understands what it means to be a teacher. A plethora of people – parents, students, community members, board members, union reps, politicians – say from way outside the classroom, “I’ll tell you what you should’ve done.” All that  pressure that the outside community can muster – parent conferences, administrative dictates, accountability measures – only serves to damage the morale of the teachers who are trying like hell to do a good job in imperfect circumstances. That’s not to say that all criticism of teachers should cease, but to say that we’re human, too— just as human as the other people who wish things were going better than they are.

Next year will be lucky number thirteen. I’ve got my syllabus done already, plotting the same basic course as previous years, which will include many tried-and-true projects. It’s tempting sometimes at this stage  to go on auto-pilot, letting experience carry me, but the days are far more compelling if I go into each one as a fresh opportunity to impart learning and to learn something myself.

There’s an old Lynyrd Skynyrd song, one that wasn’t a radio hit, called “Cry for the Bad Man” in which Ronnie van Zant sings, “You treat me right / baby, I’ll treat you right / that’s the way that it’s supposed to be.” That lyric could easily be a guiding mantra for any classroom. But, one other thing I’ve learned is: the work of teaching can really be that simple . . . even though too many people won’t let it be.

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