I've only really been posting since December, even though I established my blog last summer, and I've kept my daily life quite separate because writing this blog has been my refuge and my respite from the daily grind. But somehow I feel called to write about my life as a teacher, just because the tone out there in the real world (as opposed to this world, where I discuss books and pretend my teaching life doesn't exist) has gotten so harsh. Teachers are being scapegoated for all the failings of a whole society, and that society itself has become less civil. Believe me dear reader, if you heard some of the things that parents say to educators you would be shocked. And when I see the way teachers are vilified in the press and the daily mash-up that passes for television news commentary, I am saddened. I bought the March 15th issue of Newsweek magazine with the cover article The Key to Saving Education (the phrase "We must fire bad teachers" written in chalk over and over and over is the cover image) and thought it the most wrong-headed and misleading thing I've read in some time. But all this is just the tip of the iceberg and not really the main point. My main point is this:
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. Plato
Probably most people don't know what a normal day is like for a public school teacher. I don't know what a Wall Street Trader's day is like. Here's how it starts:
I wake up at about 5:00 a.m. This is mostly a matter of choice. Not that I'm a morning person, because I'm not. In fact, I deeply crave good, restful sleep the way nicotine fiends want a cigarette. But I know that once the first bell of the day rings, I will never again have a moment for quiet thought. So I leave my house in the dark, and I'm so used to it that a glimmer of dawn makes me feel as though I'm late. I arrive at school between 6:30 and 6:45, coffee in hand. There are several other cars in the parking lot, even at this hour, and a few kids have already been dropped off, and are sitting quietly in the cafeteria. I go to my classroom, and in the peace and calm of early morning, I get my classroom ready. I write the day's activities on the board, start up my computer, make sure I have all my copies and handouts for the day. This is a good time to grade or enter grades, a task that requires some concentration. On occasion I will have a parent conference scheduled before school. This week I had bus duty (7-7:30 a.m.). Basically I stand at the bus ramp door, smile, and say good morning to a bunch of sleepy teenagers. Theoretically I am there to maintain law and order. Have I mentioned yet that I am just barely five feet tall?
Students are allowed into the hallways from 7:25, and they have until 7:45 to get to class. I stand outside my classroom door and greet students; I also try to discourage hats, iPods, public displays of affection, drooping pants, horseplay, and out-and-out fights. Luckily, my hallway seems to be calm, and I just say "good morning" over and over and smile at sleepy teenagers. They are so sleepy, and as we know, starting school this early is not in keeping with a teenager's circadian rhythms.
I teach three classes a day (90 minutes each) and have one planning period. Our school is on an A/B schedule, so I see my students every other day. This year I have a total of 160 students, and I have tended to obsess about this more than is really healthy. I have sat and used a calculator to estimate the number of papers I must grade in a given day, week, quarter, or year, and I have proved to myself the insanity of giving high school English teachers 32 students in a class. No one else cares. Thirty-two students to keep on-task and engaged. Throughout the school year students come and go (actually, they mostly come! I have gotten two new students in the past month), and I try to manage as best I can to figure out where the new students are coming from and what they have learned at their old school. Once class size goes over about 25 I think a certain amount of chaos is inevitable unless the teacher possesses certain intrinsic attributes. It is undeniable that people with a larger physical presence (think big, tall men) project authority more easily. I work with what I've got. In the end, I believe in kindness. That just works for me. Teachers use their personalities in the classroom. Being mean just isn't good for me or for my students (not to say I'm never mean, but when I am mean, I regret it).
Teaching is a little bit like acting: think of it as putting on three mini-plays a day, and think about the amount of energy that would entail. At the same time, the actor (teacher) must have mastery of her content, must have a lesson plan (for a 90-minute block, that's usually three activities), and must monitor student engagement and behavior throughout. It helps to wear comfortable shoes. With 30-32 students in front of me, chances are that someone will be trying to text-message (virtually every student has an electronic device or two in his pocket). This is what I do: swiftly walk right up to the student who thinks she's being surreptitious, stare pointedly at the phone, and ask her to put it away. She usually sheepishly complies. This is easier that whipping out a referral and taking the phone, and less disruptive to my lesson.
If my planning is in the middle of the day (on A-days) I get to eat lunch early. Good, I'm hungry. I always eat, because teaching is a marathon, and shouldn't be done on an empty stomach. Then I grade papers, make copies, plan. It goes by fast, whoosh. On B-days I have 4th lunch (12:25), and I'm starving, because I ate breakfast at 5:30 a.m. At the end of a teaching day I'm often wiped out because it is so physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding. There is no "down time." There is barely time to use the rest room, and getting to use the restroom on a regular basis is not guaranteed in my profession. My school day officially ends at 3:15 (we are required to be in our classrooms for a certain amount of time after school), but I rarely leave that early. I sponsor clubs after school, and we have at least one meeting a week, often more. Usually I leave sometime between 3:30 and 5:30. I might have a parent conference, and I really try to accommodate parents, so I have met as late as 4:45 and as early as 7:00. Every day is different. There are wonderful moments and terrible moments but I never have a boring minute, let alone a boring day. I can't tolerate tedium or inactivity (reading a book is not inactivity) so teaching solves that problem. The reason I am there is always and in every way the students. I have a passion for literature and writing, but I am there for the students. Even the ones who hate me, English, and the world. Especially those students.
Can I please just tell you how incredibly hilarious teenagers are? They are so funny. I don't think that most people know this! I actually had a student say to me one time "I love you on a professional level." I thought that was the funniest thing I had ever heard, and one of the most sincerely spoken compliments I have ever received.
When I go home at the end of a school day, I still have the same human things to do as everyone else. I cook dinner and tell my husband about my amazingly wonderful or terrible no good day. I have a bag full of ungraded papers with me, always, and sometimes I grade some of them. Or I have reading to do (or rereading) or planning or something. Then I write in this blog a little, nearly every day, which refreshes and replenishes me. Then I go to bed (never early enough) and get up at 5:00 and do the whole thing all over again.
Whenever I hear or read about how teachers have it so easy, or how we don't work a full day or a 40-hour week, I realize that most people really don't understand what we really do. I've only just barely skimmed the surface of a teaching day in this post. I don't know whether I'll post on this topic again, since I love maintaining this blog as something entirely separate from my classroom life, but for some reason this was a post I was compelled to write. So, I remind myself: be kind, because in the hurly-burly of the classroom I can forget this sometimes. I must be kind in the midst of this great battle, because my students are fighting a hard battle every day, and so are you, I am sure, so are we all.