Bibliophiliac is the space where one passionate, voracious reader reflects on books and the reading life. You will find reviews, analysis, links, and reflections on poetry and prose both in and out of the mainstream.

A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. Franz Kafka

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Be Kind

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.


Kerry said...

This is a great post. I hate when teachers are undervalued. Thanks for sharing.

bibliophiliac said...

Thanks, Kerry! By the way, I love reading your blog. Always thoughtful, always literate.

Grad said...

Dear "Bib", thank you for being a teacher. I left the work force for ten years after my first child was born. When we moved into our new house, I thought about changing careers to something more in sync with the kid's schedules. Teaching seemed a sensible option. I subbed - to make sure I'd like it. I taught 3rd grade for three days (although it was supposed to be a long-term sub assignment). And the end of each day, everything hurt - my head hurt, my throat hurt, my legs hurt and I had learned to hold water like a camel. I found myself stopping at the store after school to buy supplies with my own money because kids came without. I couldn't stand it that some of them had to use little nibs of crayons thrown into a box in the back of the room. It was a small thing perhaps, but it bothered me. On the third day, on the playground, I asked a little girl (we're talking 3rd grade here) to come away from an area she wasn't allowed and come join the group. She told me, "I should just hit you upside the head." I stood there. Stunned, mouth agape. After school ended that day, I went to the principal and told her she needed to find someone else to finish the assignment. I wasn't cut out of it. I didn't have the talent or grace or dedication to handle that important job. I know this has been an overly long coment, but I throw flowers at your feet for being a teacher. Your students are indeed lucky - and so are their parents.

bibliophiliac said...

Grad: From your mouth to God's ears! Thanks for your comment -- it illustrates perfectly what most people don't know about teaching.

Priya Parmar said...

wow. i tutor four kids individually and often feel stressed that i am not keeping them engaged and on track. 32 kids in one room would be unimaginable. i admire you!

Lesa said...

Thank you for the award!

I married into a family of teachers and I work in public schools as a speech path so I know exactly where you are coming from.
I've said the same thing-- that teaching is like being on stage. Being 'on' is exhausting-- but I don't realise it till the end of the day. I wonder if that is how Shirley Temple felt after a day of 'sparkling'.


bibliophiliac said...

Some days I wish I had the humor & energy of someone like Robin Williams!

Anonymous said...

Good post. I am an ESL teacher in China and my days are certainly nowhere near as stressful as yours. I do hear stories, however, from my mother who teaches earth science to public high school freshmen. Teaching in public schools is an undervalued vocation and anyone who dedicates themselves to it should be commended.

Unknown said...

I, for one, truly value teachers. So many of them helped shape who I am today. What better profession can there be than that occupied with the nurturing of children's minds?

bibliophiliac said...

Thanks Pete and Lee for your comments; it's nice to know the downtrodden teacher is recognized;)