Wednesday, June 11, 2014

how a teacher feels in June

I made it through another year of teaching high school English, my 15th year.  My seniors are done, my grades are in, and I am left with the feeling I have at the end of every school year:  I can't wait until next year so I can do a better job.

The very thing I adore about teaching is the same thing that makes it so hard:  No matter how long you have been teaching, you never feel like you are doing a good enough job.  And the longer you teach, the more work you feel you need to do. Teaching is a perpetual work-in-progress, and therefore, a job that is impossible to become boring.

I always end the year with big plans to revamp what I teach and how I teach it.  In fact, every single day, I wish I could do something a little differently. I always think of new ideas, new texts I should add, new assignments I should give, or good assignments I could make better.  I always think about how I could have handled a tough situation differently, how I could have worded a comment to a student a little more softly.  I always realize the perfect way I should have presented a complicated idea to a class while the kids are walking out of the room.  I talk to my students in my head all day long, after school ends.  I want to do things over and do them better every day.  (And I would add that if you stop feeling this way, you should probably stop teaching). 

It's hard to explain teaching to people who have never done it, or to explain why even though it's so hard, that I truly love it. When you are a teacher, every day is going to be different, and every day you are going to feel many, many things. You are going to laugh out loud. You are going to be offended.  Someone is going to pleasantly surprise you. A student who let you down is going to come through for you at the last minute.  You are going to realize something about a book you've read 15 times that had never occurred to you before. You are going to have to pee but not have time to do so. You are going to take one bite of your lunch when someone wants you to read his or her college essay one more time. You are going to overhear a conversation between two kids that you wish you could un-hear. You are going to discover the one-millionth sly way that a kid has discovered to look at his or her cell phone without you seeing it, and you are going to see it anyway. 

High school students are so smart and funny and fun to be around, and so complicated, and so predictable and so unpredictable. They have strong opinions about everything. 

oh the humanity...

There is so much humanity in a room full of teenagers, and unlike adults, most teenagers don't have filters yet.  They wear their hearts on their sleeves and their dislikes on their faces. Teaching high school sometimes feels like you are doing your job in front of a room full of critics. If you ask a class whether they like a book that you selected and painstakingly planned a unit for, be prepared for the honest answer.  Some kids will tell you what you want to hear, but most won't.  Most of my students will tell it like it is, every day.

"I hate this book.  It has no point." "This character is so annoying." "What is the point of this assignment?"  "Why are we doing this?"  "That quiz was way too hard." "If you aren't going to collect it, why did you make us do it?" 

It took me years as a teacher to not take this stuff personally.  Instead, I've come to learn that these questions, and learning to predict these questions, makes me a better teacher and a better person every day. I only teach novels that I personally adore, ("Really?  This book is your favorite book ever?  You said that about the last book we read.") so it is sometimes hard to hear these books criticized.  But I have come to learn that in any class, some students are going to hate some of the books that I teach, and I have found almost without exception, that everyone is also going to love, like really love and connect with, at least one. Every kid is going to connect with one of the main characters, and see him or self inside one of the stories we read, and understand the world a little better.

I do get a lot of comments like:  "I LOVE this book and I thought I would hate it."  Or, my personal favorite:  "This is the first book I have actually read, and not skimmed." One student this year came running into my office at 7:30 am because she stayed up really late and finished the book we were reading and needed to talk to me about the ending.  She was all out of breath and exhilarated. Some kids will tell you they finally learned to like writing this year, and some kids will tell you they looked forward to your class every day.  These things make everything else okay.

Teaching allows me (forces me) to be incredibly self reflective. There are life lessons happening here every day.  In my students, I see tiny aspects of myself, and they shine back at me all the strengths and weaknesses I also have. I appreciate the under-achievers and I appreciate the over-achievers.  The kids that get so anxious about coming to school that sometimes they just can't make themselves come:  I get that. The girl who won't turn in the essay she really did write, because even though it means she is failing English, that essay isn't good enough yet:  I get her. The girl who wants to know exactly why she got a 98 on a quiz and not a 100:  I get her.  The boy who, every time I ask a question to a class of 29 kids, thinks that I'm talking directly and only to him, so he answers every single time:  I get him. The ones who can't concentrate because they are worried about drama with friends, or a fight with a boyfriend: I get that too.

Teaching is hard because sometimes it feels like no one is listening, but I am always surprised at what they do hear, and what they remember that I said.  That off-handed sarcastic remark I made to a kid stung more than I intended it to.  And the compliment I gave to a kid meant more than I realized. 

During a time when standards and mandates are changing and shifting all the time, when we are rewriting curriculum and assessments and aligning all of our work to the Common Core Standards that you've been hearing about, what stays the same every day at school is that we work with real, live, humans.  We stand in front of rooms full of kids who all have a story, and they all want to do well.  They are all struggling in some large or small way.  They love things about school and hate things about school, and they are going to tell you how they feel.  They will roll their eyes at you and scowl and question you. And they will write essays that make you cry because they are so good, or write you letters of thanks that you didn't expect.  Or, when they are all done and don't need to be in school anymore, they will come sit in your office just to sit and talk with you some more.

I love my job.  I am so lucky to teach in a school where I have wonderful and kind students who come to me ready to read and write.  I teach kids all day in a well-run school where I am supported by great administrators;  I have a principal who was an English major in college, is a great supporter of humanities, and lets me talk to him anytime about any idea or concern I may have. The culture at our school is that it is cool to be smart, and that means that half of my battle is fought for me before the kids even walk into my classroom. 

I am heading into summer with the same feeling I get every June: exhausted but still in love with this job.  I have so much love and hope for my students as they head out into the world.  I need to reorganize my binders, read some new books, find some cool articles to incorporate, and rewrite some units.  I need to try harder next year to be more patient.  I want my students to write more and write better.  And that is another beautiful thing about teaching:  next year I will have a whole new crop of faces waiting for me, and I get to do it all again.  


Lloyd said...

lovely post. what lucky students you have.

Mrs. Leppala said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mrs. Leppala said...

Made me cry!

Ms. Po said...

I get exactly everything you said. Thank you for articulating so beautiful, how it feels to be a teacher.

Susan Creighton said...

I feel very much like you every year, so much so that I usually spend the summer reading and researching how to engage and challenge students better. And by the fall, I'm equipped with several new ideas out of which at least a few work! But I think one aspect of good teaching is loving to learn, almost like my teaching is enabling my love of learning by giving me specific goals. If students get nothing else out of my class other than exposure to that, it's a win.

Rebecca said...

love to know which books you teach!

Emilie said...

@Rebecca! In Senior English, I teach: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Namesake, Siddhartha, Into the Wild, Life of Pi, The Things They Carried, Catcher in the Rye, and next year I'm adding in: Wave, by Sonali Deraniyagala

If you teach HS English, tell me what you teach too!