from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

What does it mean to be a teacher? 

(also posted as a diary on dailykos)

What does it mean to be a teacher? I am often asked why i became a teacher, which question is far easier to answer. I can give the history, which I will not here recapitulate. I can, as I often do, say that I wanted my life to make a difference, which I think it has. But that does not answer the far more difficult question with which i began this essay: what does it mean to be a teacher?

This will not be an intellectual exploration. I could offer that, but there are others far more capable and far more experienced than am I. It will instead be a personal reflection, drawn from my experience in this time and place, inspired in part by the self-examination I am undergoing as part of preparing to submit my portfolio for certification by the National Board for Professional teaching Standards. It will also be influenced by the active role I have taken in writing about educational issues here at dailykos.

Consider yourself forewarned. Should you choose to continue reading, below the break, you now have some idea what you will encounter.


It is now a Sunday afternoon. Soon I will have to do lesson plans for this upcoming week in detail. This will be a short week, as the students enter Spring break at the close of school Wednesday. I have been thinking since Friday afternoon, off and on, how I can keep them involved with what is happening in the class, move forward through the material, while they are counting the hours -- and soon the minutes -- until they have 11 days off.

Even were it a normal weekend, my mind would rarely be far from similar tasks. What is there in the paper, or on television, which can serve as a means to connect their interest to what we are actually studying? For Social Issues, where we currently explore the death penalty, this is not hard to do, although there I must find a way to push them beyond their immediate gut reactions, to explore the complexities and subtleties of various positions. My 9th graders in US History are finishing their study of the Vietnam period. There are points of connection, but there are also serious differences, with what they can perceive about our involvement in Iraq. This week they will encounter aspects of shame -- My Lai, our hurried departure, the fall of Saigon and the triumph of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. While these events are crystal clear in my memory, I have students with parents who were at best infants when this happened. Others are recent immigrants to this nation, so this has not been the fabric of their families.

Why am I explaining all of this? Perhaps because for me the task of being a teacher is certainly not one of peeling back their scalps and pouring in the knowledge. It is rather an ongoing struggle to help them make sense of material. It requires me to approach it from many different ways, to try to find ways in which it will connect with their lives. And this is a process that never stops. if i read something of interest in the paper or on-line, the first thought that runs through my mind is “how can I use this for my students?” When I encounter someone well known or of distinction, I become brash, approach them, try to say something nice, then ask if they would be willing to come and talk to students. The answer is almost always yes. That enables me to extend the world of my classroom to a larger world, one that I can bring into the building. It has at times led to internships and other relationships for some students, and for all it has meant a learning experience beyond what I can personally provide them.

During the school year I rarely have “down time.” No matter how well planned a lesson may be, I have to be prepared to abandon it instantaneously if it is not working. As a wise central administrator I know once told a group of us,

if the horse you are riding is dead, beating it won’t make it go any faster.

it could be that there is something else of importance on the minds of the students, about which they need to talk. If that is not addressed, they will still not learn the material I planned for them. Or perhaps partway through the lesson it touches on something that raises issues for which i had not planned, but which are relevant to this particular group of students. Or maybe it is just one student, but s/he is someone who can if personal needs are not addressed totally disrupt the class. I could exert the force of my will to suppress such disruptive behavior but that could lead to resentment and sullenness on the part of other students.

Teaching is exhausting. If there ae 30 students in the room at that moment, the number of interactions going on are in the hundreds. There are separate interactions between me and each of the students, there are interactions between each of their minds and different pieces of the material, and there are so many interactions among the students. All of this is part of the foundation upon which I am trying to build a meaningful educational experience. No, I do not claim that I can even notice more than a fraction of these interactions. I have to select to which I will pay due attention, and that becomes a real high wire act with true potential for disaster!

Then there are all the things about individual students. One has to be aware of any changes in patterns. A normally solid student suddenly does not come prepared. Why? Should I pull that student aside and ask immediately, because there may be a real family crisis about which appropriate people should be informed? Or is this a student who needs a little room to self-correct, and if I ask directly I may cause that student to erect a barrier between us. What if in asking that student shares information with me that I am legally required to report, such as physical, sexual or emotional abuse (and this has happened more often than you might imagine). How can I persuade that student that I am not violating her confidence by reporting it to the guidance department, where since each counselor has over 400 students and right now the counselors are in the midst of doing registration for next year they have little time to breathe.

I can hear the thoughts in some of your minds. What does this have to do with teaching? My answer is that it may be more important than anything else I do. I am able to push my students outside their comfort zones, to have them challenge themselves, only insofar as they are willing to trust me. It does not matter than an older sibling or a friend has raved about me. Each student presents me with a de novo situation. I must prove to each one that I am worthy of their trust. I may get some benefit of the doubt from what they have heard, but that will not sustain me beyond the first week. Students do not always have to understand why I do what I do, but if I make some attempt to explain they are for more willing to take steps down a road that might be very unknown to them.

Each student who comes into my room is entitled to be known as the individual he is, absolutely unique, and entitled to respect for that uniqueness. I consider this fairness, but it is a different kind of behavior than some have come to expect. I do NOT treat all students exactly the same, because their needs are different. Sometimes I therefore make mistakes in what I do, because i cannot hide behind the excuse that I am simply enforcing the rules. I will apologize, to students, to a class, to parents, when appropriate. I must model for my students what i expect of them, which is taking responsibility for one’s actions, even if the hurt we cause is unintentional, even if our purpose in such actions was meant to be a positive.

But that is an impossible task. I cannot really know all 170 students currently in my care. i try to see them in their various activities at least once, so that they will know that I value their lives outside my classroom. But that too is impossible -- too many activities overlap, and even though I am a Gemini I cannot physically split myself that way.

So part of every school day has to include the time to reflect -- where did I make mistakes, what did I miss, with whom did the lesson, or I, not connect? What can I do to fix these problems, while still trying to move each class forward? How can I keep each class lively enough that I don’t cause kids to zone out? And how can I do this while maintaining some space for myself, my family? Again it is a high wire balancing act. If I try to do too much, then I exhaust myself and am not sharp enough to notice problems in the classroom.

And when I am teaching I must be constantly monitoring far too many things. Which students are getting it? Which are not? Did I cover what they need to know? if some are not getting and others are, do I move on, do i stop for those not getting it? I may have a half second to make up my mind and make adjustments. Oh, there’s a fire drill, so I’ve lost 5 or more minutes of instructional time, in this class, plus the additional time to settle them down after they come back. How do I adjust for this class without slowing down the lesson for other classes for which there is no such disruption.

And while I am teaching probably 3 different levels of American History (because one talented and gifted class is far less able than the other two) as well as Social Issues, I have to be thinking about next year, when I will be teaching Government, including for the first time AP Government, and also Comparative Religion.

Because I teach high school, I am also involved with writing recommendations (fortunately complete for the current cycle), and helping students explore postgraduate opportunities, which for most but not all will mean college at some level. At which colleges should they look? Why? If I have built relationships with my students such that they will exert themselves for me in my work, then they are likely to turn to me for counsel on issues like this, and it would be unfair of me not to respond.

I have not talked about all the e-mails with parents and students, about phone calls, about parent conferences. I have not talked about non-classroom responsibilities such as faculty and departmental meetings, ordering books, helping schedule guest speakers and field trips for other teachers, mentoring student teachers and new teachers, attempting to do joint planning with others in the department.

Nor have I mentioned the biggest current burden, the preparation of my portfolio for NBPTS, due in Ewing NJ by march 31, and i will be pushing the deadline. I have given more than enough detail about my responsibilities without attempting to list all of them. My school day -- including commuting time when i am thinking actively ab out my teaching and the work I do at home -- usually runs about 12 hours a day, not including time spent in coaching or in attending events in which my students participate. And yet I have not really addressed my original question. Since I have forced you to read this much, perhaps I should now focus more closely on the main topic -- you have enough foundation.

What does it mean to be a teacher? The answer I will assay at this point is mine alone, but one I expect would find strong agreement from many other teachers. To be a teacher means to be consumed -- with the care of one’s students, with a passion for one’s subject, with not wanting to ever miss a chance to make a difference. It is to go out on a wire without a net, because one never knows what actions one takes or words one says will make a difference, and whether that difference will be positive or negative. Sometimes it can mean pouring oneself out without being as fortunate as I have often been to get feedback from parents and students that encourages me to go on, even when exhausted, and worrying about my failure in reaching some students. It means that one’s family will have to accept the limitations -- in time and money -- the choice of being a teacher will impose on them. It means recognizing that one’s own learning -- of students, of material, of how to help the students connect with the material -- is a never-ending process. It means one has to constantly operate on several levels simultaneously, observing things -- about oneself, about the students and the class -- about which one can do nothing at the moment but which will have to be processed and addressed at some point.

For me being a teacher also means having to take stands for what I believe is correct. It requires me to challenge those who would impose on our schools, teachers, and students requirements that would be counterproductive to the real learning to which all of our students should be entitled. it means I have to find ways to enable my students to succeed on examination imposed from the outside which I find either meaningless or destructive or real learning, while at the same time trying to maintain and live by my best lights of what I think SHOULD be occurring in my classroom, with these particular students, at this time and in this place. It means that I cannot ‘teach” as if their lives outside my classroom did not exist, but must find ways to include their lives as a coequal part of the learning I wish them to experience in my classroom.

And it means using whatever gifts I may have on behalf of my students. I had ceased being very active politically, until I realized that my political activity is also part of what makes me the teacher I am, for good or not others will decide. Financial irresponsibility on the part of government restricts the ability of our schools to serve our students. Those who would impose one way of thinking on issues deprives our students of the chance to explore and come to their own conclusions. Misperceptions about what test scores mean and what they measure can lead to further distortions of the educational experience available to our students. Lack of understanding of the real educational issues can allow ideologues to impose on our schools things that are destructive of real learning, of the excitement with which most students originally enter school. Thus even my blogging and my writing on listservs and even the occasional op-ed pieces and Letters to the editor are part of what it means for me to be a teacher.

For anyone who has read this far, I have now burdened you enough. Through my earphones as I write I listen to Bach’s Art of the Fugue, played by a string quartet. The music is appropriate to this topic -- it is complex, but its complexity is built from many detaisl themselves of relatively simplicity. And I am I am reminded of the words at the end of T S Eliot’s poem “Little Gidding”, that I think accurately portray what it means, to me, to be a teacher:
Quick now, here, now, always --
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.
Wow. Incredible post. I have been teaching for three years at the high school level, and I'm getting so tired. Your post made me think.
I posted an excerpt on my blog, if that's okay. Thanks!
Found you through the blog list at firedoglake.blogspot.com. Glad I did!
Well said. As a first year teacher, I have wandered into that stage of disillusionment. It is said that this happens in November, but for me, March feels like I'm swimming upstream.
Well said. As a first year teacher, I have wandered into that stage of disillusionment. It is said that this happens in November, but for me, March feels like I'm swimming upstream.
Mr. McNamar (?a?)

You need to take a deep breath, and give yourself permission to let go of the tension. Even for those of us who ahve tuaght for a while (this is my 10th year after a long career in data processing) we hit those times when we wonder why we are doing it, giving the time and energy for so little pay, and seemingly not reaching the students. But you never know.

It is POSSIBLE that teaching is not the career for you. But one can rarely make that determination in the first year, unless one can make it in the first week.

I took over my classes in my first school in december. The kids had had subs in two of the four core classes for about 3 weeks, and were out of control. It was a struggle just to get them settled down, and I thought I was not making it until the woman next door told me (Oh, no, you are doing great. I can hear the difference through the wall!"

By the end of the semester I started to get a sense of what I was doing.

I have my bad days when nothign seems to work. At this point I am confident and comfortable enough to say to the kids, you know, today I am no good as a teacher, this lesson isn't working, so let's do something else.

You cannot force students to learn. You can only invite them, prod them, tempt them. And that is far easier to do when you are open and honest with them.

Far too many advice books for new teachers are negative "Don't smile until Christmas" or "never let them know that you don't know'. I say that's baloney. I tell the kids when i don't know, and I give them extra credit when they catch me in a mistake. Among other things that models responsibility and humility, two traits that it woujld be quite beneifcial for them to develop.

I would be curious to know how you found my blog. I know it isn linked on lots of other sites, but since I don't maintain things like trackbacks, I usually ask.
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