[Note: I wrote this a few weeks back when I was feeling super disoriented and unhappy about my classes. Since then, class dynamics have gotten much better, truly, although they’re still not perfect. I wanted to write, though, about the ins-and-outs of teaching and to some extent of life as a young person: sometimes it feels glorious and meaningful and right, while at other times it involves wading through swaths of not-awesomeness and frustration. Still, in all he is all shaping the mold of my/our heart(s). J, there’s your tl;dr, haha. The photo above is a view of our school farm with Pioneer Valley mountains overhead.]
“So can we just leave?” Our school internet was partially down, so I was having trouble screening the TED clip I’d planned for the last five minutes of class. Impatient, C wanted to know if they could ditch class early. I seethed inside. How rude, I wanted to say. I’ve put time and effort into preparing this lesson, so you should at least try to pretend like you care. I ignored her, but eventually dismissed the class a few minutes early.
Afterward I sat in my porch reading the news and eating [more Cheezits than are good for you], thoroughly discouraged. C was ‘the last straw’: so far at least. A good few weeks into this semester, I’d come back home nearly every day disheartened by my two 10th grade classes (although one’s a half-credit), both of which inevitably came at the end of my teaching day. I wondered, day after day: Why isn’t classroom magic happening? Why aren’t students lively and engaged, as is my 11th grade morning class nearly every day? Should I be trying harder? Why are they grumpy and slow? What is wrong with them? What is wrong with me? Who’s fault is it??? Is working this hard for seemingly small return worth it? Am I not supposed to be a teacher?? [insert other frustrated existential questions here] etcetera…
Sitting and feeling self-pitiful didn’t get me very far, though, so I went on an angsty run around campus to clear my head—except—a few minutes into it I instead began rehearsing a (ventier) version of this post. And, well, here we are. (To my teacher friends: I am “practicing reflection so I can become a better teacher”: just kidding, ish.)
There’s certainly good amidst the bad and the (usually mundanely) ugly. When we first got back this September, I got ridiculously excited during opening school assemblies because now—in my second year at my school—I know a good number of kids, mostly returning seniors, some new students I taught this summer, and they are all such good kids (regardless of their academic performance, heh). It made me—and regularly keeps me—really really happy to see them being good kids around campus, succeeding at their variously intriguing high school ventures, to get to give hugs and high fives when needed, to tease them about their special someones (best part).
Other happy moments, for example, include:
—Early in September, M hailed me from across the field as I was walking down the hill post-dinner: “Shirleeeyyyy!!! Hiiiii!!!” I’d taught M this August in a weeklong program for incoming students of color, and hadn’t gotten to see him since we’d reconvened for the school year proper. The general consensus of our faculty has been that M is simultaneously very young and very precocious and smart at the same time, usually an endearing combination that reliably makes me smile. I waved back enthusiastically. He and a (female) friend then proceeded to roll down the side of a grassy hill, down to the bleachers where other friends were hanging out. Pause for a moment and imagine how adorable that was. At least I did: oh, freshmen, I thought, and was in a thoroughly good humor the rest of my way home.
—One morning, my 11th-graders got genuinely curious and excited about Emerson’s depiction of society in “Self-Reliance.” (I know: they like Emerson! It’s surprising to me every time.) “He never really seems fully to identify what it is that he’s railing against: it’s simply this disembodied ideal (or non-ideal),” G suggested. “There’s the preacher on p. 4 whose dictates urge conformity, though,” another (M) argued. “That’s kind of specific.” “I’m, like, actually really interested in what society is,” C burst out, seemingly out of nowhere. T assented. “Like, we were talking about it at breakfast this morning! Are we part of perpetuating the problem?” It’s thrilling when kids get excited about our texts and ideas.
—Last May: “I really don’t even care what grade I get on this essay. I feel like I finally get how to write the way you’ve been pushing us to write, and I’m proud of this piece: it is definitely the best thing I’ve written this semester,” D explained to me, after collapsing into a chair utterly bleary-eyed from staying up all night to finish an essay. I was thrilled (not about his staying up all night). D’s writing persistence had been up and down over the spring semester, and was interspersed, perhaps, with bouts of frustration and grumpiness about grades: but he prevailed. His final essay earned—deserved—warranted an A, of which I give relatively few. (My bell curve mostly runs the B- to B+ gambut.) I’m fairly sure I was happier than he was. It doesn’t always end in a happily-ever-after (read: an A-range grade), but boy does it feel great when it does. It’s even better when students look critically and honestly at their own work feel genuinely successful.
Those days make the rest of the time (mostly) totally worth it.
Yet of course there are lots of other times when I feel more ambivalent about it all. Part of the reason I find teaching so tough, I think, is because it’s messy—unpredictable—and outside of my control. C’s falling asleep because he stayed up writing a gov essay all last night. (I have lots of C-initial students, in case you were wondering.) G loved David Foster Wallace so much that she is on fire today, but it went mostly over R’s head so he doesn’t care much at all. E, a really sweet kid, has serious personal problems and struggles with anxiety, so rarely speaks up in class unless called upon. T and V are whispery and flirty and are thus distracted from our annotation exercise. A’s uncle just passed away, so she isn’t much interested in working with our play Wit right now. E is grumpy because L and Z are crabby about a quiz grade and we know how infectious that can be. These are all real classroom experiences! I could go on and on: classroom dynamics and events extraneous to our work in the course undoubtedly have a definite and recognizable effect on our class.
It’s more than just kids’ lives outside of my classroom, though. It’s also about the nature of teaching and learning itself: such a mysterious and wonderful and inarticulable thing. As my boss-guy puts it:
“We don’t teach. We just create learning experiences for kids.”
He’s debunking, here, the traditional role/concept/idea of what a teacher does in a classroom. We don’t transpose material and understandings from our heads into kids’ brains. It simply doesn’t work that way. As much as we’d like to, sometimes, we cannot do the learning for them. We create the best experiences we can for learning and they have to do the rest of the hard work of learning.
What’s more, everything teaching grad school has taught us suggests that higher level, critical thinking—which in teaching pedagogy jargon we call “enduring understandings” or simply “understandings”—must be owned by students themselves. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, the masterminds behind the increasingly practiced (maybe?) Understanding by Design model, otherwise known as backward design, contend:
“Because understandings are abstractions, not facts, they are not “teachable” in the conventional sense. An understanding can be gained only through guided inference whereby the learner is helped to make, recognize, or verify a conclusion.”
Shucks: all this means that I can’t force-feed learning down my students throats. They have to actually do it themselves! Not only do they have to do it, they have to be focused and awake enough to want to do it. We teach, then, not just knowledge and understandings but also student dispositions: the attitudes and habits of mind students should display, such as, “appreciation of the arts” or “persistence” (as ed theorist Robert Marzano explains). In case you forgot, we’re talking about teenagers here. #teachingishard
When I started out teaching, I thought a lot about joy as the centrepiece of learning. Simone Weil, in her essay “Studies and Prayer,” first helped me to articulate its role and, indeed, its necessity in learning work:
“The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable in learning as breathing is in running. Where it is lacking there are no real students, but only poor caricatures of apprentices who, at the end of their apprenticeship, will not even have a trade… Will power, the kind that, if need be, makes us set our teeth and endure suffering, is the principal weapon of the apprentice engaged in manual work. But, contrary to the usual belief, it has practically no place in study.”
I’ve decontextualized Weil’s argument somewhat, so I should first qualify that she is not saying that we should never have to try to learn, or that it should never be hard. To the contrary, she goes on to advocate for attention, a real attention that “destroy[s] the evil in ourselves,” “leaving [our minds] detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object.” Paying attention can be a powerful thing; so powerful that, even when we try and fail, we still obtain something infinitely precious: an increasing ability to pay attention to and hear from the capital-O One who loves us.
Yet still she does say that “[t]he joy of learning is… indispensable”: and so it is, because without joy we will never get very far. Joy provokes curiosity and questions and a rigorous search for answers, in a way that a mechanical attempt to go through the motions and get a good mark is never able to do. When we love a person in real life, for instance, they give us joy, and thus we learn all of their charming and annoying peculiarities and (hopefully) continue learning more on and on. When we are simply being nice to someone, by “[w]ill power,” because we should or have to, we go through the motions but are never genuinely curious enough to get very far. It is the same, perhaps, with study: when our students don’t see the why and simply follow the have to, learning is never as meaningful and durable and lasting.
And so I desperately hope that students form real connections with texts, learn to “love the questions,” and develop dispositions that are well-inclined toward lifelong learning. It’s not always easy to motivate, though, day-in and day-out. (Sometimes awesome interludes of poetry help: such as Pop Sonnets—we contrasted Bruno Mars’s “Grenade” with its sonnet version—and slam poetry e.g. Anis Mojgani’s “Shake the dust.”)
Despite all the lofty pedagogical jargon: there are days when teaching (and life at-large) are messy, out of my control, and when joy is not as easy as “breathing [while] running.” A few weeks ago, when I first started this post, I was thoroughly disheartened by how unresponsive and grumpy my sophomores were. Today I’m in a different sort of rut, battling a rapidly developing cold (and accompanying tiredness) while juggling classes to plan and work to grade. It’s always something, it seems. I’m often tempted to give up agency in situations that frustrate me to varying degrees: that is, choose to be unhappy, to wallow, and—what’s more tempting for me—to dream about next week, next month, next year, when things will be far better, when joy will be easy, when I will be in control again. It’s such an easy habit of mind to slip into that I often forget that I even get to choose. As David Foster Wallace puts it, this kind of thinking “[is] unconscious… [and is our] default setting.” (I might be co-opting/modifying his argument slightly here.)
Yet there is another way to live the “day-in, day-out,” one that Wallace alludes to (inadequately, my junior class decided) and that others have modeled for me. It is a way that I hope I’ll model for my kids: that even when things are messy, when they are not going my way, that I still have agency and may choose joy. That even when life seems overwhelming or underwhelming or frustrating or mundane, that there is more than just me in the grand view of things, which is a good thing. That even though I only ever have an illusion of control, there is One who is sovereign and is always good. Thus there is ample reason to “rejoice always.”
It’s a lesson I’m still learning (clearly), but I’m willing.