Saturday, June 18, 2016

Reflections Following the First (Half) School Year of a Real Goddamn Teacher

I don't know how long I've been a teacher.  It's not because it's been a long enough time for me to have forgotten.  Neither has it been because of some crack philosophical musing over the meaning of words or the concept of identity.  I mostly mean that I don't know how long I've been a teacher, because the state of my life since starting grad school in January of 2010 has been deeply confusing to me.

The semester of February to June 2016 was the first time I ever held a full time teaching position in the United States.  But when you consider that I taught for nearly eight months while living in South Korea, or that I was a substitute for two years, or a lowly teaching intern before that, it is difficult to call this my "first year" as a teacher.  When you further consider that I have not yet completed teaching an entire school year, it is even more questionable; nevertheless, I can't really consider 2016/2017 my first "first year".  In this warped mind of mine, in which I am unhealthily obsessed with milestones and categories, all of this is deeply confounding.

But none of it really matters now, because I am a teacher today.  I have my own classes and curriculum and I even get paid for it.  I no longer have to explain my life to people with qualifications and caveats.  As a matter of fact, I don't have to explain anything to anyone.  I'm on summer vacation and that means no teaching until September, suckers!

But it is time, I believe, to reflect on what I have accomplished this year.  Not merely because this is a significant milestone for me, both professionally and personally; I feel I owe myself an account of my achievement.  There can be no resting on laurels: I have to make a career of this, both for my survival and for my satisfaction.  There is so much work to be done, and as the students march on it is plain that the work can never really be finished.

The really good news is that, as some have suspected, I'm pretty good at this job.  I'm not great at it yet.  I don't have the deep wells of self-confidence needed to launch myself into legendary status by force of will.  But my skills and talents are neatly attuned to the task at hand.  Whether it's researching for lessons, facilitating discussion, or building relationships with students, I have met with fine success all semester.  I've met with frustration as well, but my colleagues have indicated that they respect what I am doing, and my weary spirit has not yet flagged from any such discouragement. 

My theory of good teaching is being refined all the time, as I observe the needs of different students and try to adjust myself to them.  In fact, I've needed to be flexible, as I now teach students of virtually every age from seven to eighteen.  This is by no means an easy job, and the fact that I am enjoying myself while doing it is something like a miracle.  Pride comes easily at moments like these, and it's not unjustified.

But I have to be realistic, and I have to be critical of myself too.  As I said before, I'm not a great teacher, and whether I can append the word "yet" to that statement is still only a presumption.  I learn more about the craft every working day, but my weaknesses are apparent and they don't all have obvious solutions.

Perhaps my greatest difficulty thus far has been differentiation, or the adjustment of my lessons to meet the needs of students with different skill levels.  This is a challenge every teacher faces, because students of the same age and grade are not necessarily alike in ability.  In my case, the challenge is multiplied by the peculiar situation of my school.

The school where I teach is a charter school in a small rural community; we have a little over forty students in total, with the majority being high schoolers.  This year I taught three classes of high school, with compositions of 12th and 11th, 11th and 10th, and 10th and 9th graders.  I also taught a single middle school class composed of 8th, 7th, and 6th graders, as well as an elementary class with two 5th graders, a 4th grader, a 3rd grader, and a 1st grader.  So to begin with, every class I taught was composed of students who were already of different ages, which made striking a balance with appropriate material a constantly evolving challenge.

Complicating the problem is the relative unpredictability of their skill levels.  Students come to our school for a variety of reasons.  Some have parents looking for smaller class sizes; some have older siblings with positive experiences in our setting; some have had trouble with socialization, often in the form of bullying in harassment.  Many of them, however, come to us because they lack the skills to succeed in public school, due to learning disabilities, mental health concerns, or personal issues.

I have 5th graders who read more fluently than some of my 8th graders; I have 12th graders who are not truly literate.  Since my subject area is social studies, it is extremely difficult to teach in the traditional way if I cannot count on my students' ability to decypher simple texts.  There is only so much instructional time in the day, and I can become frustrated when I must pass over content in order to perform what I might see as "remedial" skills instruction.

My frustrations in that area, however, may hint at a more fundamental issue: my anxieties over forming working relationships of children from different class, race, gender, and sexual backgrounds from my own.  This is another challenge that all teachers must face; I would argue that is a special concern of social studies, as these factors are consistently relevant to the content of our lessons, in addition to the meta-content of a typical day in the classroom.

It's a fact that I'm a straight, white, cis-man who, despite making a spectacularly awkward and protracted entrance into the working world, has never had to live in a state of genuine poverty or deprivation.  I have my struggles, but my struggles are of a different order from those of my students who cannot relate to the arc of my life.  Likewise, it is dreadfully obvious to me that I cannot always relate to their experiences.

The issue of social class looms especially large over my door.  I have many students who live in real poverty, the kind that needs no qualification or caveat.  Some of my least accomplished readers can be found in that group, and I know that this is not an accident of fate.  Poverty disadvantages children at every stage in the educational process, gradually alienating them not only from the school environment but from the social values that promote academic success.  Then along comes the son of a wealthy professional who has been a precocious reader longer than he can remember, and it's difficult to see what basis a relationship can be formed on.  When I become angry or frustrated with a student who will not even make an attempt to do the work I have assigned, it's hard not to see the failure as mutual.

And there is a stickier patch to consider: when my frustrations spill over from the strictly professional to the personal.  Have you ever believed that a teacher simply did not like you?  You may well have been right: teachers are very capable of disliking children, particularly those who make their jobs harder.  Untangling my animosity for a student who does not know any way to relate to me other than through insults and slurs, from my obligation to educate them to the best of my ability, is as hard as it sounds.  Failing to do so can aggravate the tensions of class and race even further, as well as the old prejudice that adults often have toward children in general.

It became clear to me this year that, for all my youthful pretensions, I really am too old to fit naturally in the head space of a teenager anymore, no matter what their background.  Relating to any one of my students requires an impressive leap of imagination, one that may be neither encouraged nor welcome, and is not assured of a successful landing.  I have never been particularly good at socializing with my own peers; assuming an air of leadership and authority is not a comfortable stance for me, and when I have nightmares they are often driven by a loss of leaderahip.

A great teacher is not beyond these concerns - they are fundamental to the practice of teaching, and every teacher is always engaged with the fundamentals whether they want to be or not.  Nevertheless, I take it as a sign that I am not (yet?) a great teacher that these fundamental questions are my worst stressors.  It would not be accurate to say I have not found the solution: rather, I have not yet become fully conversant in the ever-evolving language of the eternal problem.

Some day, I will know what works and what doesn't; how to assume my role in a manner I can perform with no regrets.  My successes will grow and my failures will further my education - the mantra we all hope to establish as a solid belief, teachers as well as students.  I feel confident predicting this, because despite my struggles I am still having a great time.  I could easily go another ten rounds, however long that expression translates to in the count of years.

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