The English Teacher Black Hole

I hope I’m not alone in thinking, basically all the time, that I’m just not very good at what I do. I am speaking of a very special imposter syndrome: I’m a high school English teacher.

When I was young, I was lackluster in reading the classics or writing essays. I excelled in trying to make myself a romantic poet or a musician of some notoriety. This early hobby-ish work fizzled out the way most aspirations of that nature do. But, one ambition of my youth stayed constant with me when I went to college and beyond: increase the pool of deep thinkers in this world.

I was a fortunate dude. I had a dad with a great job that took us around the world. I didn’t always appreciate it, but when I came back to America, I knew my perspective was wonderfully unique. And it came at very little effort on my part, unlike my well educated and autodidact peers that never left the country. And while travel is expensive, reading is not. And in reading more and more voraciously as I got older, I found the slow calm of deep thinking, of empathy and the uncoupling of evil from the actions of humans: We must always understand intent and the clash of intents.

When I first started thinking about becoming a teacher, I worried that I would have to be completely organized and scripted and such and so forth every day. It was completely overwhelming to think of daily creations of whiz-bang lessons. But I was compelled.

I was also ready for the essay grading. It’s a sort of badge of pride when you first get into English teacherdom. Essays won’t grade themselves, and they stack up pretty quickly. (And I just realized “stack up pretty quickly” is now a metaphor akin to “rewind” or “pickup the phone” because most of my grading is done in digital spheres.) Evening jaunts into grading and weekend jaunts into grading and holiday jaunts into grading were all part of being an English teacher. It felt like the worthiest of sacrifices.

This lasted for two years.

The contract hours of my current work position are not anomalous. Most schools offer similar daily structures. Basically, I have some buffer times before and after school where I need to be at work. This is probably to allow for some standardized meeting times for parents and students. And I’m also, due to my contract, required at least one bell for “planning.” It is assumed, with no grading bell that is, that one must grade during class. But if you want to be there for your students, a heavily attentive and focused task like grading is almost impossible.

Essay grading is not my favorite. It can be quite stressful to someone who wants their students to grow. It requires judging someone’s mind, someone’s thinking. This intimate and visceral stuff to judge. It’s never fun to point out an obvious error or even one that is well intentioned and thought out. And having that all translate into a grade is not why teachers become teachers.

I used to go to coffee shops on the weekends to make grading more of a comforting event. I’d set a goal of grading a solid chunk of my 150 essay queue to make my weekday grading more palatable. At 10 minutes an essay, grading one essay assignment thoroughly requires 25 hours of grading. This is not something one can do in a weekend unless you are skimming and not really taking things in.

So what do you do? You take shortcuts: you don’t give feedback or you give pre-written feedback. Or, you don’t assign as much, which is not good for students as they write less. You assign only one essay question so you can skim it for the necessary responses. Or, maybe you do a portfolio full of various original work, but even then, you need to read work. That might cut things down from 10 minutes to 7 minutes, giving you 17.5 hours of grading/reading.

Deep in your mind, any decision that cuts you out as a legitimate reader, someone who is there completely for your students, gets you pretty good. It deepens guilt and shores up that imposter syndrome.

Can the time it takes to grade essays enter into a contract? Not really. I mean, if we were really being honest with ourselves, English teachers should be working an extra day and a half to keep up with all the essay grading. (And here I would like to apologize to any other subject area that requires a lot of writing. Thank you! We are in this together!) And that’s just essay grading. It does not include reviewing notebooks, projects, planning, and the regular student draft feedback that occurs throughout the year. Let alone if you are involved with an after school club.

This is the English Teacher Black Hole. If you are strong-willed, okay with inadequacy, happily fueled by your subject area and any sort of student progress, you will survive. But if you worry about the disservice you are doing to students out of necessity for the health of you own life, you may burn out. It happens all the time. Some quit their jobs and find another profession. Some stay and are miserable. And some find practical means of enjoying their work while being honest with the amount of grading that can be done. It’s a creative thing, but one can find a way. It just pains you because you know your students should have so much more. And that’s what makes teachers miserable if they don’t forgive themselves.

Essay grading can take over all of the fun parts of being an English teacher, like connecting with students, tutoring students that need help, lesson planning (especially stuff that is timely like newsworthy phenomenons), collaboration with colleagues, etc. There is a lot to list. And that’s the other aspect of the English Teacher Black Hole: where do you stop with all the general teacher work?

I have known colleagues that are meticulous with their planning, outlining every month down to the minute. And I know colleagues that write a couple bullet points for each lesson plan on the morning of. They know where they are going from experience. I fall somewhere in the middle, but the options from the middle always stifle me. Which way do I go?

I also feel that way when I grade: what do I focus on? It is another list: ideas, structure, evidence, grammar, style, spelling, formatting, introductions, conclusions, body paragraphs, formal bits and bobs, plagiarism, originality, focus, detail, etc. Not to mention whether the writer has objectively improved from the last written work.

Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, has English teachers down: “As the number of available choices increases, as it has in our consumer culture, the autonomy, control, and liberation this variety brings are powerful and positive. But as the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize” (2).

And this is the reason for the imposter syndrome. You work very hard to maximize your teaching potential for the students in your classroom, taking note of the recent and past and long-gone past. And you go through how the lesson will unfold. You research. You learn from the first bell you throw the lesson at. You adapt. You grade some late work. Write emails. Reply to emails. Work on feedback. Recommend a book to a student. Tutor a student. Ask a colleague a question. Think about an article you read that might work for something next week. Annotate or review a text you need to be an authority on for tomorrow’s class. And you try to find time to focus on grading those essays.

When you learn to find ways to forgive yourself for being human and for finding rational and manageable workloads, you start skirting the English Teacher Black Hole. But it will never leave. It will be there in your weakest moments.

And at this moment, teaching is largely an act of crunching and compounding and not enough time. All the things, squished by insurmountable gravity into a Neil deGrasse Tyson explained spaghettification, joining all the other stuff in that massive pile of work. And, tantalizingly, we are living in an era where multiple choice tests and standardized essays reign as barometers of mastery. We are working in a world where it is easy to skirt The English Teacher Black Hole by following suit. But we must not, for there lies an even worse fate.

We got into this gig for the depth, but in many cases, this is very hard to achieve. And we must not surrender to the breadth that would make things easier. We must always act and hope in terms of a better future, but, for now, we must skirt the English Teacher Black Hole but keep the depth. So forgive yourself for being realistic and stay deep.