I got into teaching because I was an educational rebel. I was a late bloomer, and while I was a curious person interested in many things, I didn’t put much stock into formal education. I blinded myself to keeping my eyes open for anything by keeping my eyes open to only a bubble’s worth of interest.
I realized this mistake deep into college on the crest of my educational awakening. So, I figured that if a rebel could figure out what was missing in their own education, he could make a difference for others at an earlier stage.
Hence, I became an English teacher.
Thirteen and a half years later, here I am, a former rebel that’s turned into a person enmeshed deep in the realm of adulthood. I am all about my job; I believe in it. And yet, the student rebels that I deal with on a day-to-day, the ones I wanted to help the most on the cusp of my life’s-work realization, I wonder if I’m serving them. I wonder if I can even compare them to my former self. Maybe all of the “me” students in my classroom have been quelled by what they see in me on the first day: someone like them.
The point is that I don’t know anymore. Teaching is not exact in any way, not even if you give a multiple-choice test.
Also, I know now why teachers get a bad rap, why teachers stumble mid-career, why teachers do all of these seemingly illogical but human things.
Both teachers and students are human; humans are complex.
As a student, things are a lot clearer. You are physically growing as well as mentally growing. You are learning new things about the world, and you are trying to understand this ever-changing identity that you grow into.
Furthermore, when you get to high school, you try to work through all of the different subjects that are thrown at you. With every assignment, you feel some new thing click. Or not. But even if you are navigating a certain set of workloads or balancing a school and sport schedule, you are adjusting to and learning about life. Things are happening in your brain that are not just your brain getting more biologically mature.
But this is for only the individual. An individual with leagues of different variables surrounding them and within them.
In a perfect world, all students would have as many teachers as subjects and as many fellow peers as a lesson dictates.
Sometimes, a lesson requires explanation or lecture. For that, learning in a classroom can be a boon: someone else asks a question you didn’t think of. Or it can be a detriment: you are scared to ask questions because you feel you are far behind other students.
In other times, students need to work and check-in with the teacher to check progress. That is delicate work because students are working with the shape of their rough and new ideas, as much about confidence than about learning. But when students see other students work, it can be a helpful model for their own work: “Oh, I didn’t know you could go in that direction!”
When I stand in front of the room of a class, I see the diversity of my students. Some will have a lot of confidence. They will raise their hands so much that I will have to deny them responses to get others involved. Some will look like they are not paying attention, but lingering on every word, turning in pieces of writing that astound me with their grasp of sentences can work together in beauty and in communication.
The point is, teaching can be as simple as you like but opaque as you like. For me, that’s the draw of the profession.
For a student, yes classes might be pulling them in different directions, but their goals for the day are simple. For a teacher, there is infinitude. Classes are designed for the masses. You can’t be there for everybody, so you must be specific and general where it counts. And with thirty different students depending on you, in one class alone (I teach 6 classes at once throughout the year), things can get overwhelming.
You could glory in the fact that students now use a semicolon well or understand how to use quotation marks with Modern Language Association formatting and without. You can pick up that energy of a good Socratic Seminar, students trusting the space so much that they have taught you something about a text you’ve read countless times through your career. You could live off of that one student who didn’t know they were a good writer until you told them, reacting like they had received their first compliment, thriving deeply off it for the rest of their high school career.
But real accomplishment, the kind that you came to the classroom for—courage, dedication, creativity, empathy—is hard to see develop in the course of a year, with so many students, with so little time (48 minutes or 70 minutes in my case) spent with you and their 29 other peers. (I wonder how much time I actually spend one-on-one with my students.)
Year after year, the odds are stacked against me. I search the advice of other teachers. I have read a ton of Professional Development books, and their philosophies and good practices can be seen throughout my teaching.
I have experimented with the slowed-down-ness of a “writer’s notebook”; I have all but abolished the five paragraph essay; I have instituted a mostly grade-less classroom.
When students of mine join the school newspaper, I read all of their work and respond to them. It’s the least someone who values their writing could do. Writing is communication, and it craves an audience.
The point of all this is that epiphanies happen rarely, just like real life. Learning is a slow moving, imprecise, and inward thing. Even in an age of ever-more open-mindedness.
There are things I still learn from my childhood when I reflect back to it in adulthood.
And that is why teaching is a difficult profession. We may have a part in molding the clay, but we can’t see past the kiln, even if we saw the clay go in the kiln in the first place. We almost never see the finished product. And, really, is there ever a finished product?
This may all sound depressing. It is, sort of. I think every teacher would love their students to tell them when things finally clicked, whether it’s during the class or far after.
But even then, things are difficult.
I once had a student who wrote and read wonderfully, before they even came to me. So, in my view, I merely gave them the space to work through their autodidactism.
To be honest, I only have a vague memory of who I was as a teacher back then. I’ve taught just over 2,000 students in my career, so I only remember how this student affected me, the exhilaration of a student who was having a conversation with the class. And this from someone I taught two years straight, an unlikely happenstance of a teaching duty change.
Now this student works for a major magazine, and I still wonder, did I help in any way?
You’d think I’d know the answer, but I am a human that doubts their influence on this mighty world, like everyone else.
Teaching is hard. You have to believe in what you are doing to keep on. Of course, there is a lot to believe in, but the thing about belief is that it must continue without finality. Meaning the mistakes teachers make stem from pushing for results we so desperately crave. To make the belief fact. Validation for beliefs can be so very light sometimes. Like everyone else, we just want to make sure we are doing the right thing.