Monday, November 3, 2008

You're Not Really a Teacher Unless...

Last week, Native-American author Sherman Alexie appeared on Stephen Colbert-- which got me thinking about Alexie's novel Reservation Blues, which got me thinking about this line that has stuck with me for the past nine years.

In the book, Alexie has one of his characters, a Native-American woman named Chess Warm Water, say, “You ain’t really Indian unless there was some point in your life that you didn’t want to be.”

Well, I've come to put my own spin on it: you’re not really a teacher unless at some point in your life you didn’t want to be.

Personally, those “points in your life” happened to me all the time-- daily, maybe even hourly-- during my first year of teaching high school.

You have to know a few things: I have been teaching English for twelve years; I’ve taught college, adult ed, and high school; I regard teaching as perhaps the most important and most noble profession that exists; and my first year teaching high school, I absolutely hated it.

Hated everything about it, as a matter of fact. Hated the hours: waking up inhumanly early after staying up late preparing the night before. Hated the never-ending paperload. Really hated seeing how quickly the essays I spent a weekend correcting would end up in the trash can.

I hated the breakneck pace, how things never seemed to let up. I hated “re-creating the wheel” every day, trying to come up with ways to fill up the interminable forty-five minute class period. I hated watching a “can’t miss” activity, one that I painstakingly created, bomb before my eyes.

And while I won't go so far to say "hate," I think it's safe to say that, for most of that first year, a really, really big part of me couldn't stand the kids. Pretty much everything they did drove me up the wall: how they wouldn’t stop complaining about everything we did; how they kept asking when we could watch a movie; how they complained about my choice of movie when we actually got around to watching one. (“Why can’t we watch ‘Dude, Where’s My Car?’”)

I couldn't stand how they wouldn't shut up, how I couldn’t get them to respect me, how I had no classroom management, and how every one in the room knew it.

Most of all, I hated what the job was doing to me and my relationships. I hated hearing myself unload, once again, another “woe is me” speech on my wife. I hated seeing my general “Mr. Optimist Prime” personality rot away, as I slowly became someone I didn’t recognize, Sir Cynicism, complete with a new philosophy of “Why am I working harder than anyone else? Screw it!” I hated that guy.

You get the idea. Basically, hundreds of times that first year, I thought about quitting. And if I didn’t have two small children to support, I probably would have.

That was then. Now, it's a thousand times better, obviously-- especially in terms of my feelings about the students. Now they make the job, when they used to break it.

But some things-- the unrelenting pace, the crazy hours, and especially, the astronomical paperload-- have remained the essentially same.

This past weekend, I probably spent sixteen hours correcting papers; I was still correcting at 9 pm Saturday night. I'm still not done.

You think, during that marathon correcting spree, I didn't experience a few of those points when I didn't want to be a teacher?

Of course, there's another side, too. Just last night, I was thumbing through Alexie's Reservation Blues, and I came across another great line, also said by Chess Warm Water: "Can't you handle it? You want the good stuff of being an Indian without all the bad stuff?"

Well, that's the other side, isn't it? The interactions with the kids, the rush of seeing learning happen, the thrill of learning something new yourself, the laughter, the hugs at graduation, the sense of amazement you feel when somehow it all seems worth it-- yeah, that's the good stuff. (And summers aren't bad either.)

How can anyone expect the good stuff of being a teacher without the bad stuff too?

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