Monday, September 2, 2019

Life Sized Teaching

Like many teachers, I mostly hate movies and tv shows about teaching. There are too many about hero teachers, larger than life pedagogues who singlehandedly change the world and dramatically shift the course of entire lives (though they generally only teach one prep a day-- seriously, did Mr. Kotter or Mr. Feeney ever teach any other students?)

It's enough to make ordinary mortals feel inadequate.

It's easy for young teachers to develop feelings of inadequacy, to go home and night haunted by the knowledge that you did not change the life of every single child in your class today. I didn't get through to that one kid in third period math. I didn't know the answer to the question that one student asked. I don't have lesson plans done for next week, and it's already Wednesday.

Folks mean to be encouraging with all the rhetoric about teachers shaping the future and touching the future and shutting up some apocryphal guy at a cocktail party by pithily snapping, "What do I make? I make a difference!" But when we're not careful, the message we actually send is that teachers are Larger Than Life and More Than Human, that the only adequate level of teacher performance is Greatness. Which means of course that if you're just a regular human who had a pretty good day, well, you failed. I like to describe education as the work of helping students learn to be their best selves, how to be fully human in the world. And yet, to be a fully human teacher can feel like being Not Enough.

So for my brethren and sistern still in the classroom, on this Labor Day, here's a message from a retired guy who put in 39 years on the work.

Being human is plenty. Teaching life sized is plenty.

It is tempting to shoot for the teaching equivalent of the Grand Romantic Gesture, but that's not sustainable. Sure, it's nice when someone sends you a field full of daisies-- but not every single day. Every single day it's nice to have someone who helps with the dishes and cleans up after the dog and just sits down next to you in a real, present, human way at the end of the day. Nobody has the time and resources for a GRG every single day. And this is a marathon, not a sprint. Pace matters.

You don't need to be a superhuman genius or a firecracker burning fuses at both ends. You need to be real and human and present.

You need to be kind to yourself. Recognize that you are in a boat paddling upstream, against a hundred different currents, and some days it will take all your effort just to keep from being swept backwards.

You need not to compare. On any given day, you will be able to look around your school and see some teacher who seems to be absolutely killing it, absolutely putting you to shame. Let it go. She may have had one of those perfect storms that happen. She may be paying a price that you know nothing about.

Your students do not need someone who is larger than life, because that sends them the exact same message that is bugging you-- that human sized life is not enough.

And in a world in which so many people spend their lives in sad jobs, twisted  jobs, jobs that don't really need to be done, you are doing a job that is worth doing.

Yes, you need to care and try, and yes, the work of getting better and better at what you do is never ending (truly--I am retired and I still have the occasional flashes of "Oh, damn-- if I taught that unit this way instead of that way) and, yes, it's a very very bad sign if you are thinking that you have all the answers about how to teach and everything in the classroom that fails is the fault of those damned kids--

But life sized teaching is good. Teaching on the human scale, built on a relationship with your students that is human to human-- that is all good. You're an expert, a trained and experienced professional, doing work that most people can't, or won't, do, under conditions that are less than ideal with fewer resources than you really need. You are helping young humans become more fully themselves, learning how to be fully human in the world. It is hugely important work, but it is not work for a superhero or a larger than life ubermensch. It is work for a life-sized human.

1 comment:

  1. I've been trying to write an article about this very subject for quite a while and failed to get the words right. I think you nailed everything I was trying to say and then some. Excellent points! I wish I didn't have to remind myself of them so often...