Thursday, October 18, 2007

What's my Job Again?

When I first started teaching, it astounded me how quickly teaching my classes didn’t seem like enough in the school culture. “Good” teachers, I learned, did lots more than teach effectively. What would I sponsor? Would I like to coach? How about committee work? Ironically, these additional pursuits sometimes take much more of my focus than actually teaching my students. This week, I’m coordinating a conference and distributing a department-wide exam, and I’m embarrassed to say, when my students asked me questions after class, I felt like they were distracting me from my “real work,” keeping me from what I’m at school to do. Nutty, right?

Ultimately, all the additional projects I take on are rooted in the goal of “helping students” or “improving education.” It pains me that those very pursuits I give my extra hours to also drain me of some patience and interest in my actual, flesh-and-blood students. “I’ve answered that already,” I’ll think to myself as a question forms on a student’s lips. “Does this story have a point?” I’ll wonder when my committee work obligations pile up or the club I sponsor is having a candy sale. I feel like a parent writing an essay on the joys of raising a child as said child cries for attention in another room…

I’m not sure why the “extra” jobs in education fill me with a greater sense of urgency than teaching does. In part, I think it’s because those jobs offer a higher profile and greater variety than teaching. If I work really hard on the literary magazine, the principal is more likely to hear about it and compliment me than if my lessons are excellent and my patience un-ending day after day. Working with discouraged learners, I’ve determined that consistency is the way to go. Consistency in my lessons and management style creates a successful, stable climate, but like with a good, nutritious diet, doing the right thing can get old. I think I get sucked in by the variety of skills and ideas I get to use with an “extra” project like organizing a professional development day. It mixes things up a little…

These concrete tasks also give me a greater sense of accomplishment because I can actually see that I did it, and I did it well; they can be quantified. The department exam gets distributed successfully: clear directions, numbered tests, reasonable deadlines. The professional development day goes well: enough parking, yummy lunch, meaningful presentations. The markers of a successful semester aren’t as easy for me to identify even after years of teaching. Some students understand while others don’t. Some students grow while others struggle. For how much can I take the credit or the blame? The favored metaphor is that teachers “plant the learning seeds,” which while lovely, also means we might not have the student anymore when the time comes to assess the harvest.

My students weather my extraneous education deadlines; they understand that teachers have stresses that ebb and flow, too, and they expect me to reciprocate to the rhythms of their own lives. I just like to remind myself that teaching them well is the point of what I do despite the fact that I can’t measure it. While I might be wooed by the singular jobs that come my way, teaching students well and patiently is my chosen work. I hope I get through this week without thinking too often, “Gosh, as soon as I teach my classes, I’ll be ready to start working!”

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher


Mary Ellen Dakin said...

Our real work takes place inside a classroom or lab, on a stage, in a library, on a bus, at a field site, and late at night and on weekends when we sit down with a fresh stack of student papers. But it’s lonely. I know this is one of our profession’s enduring clichés, but it’s true. I sometimes think that only a teacher truly knows the irony of being alone, day after day, in a crowd.

We know our students and we love our books, but we thirst for professional community, for the human consolation that comes from time spent with colleagues, venting and wondering and questioning the work we do with adolescents.

Our real work is too often rigid and inflexible. We work at an unnatural pace, from bell to bell, and with the passing of the years it becomes more difficult, not less, to divide and compact life into 53-minute increments. We get to school early and we leave late, and we’re never caught up. Our real work feels impossible.

Last winter, I started tracking my hours because I couldn’t understand why after twenty years of full-time teaching, a corner of me had become angry. I hate admitting that, it sounds mean-spirited, and we need to be a profession that rises from the ashes of anger, but I was exhausted by the daily grind of five classes and three different preps – World Literature, AP English Language & Composition, and the Shakespeare elective, 110 students (other teachers had more), committee work, mentoring, presentations, parent / dean / counselor conferences, and a district initiative to lengthen the school day and school year. My brain told me that low-income, urban students benefit from a longer school day, but my heart was too tired to hear. As I kept track of the hours spent each week teaching, preparing and revising lesson plans, grading papers, and attending meetings, I learned that I was averaging 55 hours a week, but only getting the credit society begrudges to our profession. We’ve all been told by someone how lucky we are, how our day ends at mid-afternoon, how we get all those school vacations including summer. I can’t remember a summer in twenty years when I didn’t spend significant time taking courses and preparing to do a better job in September. We are lucky, but not because of our schedules.

Our real work requires reflection, but thinking and talking and writing about teaching is a siren’s song we are almost forced to ignore. Right now, I should be working on that 90-minute vocabulary workshop I’ll be presenting next week at my school or reading the film scripts my Shakespeare students handed in today. I’ll do these things, but the temptation to respond to your question, “What’s my job again?” was too great to ignore. So would the schedule gods please find a way to recognize that effective teachers need more time in their rigid, crowded, lonely days to take stock, to reflect, and to synthesize? These things aren’t likely to happen in the company of twenty-five restless, needy adolescents or in the five minutes between periods. They happen when we step outside our classrooms, literally and figuratively, to coordinate, collaborate, and investigate.

The problem is not the job. It’s the job description. Those “extras” that keep us going are essential.

Anonymous said...

Mary Ellen, I think you're right. I hadn't thought about it before your comments, but the collaborative nature of my "extra" projects does assuage my loneliness in the classroom and provide me with a community I don't otherwise have. It's not that my department isn't supportive; it's just that ultimately, we don't really witness each other's classroom challenges like we share the responsibilities of other things we take on in the school. Thanks for your insightful comment!