Think of something you love.
Not a person – a topic. A hobby. A personal passion.
Now pretend that it’s very important to you to share this passion with others. In fact, you’re getting PAID to spread this interest and your expertise. This is exhilarating and terrifying, because on the one hand you’re being given the opportunity to make a career out of something you deeply care about, but on the other… this passion is part of what defines you.
It’s personal. It matters to you. You care whether or not it’s done WELL.
Still – GIDDY!
Plot Twist: Most of those with whom you’ll be sharing are here against their will and care nothing about your topic, nor do they wish to. Also, they’re supposed to be learning about six other things they don’t care about all at the same time.
But nothing’s perfect, amiright? And besides, surely once they’re exposed to what you’re really talking about, they’ll start to love it a LITTLE – how could they not? Your interest wasn’t planned or forced – you can’t HELP but dive in. It’s naturally engaging! It’s just a matter of lighting the first few candles in the bucket, surely.
How will you begin?
Well, you should put together some sort of high-interest discussion-starter to get them talking about your passion. You labor for hours trying to find the right entrance point – something accessible, but relevant.
Something rich in possibilities, but which still clearly lays the groundwork for where you’ll go next. You research, you revisit, you consider various mediums – a presentation of some sort, or a reading – maybe some audio or visual stimuli. Oh! Oh! Where is that one thing you used to have, with the stuff that was so—THAT?! You need THAT! Boy howdy, we are rolling now. A few dozen hours, and Day One is going to ROCK. THEIR. WORLDS.
OK, what next? Some content – some background – some substance to build on yesterday…
Plot Twist: Tomorrow’s schedule will be entirely different to accommodate some sort of school assembly, and there’s a fire drill, despite all the construction. Oh – and don’t forget the anti-bullying video you’re required to show. That’s fine… it’s just that nothing you have planned will actually work now and you’ll have to rethink it all. It’s now nearly 1 a.m. and you’ll deal with it in the morning.
You press on bravely and creatively, full of vigor and highly qualified by any measure. You differentiate, you target different learning styles, and you make sure to effectively incorporate some of that technology the district is so excited about. Mostly, though, you woo, cajole, and inspire the $%&#@ out of that content and those skills! You leave it all on the podium all day, every hour.
Most of your kids politely go through the motions. A few overdo it, but as overachievers rather than converts. Several fall asleep or zone out watching trashy videos and eventually you give up redirecting them. Their total efforts combined don’t come anywhere close to what you poured into preparing.
Plot Twist: Your principal happened to drop by to observe for nine minutes and wonders why you’re not doing more differentiation or incorporating more technology. For the rest of the day you fight petty resentment of your students for that part.
You resent his comments from the observation as well, but you don’t fight those feelings so much.
It's not that teaching is always complicated or demands superhuman self-sacrifice – we’re not Gandhi or Peter Parker. But if you’re not careful, it can drain you like a vampire with an eating disorder. (Not the kind where they’d drink less blood, though. One where they drink more. Lots more. So that you’re— look, it can be draining, OK?)
I hate this meme. I’m pretty sure most educators do. It comes up from time to time on social media, and consensus is that it’s dysfunctional and far too martyr-ry.
Like most irritating things, though, there’s enough truth mixed in to make it sticky – like Dr. Phil, or napalm. There’s nothing particularly noble about destroying yourself in the delusion that it “lights the way” for others (unless, I suppose, your goal is to model self-destruction). But the teacher-student relationship is in many ways one-directional, and without some self-awareness and waxy buildup outside of the school day, it will wear you away.
See, by and large, teenagers don’t give back. Many of them simply can’t – they don’t have it in their skill set, or they lack the emotional surplus. Some probably could, but they just don’t – life is complicated enough when you’re 16, and it’s not an especially self-aware time of life in terms of our impact on others.
And honestly, it’s not really their job at this point. For educators, just inculcating the awareness in some of them that there ARE other people in the world who have actual thoughts and feelings, and that part of being human is learning to accommodate such inconveniences, can be a herculean (and oddly controversial) task.
The opposite can be just as challenging, as many of our best young spawn can’t imagine that their broken universe isn’t somehow their fault, and they’re terrified the rest of us will figure it out soon and come for them.
They are consumed with inadequacies, guilts, and fears that are not their own, but inflicted on them from every direction.
That doesn’t mean they’re not fully enjoyable. Many are amusing, thoughtful, engaging, or otherwise pleasant – it’s like they’re almost people sometimes. They’ll surprise you with what they can do when you least expect it – then crush your hopes with the most bizarre cluelessness just to keep you on your toes. They’re like walking-meat versions of Alexa or Android Auto.
“OK, Google – please play more music by this artist.”
“Sure. Asking to play more music by *pause* ‘Mike Doughty’. This artist was also in *pause* ‘Soul Coughing’. Would you like to include *pause* ‘Soul Coughing’ in your playlist as well? I can shuffle the tracks for maximum emotional variety and turn up the volume when I register that you are singing along.”
“Thanks, Google! That’s very—”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand that command. Try speaking more clearly or using different words.”
“Never mind, I just—”
“You must have a subscription to Google Play to access music from *pause* ‘Nevermind’ by *pause* Nirvana.
“No, I – just play this artist.”
“I am unable to find music in your library by *pause* ‘This’.
“No. Cancel. Play music by ‘Mike Doughty’.”
“Searching for ‘No Cancel’. I will now lock into an eternal ‘thinking’ loop until you hate everything about technology...”
We can love our students and expect a great deal of them academically, but whatever we walk away with from the experience has to be built on internal foundations – constructed fulfillment based on our perceptions of their growth, their understanding, their happiness.
The hours you put in on content, on activities, on logistics, aren’t theirs to reward. Whatever time you give to their joys or terrors has to be entirely out of your professional surplus. The moment you begin needing anything back from them is the moment the relationship is out of balance.
And you don’t always see it coming.
The last time I ‘lost it’ with a class was over them… talking. Cutting up. Not knowing where the lines were for informality. I snapped and left the room rather than saying something truly ugly which I hoped I didn’t really mean, but might have.
But it wasn’t about the talking – that’s a classroom management issue. It was about how desperately I was busting my @$$ trying to figure out what would be effective with this group – how to accommodate who they were and where they were at academically and emotionally while still clinging to the expectations of the district and the course. I loved them, but I was burnt down trying to make it work – and they didn’t appreciate it AT ALL, the little $(@#&$!
I’d lost too much wax. When a 15-year old is getting under your skin, something is out-of-kilter – something not 15 years old.
You can’t fix all of it. Hell, sometimes you can’t fix ANY of it. All you can do is try one more time to bring your topic to life, and connect it to what you know of them. You try to listen, and to remain aware. From time to time you offer encouragement or resources. You’ll probably never be quite sure if you’re actually helping, or just filling space. And they’re teenagers – their reality is their reality. Doesn’t mean it’s not true – it just means it’s not always the same type of true.
Then YOU WALK AWAY AND DO THINGS UNRELATED TO SCHOOL. You talk shop with a few colleagues, but you refuse to ONLY talk shop – especially with family and other friends. You try to have a life of some sort.
Honestly, you’re better in class when you’re not always in class. That doesn’t mean be lazy, or that there aren’t weeks (or years) that are a helluva lot more work than others, but you gotta have OTHER stuff – or those kids are all you have.
And that’s not good for you. Or them. Ever.
Go add some wax.
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