Like George Costanza, I’m Trying to End on a High Note

Much of my year of teaching at a large urban high school is now just a blur of half-remembered chaos, but there are a few moments which have stuck in my mind with a sharpness and clarity that make me suspect they will remain with me forever.  One of those moments involved my student DeeDee coming up to my desk and saying in a loud voice for everyone to hear, “Um.  I put my tampon in REALLY far this morning, and now I can’t get it out.”  She pretended to try to stifle her laughter, while the other students shouted, “Ew!” or laughed hysterically.

At the time, it was a challenge, a way of hazing the new teacher, testing the mettle of the short, nerdy, glasses-wearing white girl who was in way over her head.  It was a daily game between my students and me, one they might have named, “Let’s see if she calls me on my shit.”  The game lasted several rounds and many months, but I guess I must have won somehow: Months later, during a break from school, I ran into DeeDee downtown when we were both out shopping.  When she spotted me, she ran up to me yelling, “Miss Fidelly!  Miss Fidelly!” (her own variation on my last name), her arms spread wide to give me a hug.  It was like that there, with the kids–one minute they’re doing their best to keep you at a distance; the next they’re embracing you with genuine warmth on a drizzly San Francisco street corner.

I teach university students now, not high school, but there are still students who challenge my authority before they accept what I have to say.  Though it can be rewarding to have one of the “difficult” students suddenly turn around and start taking herself, the material, and you seriously, the journey to that point is mostly just exhausting.  Whereas in my first few years of teaching I couldn’t wait to go to work everyday, I now just feel drained most of the time.  Oddly, though, my students don’t seem to have noticed: My most recent rating on Rate My Professor notes that I am (apparently) “always perky and nice.”  A friend explained why this might be the case in an email to me the other day.  She wrote, “You are a teacher at heart, my dear.  Which is not to say that you are fated to live the life of a teacher, but you do love your students and what you do.”

I have been counting the days till the end of this school year, but I know that my friend is also right: I am sick of the low pay, bored of the paper-grading, and tired of the emotional toll this job takes, yet I do still love my students–or, I love many of them, and I do want them to do well.  But I am still leaving the profession–and I want to leave now, while I still feel this way, rather than to stay too long, stay till the point that I am forever bitter and full of reproach.

* * * * *

I have literally spent my entire adult life thus far working in education.  When I graduated high school, I immediately started work as a teacher’s aide in the English department of my alma mater.  From the start, I loved working with students; there was a very particular thrill that came with being a part of someone else’s learning process.  I still remember the first time I noticed that a student with whom I had been working had learned something–not memorized and regurgitated information on a test, but actually learned.  I was helping her with an essay on Inherit the Wind, and suddenly she said that the ignorance of the people in the story reminded her of Plato’s “Parable of the Cave,” because the characters in Inherit the Wind–just like the people in the cave–could only see what was in front of them; they couldn’t open their minds enough to consider other possibilities.  It may not sound like the most earth-shattering pronouncement, but coming from an eleventh grader it was a pretty good insight, particularly because this student was really struggling with English, and also because she had read the Plato piece a full year before, in tenth grade, yet she remembered it and was connecting it to this new text she was reading.  The “Parable of the Cave” was no longer just something she read in school, but now was part of the lens through which she looked at the world.  For me this moment was so profound; it was a tangible sign that education mattered, that what you did in your classroom could truly affect the way someone might think about themselves and those around them.

In the years since this first discovery, I have come to see that teaching is a profession in which the good days are as good as a good workday can get; those are the moments when I come into the classroom to hear my students talking about the reading before class has even begun; or the days when a student who has been struggling all semester with the material suddenly just starts “getting it,” and it’s all I can do not to break down into giddy spells of laughter over how exciting it is to see someone mastering skills that have, for weeks, eluded her.  How can you help but feel very lucky to be part of what has made that moment possible?

The other side of the coin, of course, is that teaching’s bad days are somehow particularly bad–exhausting in a way that few other jobs are.  In theory, you the teacher are responsible for several young minds every semester; yet the students, too, bear a certain measure of responsibility for their own learning–especially when they are students in a university.  More and more, however, I often feel like I am putting more time and effort into my students’ progress than they are contributing to the endeavor themselves.  That is not to say that all of my students are whiny, lazy, feckless brats–just that some of them, in fact, are, and the number that are seems to be increasing.

And this is not just my perception alone; one need only to scan the reviews on Rate My Professors to see how often raters say things like, “You really do need to buy the books for this class,” or “Be sure to attend class if you want to pass.”  I had assumed these behaviors were givens for success in college: Yes, you have to buy the required books–and read them!–to do well.  Yes, you have to attend the classes in which you are enrolled.  But a shockingly large number of students will turn in work without having read the material–and yes, sometimes without ever having bought the required texts in the first place–yet will still feel they have the right to complain and make it somehow their professor’s fault when their “work” earns a failing grade.

Had I left my job this time last year, I would have ended things on a particularly awful note, coming out of a semester in which I had several students who bitched about everything–their grades, the assignments, the reading material.  One student in particular exhibited behavior that bordered on the realm of harassment, refusing to sit down when he would come to my office, sending me outrageous and demanding emails, complaining about me to the Associate Dean.  This student felt that my grading of his writing was too harsh; yet at the same time, he was denied admission to graduate school because he couldn’t pass the written portion of the GRE.  In an especially exasperating twist: after everything this student put me through throughout the semester, he still had the nerve to ask if I would tutor him over the summer.

After that experience, I was not looking forward to coming back for another year of teaching; I was tired of the animosity and antagonism, and I felt that much of the idealism I had when I started teaching had been replaced by hopelessness and frustration; it was hard for me to imagine how I could enjoy another year of this job.  But this spring I had an amazing, bright, engaging class of sophomores that were a real pleasure to teach.  They all thanked me for the class at the end, and many said they were better writers–and better thinkers–after the class.  Meanwhile, one of my freshmen wrote this to me, in a cover letter that accompanied his final paper for the class: “I can say that I am truly grateful, Ms. F____, to have had you as a teacher because you pushed us to reach our full potential.”

Though it might seem paradoxical for me to say this, it feels good to leave things this way, before I’ve stopped being able to  envision my students’ potential, and while they still realize–even if they do so sometimes grudgingly–that I’ve been trying to make them reach it all along.

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About Sarah

Grammar goddess, cultural critic, full-time media junkie. I read, I bake, I watch tv. And then I write about it.
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3 Responses to Like George Costanza, I’m Trying to End on a High Note

  1. sdreader says:

    Great essay! As a teacher, I really relate to so much of what you say, especially the quote from your friend who told you you were a teacher at heart.
    Just yesterday I was looking back at some pictures I took of my class from three years ago; a class of students that was not the easiest to deal with. Looking at the pictures and the cute video in which all of their nine-year-old energy shines through, I thought, “Why did I think they were such pains in the ass?” I guess I really did love them after all!
    By the way, what DID you say to DeeDee after she made that tampon exclamation?

  2. verbalcupcake says:

    Ha! Well, I think memory has a way of making things seem better than they actually were, so it’s possible your students were indeed pains in the ass!

    As for DeeDee, I told her, “Well, that sounds like something you should see the nurse about,” and handed her a pass to the office. She just took her seat.

  3. Pingback: Schooled by the L.A. Times: The good, the bad, and the ugly of ‘Who’s teaching L.A.’s Kids?’ « Verbal Cupcake

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