Wednesday, March 16, 2011

I'm a mediocre teacher

It's story time. I imagine all of you sitting on a colorful rug in front of me, maybe pulling each other's hair or refusing to sit in one place for longer than three seconds. It's annoying. Stop it.

Most of you know that I went to college to be a teacher and also that when I graduated, I swore off ever teaching. When I told my parents I was moving to Korea to teach, the first thing they said (even before "aren't you worried about North Korea?") was "but you hate teaching." It's true. I did. And here's the mysterious why.

During my student teaching, I was overly idealistic. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was going to be the best teacher any of those high schoolers had ever seen. I made all my own lesson plans, despite having a veteran teacher at my disposal with proven-to-actually-work ideas. I stayed up until midnight coming up with the most creative ways to teach things I had never heard of, and I planned out my lessons down to the minute. I was going to be Teacher of the Year before I ever got my license, and my students were all going to become English teachers because of my sheer awesomeness. Until I actually got into the classroom.

Teaching is hard. When you care about the students more than you care about your paycheck (you don't get paid to student teach, so I obviously did), you realize the incredible responsibility you've been given. High school students might think they're invincible, but they're really quite insecure and awkward. They're going through a time in their lives when they're sure they know everything, but as any adult can tell you with complete confidence from the other side, they still have so much to learn. Of course, if you ever tell a high school student this, they'll hate you for all eternity. They're just precious like that.

The first few weeks of student teaching, I was exhausted but happy. I knew I loved literature and I knew I was entertaining enough to make my class as fun as Brit Lit can be for teenagers (so, more fun than a root canal, but less fun than a half dozen papercuts). I enjoyed the new stories and plays I was teaching, even if I did have to stay up all night the night before to actually get the reading done. Some of the kids came in before school to discuss Shakespeare with me, and I had kids who weren't even in my classes saying hi to me in the hallway. My very first lesson, an intro to sonnets, had nearly every student in the class in tears, sharing in each other's pain and connecting with music and poetry. My cooperating teacher leaned over to me during that lesson and whispered, "Don't forget this moment. Not every day will be like this, but the whole reason you teach is to find magic like this." I smiled, but inside I was laughing. My teaching career was certain to be *filled* with days like that!

Fast forward two months, and you'll find me sobbing in the teachers' bathroom. Okay, so rewind about an hour.

One morning, I had a meeting on campus and had to miss part of my teaching day, so my cooperating teacher taught the lesson I had planned. I gave her all the notes, and she followed them perfectly. When I returned, she told me about the lesson and how wonderful and enriching it had been for all the students. Of course, I thought, it's fabulous. The following morning, I taught the exact same lesson with the exact same notes to another class of kids, but with a completely different outcome.

As I started in on the prior knowledge questions, the kids weren't really responding in the way I had hoped. I decided perhaps it was just a bad morning, so I dove right into the story we were reading and started asking how they felt about it. The more I pressed, the more they recoiled; we were getting nowhere. Instead of swallowing my pride and starting over, I shoved my way forward, pelting the kids with questions that didn't make any sense since we hadn't established any of the prior knowledge bases. They said they didn't understand, and I was beyond frustrated because I knew they could; they were just being lazy (in my mind). Eventually, I threw a hissy fit and gave up, stomping over to my chair and refusing to continue the lesson.

My cooperating teacher was shaking with anger, but she handled the situation with fabulous poise. As soon as the kids filed out, she asked me what I could have done differently and why the lesson didn't work. I started crying.

Although I am the kind of girl who cries when I'm angry, hungry, cold, or just because it's a Tuesday, I was crying this time because I had failed. It was my fault the kids weren't understanding the story, and it was my fault I couldn't control my temper long enough to help them. I hadn't respected them, and I felt unbelievable remorse. That was the day I gave up on wanting to be a teacher.

I didn't walk out of the building or change my major; I was too far into college to justify that. That day, however, I started looking for other life paths that didn't include dry erase boards or dead-white-guy literature. In the months (and years) that followed, I planned out a few dozen different lives for myself, and not a single one of them had me in a classroom.

Then I moved to Korea.

I knew before I got here that kindergarten wasn't my thing. I lasted about two months at a daycare before I chose being unable to buy food over working with toddlers. When my boss came to me earlier this week and insisted that I sing a clean-up song every time the kids put their toys away, I made a mental note to just never let them play with toys again to avoid having to sing that stupid song. I'm not sure why I thought I'd magically transform into Mary Poppins when I got in front of a classroom full of really small people, but teaching kindergarten has taught me some things that I'm certainly better off knowing.

Everything that's worth doing takes practice. I didn't want to be a teacher because I knew I wasn't the absolute best on day one. When things take work, I typically abandon them. I'm blessed to be really good at the institution of school, which means not necessarily that I'm smart but that I know how to play the game well. I can have no idea what a writing prompt is asking and still get an A on the essay, not because I'm a genius but because I know how to write what teachers want to read. I'm pretty good at social situations, not because I'm the friendliest or most out-going person in the room but because I know how basic human interactions are supposed to work. I approach everything in life like it's a big game, but I only play the parts I know I'm really good at.

Teaching is different, though, because I'm not very good yet. I know what good teachers do, but I can't for the life of me get it right all the time. I'd say I'm a good teacher maybe 60% of the time; the other 40% I'm faking it (and when I say "it", I mean "absolutely everything"). For the first time in my life, though, I desperately want to get better at something. I want to work really hard at something I'm only mediocre at doing until one day I'm actually great. I've finally given myself permission to fail sometimes, and it feels like such a huge weight has been lifted. Yeah, sometimes I'm still going to suck. Sometimes I'm going to sing "Five Little Monkeys" in different voices for forty-five minutes straight and call it a lesson. But sometimes, I'm going to ask my kids what the days of the week are, and they're going to answer me (in order!) and I'm going to have succeeded. At first those moments will be few and far between, but they'll get better. I just have to keep practicing.


  1. My first day of field experience junior year my cooperating teacher needed to control the sugar induced insanity among her 3rd period 7th graders. She leaned in and said, "Watch this." She walked over to close the door calmly, but slammed instead. She got very serious and all the kids quieted down as she delivered the best guilt-inducing I'm disappointed in you speech I've ever heard. I still remember her facial expressions. I felt guilty and convicted and I just met the lady! The class got calm and several kids said they were sorry for how they acted and she finished the lesson. After words she told me how half of her teaching is acting. And I've never forgotten that! Sometimes teaching is secretly lying about your emotions, knowledge, and skills and just fooling your students. Which I've learned can actually be quite fun!And surprisingly effective...

    Haha all this to say that I know EXACTLY how you feel. Keep on keepin' on Sticks! You're great!



  2. High five for exploiting what you're naturally good at and pretending the rest isn't important!

    Nikki, it is great to hear you've found something you can truly apply yourself to, not only to better yourself but the lives and futures those around you.

    In the meantime, I'll just keep making the big bucks and dating supermodels with my unnatural ability to dominate at Parcheesi. At least until I can figure out something worthwhile do do with my life.

    (seriously, I've never lost a game)