Responsibility in Teaching

Yesterday I was giving a lesson to one of my seventh grade classes. The class had read an excerpt from a story, and were basically asked to memorize the excerpt and come back to class ready to recite it and/or answer direct factual questions from the text, such as “what does Pete look like?” or “who is Mr. Potter?” I wrote in my notebook (I take notes about every class… crazy, I know) that I wondered if the students actually understood the story. I asked my coteacher if I could ask the students some questions, and I began to ask the students to figure out what the story was. What part of the story was the excerpt from? Who were the good guys and the bad guys? What would most likely happen at the end of the story? I went over introductions, conflict, change, and resolution. At one point I used Harry Potter characters to illustrate “protagonist” or “good guys” and “antagonist” or “bad guys,” since the whole class had read the books and/or seen the movies. Harry Potter is great for that – it’s in like hundreds of languages and it might be the closest thing to a universally known story that the world has. Anyway, I felt like the lesson went well, and my coteacher complimented me on it, so I was feeling pretty good.

And then I looked down and saw the writing in one of the girls’ notebooks. It was the previous lesson that I had given (coincidentally, the Justin Bieber lesson); she had taken notes, pretty much verbatim, from what I had written on the board. Even the title, “Prepositional ‘to’ and ‘for’ in verbs with two objects,” that I had basically just taken word for word from one of the articles I had read while researching said lesson. Anyway, for some reason, it shocked me.

It sounds stupid, right? Like, of course when I was in school, I took verbatim notes of everything my teachers wrote on the board. It’s just that coming at it from the other side is really scary. Everything I write – every mistake I make, every good choice and bad choice of explanations or examples – it’s all going down in this child’s notebook and, if she’s anything like me, it could remain in that notebook, in a closet in her parents’ house, for the rest of her life. It’s just a lot of pressure.

And I know that the students will absorb information from me, and their English will be influenced by my English, for better or worse, but it’s somehow different when it’s written, recorded, when it’s potentially something the students might study from. It made me feel incredibly important but also incredibly intimidated. It makes me feel motivated to do a good job.

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And of course there’s the other side of things – the motivation not to do a bad job. My experience of going through the New York City public school system was bad. Very bad. It left me with issues that problems that I spent the better part of my twenties trying to sort out. It colored my entire experience of childhood, because for every one good childhood memory I have a hundred memories of being treated very, very poorly by students, teachers, and school administrators. And obviously I can’t blame teachers for all of it, but basically whenever I had any kind of problem in school, I could count on my teachers to make it worse. I could rant for pages and pages and pages about every individual case when I was wronged by a teacher or by the school administration, but I won’t – it doesn’t serve any cause and this blog isn’t meant to be therapy for me. Let’s just say that, fair or not, my attitude towards teachers in America was very negative, very bitter, to the point where if someone told me that they were a teacher I would literally become angry with them on behalf of all the students like me that they were probably damaging for life.

And of course that’s foolish, for so many reasons – I can’t blame all teachers, past, present, and future, for the actions of the few individual teachers who traumatized me in ways that I may never recover from. I’m just acutely aware that anything I do in my capacity as teacher has the potential to ripple outward and have great consequences – good, or bad – in another person’s life.

And I know I’m just a subject teacher, and I’m only with each class one or two times a week, and I don’t even speak their literal native language, and so realistically I probably won’t have a large impact on anyone’s life – I seriously doubt whether in twenty years any of these students will remember me – but it’s not so much about that. It’s more that I feel like I owe it to myself to try to understand and relate to these kids in ways that my teachers never seemed to understand or relate to me. What I wanted most in my education, and never seemed to get, was the feeling that someone up there in the endless parade of teachers and principals and deans was actually paying attention to me and reacting to my individual persona, rather than executing a program written for somebody else that crashed every time it encountered me because the programmers chose to ignore the fact that people like me existed.

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I guess what I’m saying is that the full weight of the responsibility that I have as a teacher is starting to dawn on me. And maybe I’m overstating it, just because for me personally the issue of the student-teacher relationship has been so problematic, and I feel like many of my public school teachers, especially in my younger years, largely did me a disservice, and I don’t want to be the guy to revisit their mistakes upon a generation of Georgian students.

I remember one particular English teacher that I had – Ms. Chaffer, I think her name was – who I really liked. She taught seventh grade English, but she would put a foreign phrase on the blackboard every week – usually French or Latin, something like “tempus fugit” or “faux pas” – and I always found them fascinating, for some reason. I don’t remember a single lesson or conversation that I had with this teacher – I just remember that she was kind, and supportive, and concerned, and that she was one of the first teachers I ever had who liked to give a little something extra to the class, something perhaps outside the scope of the curriculum – something for those of us who were paying attention and who wanted more out of school than just a diploma.

Ultimately I’m feeling a great deal more motivation and a great deal more responsibility in this job than I ever have before. I feel like my whole life has led up to this moment – like I can walk into the classroom and be like Ms. Chaffer, and actually teach someone something that maybe another teacher wouldn’t have taught them, like I can help to create unique and interesting individuals. I feel like I can make a lasting impression on the world, and, in doing so, start to feel a little less badly about the impression that the world has left on me.

I thought a lot of things about teaching – I thought it would be challenging, difficult, taxing, stressful, and possibly, at the end of the day, rewarding – but I never thought it would be inspiring. I never thought it could potentially fill a hole in my life that I had forgotten was even there.

Then again, this is my impression after one week. Talk to me again after a year and I’m sure the numerous challenges and difficulties will have started to make themselves apparent.

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Also, as much as school sucked for me, it could have been worse.

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3 Responses to Responsibility in Teaching

  1. ---> says:

    > I seriously doubt whether in twenty years any of these students will remember me

    I don’t remember any of my teachers from the middle school but every single one from the high school despite the fact that 23 years have passed since graduation.

  2. ConnieF says:

    “I feel like my whole life has led up to this moment”
    As the Dalai Lama has said “Love your enemies because they are the creators of your destiny”.
    I’ve discovered that many times in my life, what I thought was the worst possible thing that could happen to me turned out to be (later on, sometimes MUCH later on) a huge blessing.
    There is a saying in the Bible “God will give us beauty for ashes”.
    How wonderful that you can see this at work in your own life: the ashes of your terrible school experience have given rise to the Phoenix of your new passion.

    My heartfelt congrats on pressing past the hurt to find the jewels within, then using those gems to help others. In this way we participate in the transformation not only of ourselves, but of the whole world.

  3. Tenisha Belanger says:

    Loved this one Neal!

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