7 Things I Wish People Understood about being a teacher

28 May

My cousin’s husband is part owner of vox.com so I do follow Vox online. I really enjoy their different and detailed take on the news. Plus its short and quick, to the point.

Take reason #5 which states:

“Enter the cult of the superteacher.

Common at charter schools, would-be superteachers are smart, sometimes masochistic 23-year-olds working 18-hour days to pump up test scores for a few years before moving on to administrative positions, law school, or nervous breakdowns. They embrace an unsustainable load. They tutor on Saturdays. They come in two hours early and stay until 10 pm.

The cult thrived where I once taught. Teachers were given Superman shirts at a staff meeting. The lounge was decorated with posters of Spider-Man and the Avengers. These icons symbolized the ridiculous expectation that, like caped vigilantes protecting a whole city, individual teachers should single-handedly fix society’s most pressing problems. I expect teachers to be great and reflect on ways to be greater. But when the school population swells by 30 percent in one year, with new ninth-graders coming in mostly from disastrously underperforming middle schools, making class sizes balloon, bad teaching isn’t likely to blame for a dip in test scores.

The cult of the superteacher encourages young teachers to forgo sleep and free time in order to keep their jobs. Many burn out and quit before they’ve really learned how to teach. High teacher turnover means potentially good teachers abandon the profession. It also destroys schools’ academic culture and rattles students.”

 

Here is a link to this article, but here reason #5 is what stood out the most:

 

Taken from http://www.vox.com/2015/7/29/9034235/teacher-common-core

 

Before I decided to teach high school, I made a list of the things I enjoy doing: discussing books and movies, playing music, being around kids, basketball, cooking. I ruled out a few career paths immediately. I knew from working restaurant jobs as a teenager that the lifestyle of a chef wouldn’t suit me. No professional basketball league was pathetic enough to let me in. I’d toured with some bands, but they were winding down, not up.

Soon, though, one profession emerged as an obvious choice: teaching. I envisioned sparking debates about important books and nurturing young writers. Maybe I’d even coach basketball or mentor teenage musicians. I entered UCLA’s master’s in education program and student-taught in Compton. Since then, I’ve worked at charter and public high schools in both Los Angeles and the Bay Area, teaching ninth, 10th, and 12th grade English, as well as journalism and, for one year, something heinous called “Grammar Lab.” I have primarily worked with low-income students, although recently my classroom has diversified to include more affluent kids as well.

As a teacher, I’ve learned a lot about education, but it’s also been a lens through which I’ve learned about everything else. Here are some important lessons I have taken away.

1) Teaching has made me smarter

Every year, I face 150 individuals with unique talents and backgrounds. Many will be first-generation college-goers. At home, some contend with abuse, addiction, gangs, and fractured families. I want them to leave my classroom smarter, kinder, and more self-possessed. I want their successes to contribute to a more equitable society. This effort inspires and challenges me. I know many of my teacher peers feel the same way.

Many years I teach the same books, but my approach depends on what’s happening outside the classroom. This past year, I taught Toni Morrison’s Beloved for the first time, using slave narratives, an excerpt from The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, and articles examining the legacy of slavery in America. We read about a new slavery museum and George Washington’s documented obsession with pursuing runaway slaves.

Few of my Latino and white students had thought seriously about black identity and experience in America. This investigation was the goal of the unit, not simply getting through an important novel. In 2016, the unit will accommodate the aftermath of the Charleston shootings, including President Obama’s eulogy, but who knows what else will beg for inclusion before March? I add a bookmark to the Beloved folder a few times a week.

To teach this way, I read and watch obsessively. I stir at 3 am with my mind racing and tap notes into my phone. Everything I learn is filtered through the possibility that it might be taught.

2) I became a much better teacher when I put my students in charge

When I started out, I saw teaching as a performance, a 10-month riff on a fluid script. I was good because I knew my stuff and could hold students’ attention. That’s not unusual: Many teachers have egocentric tendencies.

But if you rattle off 60-minute monologues peppered with witty asides, you might end up being not just a memorably strange teacher, but an ineffective one too.

While theatrics have a place, I learned that students learn best when class is interactive, a dialogue — not a one-sided transmission. At the end of my first year, I asked students for advice, and a precocious stoner wrote, “Make us talk more” in fat block letters on his suggestion card.

I read and watch obsessively. Everything I learn is filtered through the possibility that it might be taught.

I’d learned this in grad school, of course, but I’d also placed a lot of stock in my ability to make a story like The Odyssey resonate with ninth-graders. I’d congratulated myself on cleverly painting Telemachus as a rebellious teen struggling with his absentee father’s heavy shadow. I’d joked about rock star Odysseus’s meandering 10-year tour home, complete with drugs and groupies. I’d noticed students laughing. I’d also seen them falling asleep.

Now I let students perform skits, create posters, and participate in panel discussions. I have them teach mini-lessons to the class. I wrap up the conversation with a flourish if necessary, but I let them drive most of the way home. This approach makes my students feel valuable (which too many teenagers don’t) and helps build a community.

3) Standards like the Common Core do real harm in the wrong hands

I don’t hate the new Common Core State Standards. The high school English standards make some sense when reasonably applied: English teachers should teach a lot of nonfiction; teaching students how to think critically, argue, and support opinions is important; science and history classes should build reading and writing skills, too.

Still, the standards can be damaging when implemented irrationally.

Standards are too often treated as a replacement for what teachers once considered good teaching. The standards come with software, materials, curricula, and standardized tests. Consultants may come to school to explain what everyone should be doing in their classrooms.

Now I let students perform skits, create posters, and participate in panel discussions. I have them teach mini-lessons to the class. I wrap up the conversation with a flourish if necessary, but I let them drive most of the way home. This approach makes my students feel valuable (which too many teenagers don’t) and helps build a community.

3) Standards like the Common Core do real harm in the wrong hands

I don’t hate the new Common Core State Standards. The high school English standards make some sense when reasonably applied: English teachers should teach a lot of nonfiction; teaching students how to think critically, argue, and support opinions is important; science and history classes should build reading and writing skills, too.

Still, the standards can be damaging when implemented irrationally.

Standards are too often treated as a replacement for what teachers once considered good teaching. The standards come with software, materials, curricula, and standardized tests. Consultants may come to school to explain what everyone should be doing in their classrooms.

Some administrators may demand to see a Common Core standard written on the board for every lesson and pop into class without warning to make sure it’s there. They may require teachers to give more Common Core–aligned practice tests and examine the data to see if students (and teachers) are progressing. Meetings may end up addressing test data a lot more than the actual practice of teaching. In the frenzy, at some schools, at some point, talented, experienced teachers may lose classroom autonomy if, under increasingly watchful eyes, they can’t jump through the new hoops fast enough.

4) Teachers act like teenagers

High school teachers spend so much time around teenagers that they sometimes start to act like them. They doodle and text in staff meetings, pass notes during assemblies, and chat over a district official’s feeble defense of an unpopular software program. They gossip about administrators and other teachers. They gossip about students, too, though usually with affection or bewilderment as opposed to contempt. They bristle at a hint of micromanagement. They jam the copiers and slip out so they won’t have to take responsibility for their actions.

Needless to say, these are all behaviors we’d condemn in our classes. But we engage in them anyway.

5) The cult of the superteacher has got to go

I was at a party in Los Angeles with a friend who knows some people in the film business. He introduced me to an agent who, upon discovering that I taught, brought up the documentary Waiting for ‘Superman,’ which follows the stories of children entering a charter school lottery. “The problem is the unions,” he said, releasing his date’s arm so he could gesticulate more exuberantly. “The movie explains it! Schools get stuck with the bad teachers! It’s criminal!”

A Hollywood guy taking cues from a movie wasn’t surprising. Too many people think the problem with education hinges on the laziness and incompetence of teachers.

Enter the cult of the superteacher.

Common at charter schools, would-be superteachers are smart, sometimes masochistic 23-year-olds working 18-hour days to pump up test scores for a few years before moving on to administrative positions, law school, or nervous breakdowns. They embrace an unsustainable load. They tutor on Saturdays. They come in two hours early and stay until 10 pm.

The cult thrived where I once taught. Teachers were given Superman shirts at a staff meeting. The lounge was decorated with posters of Spider-Man and the Avengers. These

icons symbolized the ridiculous expectation that, like caped vigilantes protecting a whole city, individual teachers should single-handedly fix society’s most pressing problems. I expect teachers to be great and reflect on ways to be greater. But when the school population swells by 30 percent in one year, with new ninth-graders coming in mostly from disastrously underperforming middle schools, making class sizes balloon, bad teaching isn’t likely to blame for a dip in test scores.

The cult of the superteacher encourages young teachers to forgo sleep and free time in order to keep their jobs. Many burn out and quit before they’ve really learned how to teach. High teacher turnover means potentially good teachers abandon the profession. It also destroys schools’ academic culture and rattles students.

In reality, students need more than a superteacher to succeed in school. Along with robust school budgets and well-prepared teachers, the real solution, especially for America’s most marginalized students, includes livable wages, access to affordable child care, and law enforcement genuinely building trust in communities to make them safer. Reducing the problems in education to teacher performance ignores reality. Cults are all about that.

6) Summer vacations aren’t really breaks

When teachers complain about lesson-planning marathons and stacks of papers to grade, non-teacher friends call attention to summer vacation. Sure, the school year is rough, the argument goes, but then you get two whole months off. Not working for two months surely makes up for working so hard the rest of the year.

Here’s how summer vacation really unfolds for many of us.

For the first few weeks, we catch up on Netflix, read four or five books, stop shaving, drink beer in bed, enjoy air conditioning in excess, visit the pool, and text pictures of ourselves doing nothing to our non-teacher friends.

We go to the dentist and doctor.

In late June or early July, we travel somewhere. Halfway through the trip, we adopt austerity measures to make it through to our next paycheck in late September.

Then we read the emails our department head sent in late May. And that’s when reality really sets in.

 

We’re going to teach 10th grade, which we’ve never taught. We have to buy five new books, read them, take notes, build units and the skeletons of actual lessons, and find supplemental texts for each, as well — an article addressing the historical context, a poem commenting on a central theme, a documentary featuring the author. This all takes time.

When we’re piloting a new class, taking on a different grade, or simply changing, for fun or necessity, what we teach, we end up working much of the summer. Teachers also attend summer conferences and professional trainings, often paying their own way.

Just like artists and entrepreneurs — or anyone deeply committed to what they do — most teachers don’t stop working on vacation, even when they spend the other 10 months of the year logging 65 hours a week.

7)  Teaching has made me a better person

Teaching is a humbling experience, an opportunity to be educated in empathy and human possibility. I have had to engage all manner of students — dark, teary kids who fill lined paper with open-hearted scribbles, gawky science dudes who can’t speak in public without covering their eyes with a palm, recent immigrants working 30 hours a week to help support their families, angry kids with violent parents, kids who try, with hoodies and downcast eyes, to be invisible. I’ve had to accept that they do not always respond well to my efforts.

The temptation, of course, is to not devote so much attention to the challenging kids — to focus on the stellar athlete who shreds on the saxophone and grins like Tom Cruise circa 1986. Circa ’86 Tom Cruise doesn’t need anyone’s help to become a doctor. He brims with self-assured charisma. I can’t count the number of times I have heard a teacher marvel over a student who writes like a graduate student with zero guidance. I marvel, too, at the teenage grad students.

But I’ve realized how important it is to make time for the vulnerable kids who can’t hide their idiosyncrasies. When I was a kid, I was more like some of them than I was ’86 Tom Cruise. The longer I teach, the more I remember how much I needed support and validation when I was their age — and the more I am compelled to give them that

support, no matter how hard it can be sometimes.

I am pretty sure that most of my students benefit from the encouragement I give them. But I am absolutely certain that my work has dramatically changed the life of one person in particular: me. Since I became a teacher, I’ve grown much more patient with adults. When I played in bands, I alienated collaborators because I saw our partnership as an opportunity to impose my will. I was a raging control freak, agonizing over our songs and touring plans until I suffered anxiety attacks.

When I worked at law firms, I treated a partner with poor social skills with total disdain. If I was out at a bar with friends and a new acquaintance voiced an opinion I thought ridiculous, I said so, loudly.

Teaching, thankfully, has helped me judge everyone less readily. Now, in conversations, I try to talk less and listen more. I have realized that self-confidence and trust breed comfort and productivity in working relationships. Teaching may be about elevating the opportunities and talents of others, but I’ve still yet to find a better way to work toward becoming a better person.

Andrew Simmons is a high school teacher in California. He has written for the New York Times, the Atlantic, San Francisco Chronicle, and the Believer.

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