catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 17 :: 2011.09.30 — 2011.10.13


A tale of three or four teachers

My father spent twenty-five years as the principal of a boys’ training school in southern Michigan. Although getting up in years now, he is still a man of venerable stature: legs long enough to evoke jealousy in the most high-minded supermodel, and hands as big as flapjacks. The most telling feature of his septuagenarian frame, however, is his bald spot. Not simply the result of age or excess testosterone, my father’s bald spot is a workplace injury, with a story so rich and ritualized in its telling that the open landscape of skin has acquired near mythological significance. As my paternal grandmother used to tell it, my father, in his stead as disciplinarian, acquired his white patch of courage whilst breaking up a fight between two of his students. Here it is important to note that the “training” these “boys” underwent was legally mandated, as the school was in fact a maximum-security prison for underage offenders. In the midst of the fight, as the story goes, one of the young men pulled (from some unbeknownst magical place) a cast iron skillet (or was it a crowbar?) and hit my father square in the head with it. My father fell to the ground, barely conscious but vindicated. The boys ceased their fighting and were, presumably, taken off to unknown haunts for a proper reprimand. My father, ox that he is, swiftly recovered with nothing lost but minor follicular functioning and perhaps a bit of ego. He went on to teach and principal his way through more than a decade, then retired to go back to school for a PhD in Gerontology. Old people, he probably figured, have poorer aim and aren’t as likely to lug cast iron skillets around in their pants.

My mom spent over twenty years teaching elementary students. Between bearing six daughters and doing the dishes, she somehow found time to go back to school for her Master’s in Special Education, an area she, in her compassion and patience, seems preternaturally designed for. In a moment of introspection following the announcement that I was to be a high school teacher, she confided to me that she never really liked any children other than her own. I took that statement, like most of her other cryptic morsels of wisdom, as just another bit of her personal and educational I Ching. Like a poem, my mother’s philosophical blank spaces are as important as her actual words, and I’ve spent the majority of my life analyzing both, with no ultimate conclusions.

My maternal grandmother taught mathematics for forty years, many of which were spent in the remote one-room schoolhouses of rural northern Michigan. At nineteen, she bridled her horses and departed, ready to tackle the classroom for the first time as teacher. Years later, my grandmother could still remember the names of some of her original students. In slyer moments, she relished the retelling of the time she scared “a little Dutch boy” into submission by wrapping his knuckles with her ruler. A staunch and stout Scot herself, she particularly enjoyed telling this story in the presence of my Dutch husband. Legalized corporal punishment: those were the days.

With that genealogy, it is only logical to assume that I came by the teaching profession naturally, although I certainly didn’t plan to be a teacher. A media major in university, I sought to document the world on film. When that proved unsatisfying, I became an English major. Amidst tomes, folios and free verse, I found myself reveling in the power of the written word. But what to do with the written word once it had been writ? No one told me that it would be difficult to make a living as a poet — well, no one besides my poetry professors. I was twenty-one, the world was waiting, and I wanted to lace up my skates and hit the ice, as they say in Canada. I admired those who made their own “ice” (the artists, the independent taxidermists, etc.), but I also knew that ice-making would prove difficult and outside of my God-given skill set. Seeking vocatio, my calling, I applied to seminary, with thoughts of theology dancing like sugarplums through my neural synapses. With that brand of divine revelation common to honest introspection and a couple of beers, however, I quickly realized that seminary was not the right fit for bilious old me. Now, teaching — it hit me like a bonk in the head with a cast iron skillet — there was a profession wherein one could be cantankerous (like my grandmother), cynical (like my mother) and strong-willed (like my father) and they pay you for it! I was all in.

Armed with certificate and state-endorsed laurels, I embarked on my first year as a teacher of high school English. I had maneuvered my way through all of the necessary channels and cannonballed through the appropriate hoops. Now it was time — finally, time — to lace up those skates and attempt a Tonya Harding triple axel — or at least a white-knuckled go around the rink, with hopefully some sort of metaphorical hot chocolate at the end. The first day began with slow horror, each second on the clock ticking as if opposed to gravity itself. I stood behind my desk, waiting for the students to descend upon me, and asked myself (if only to bide the torturous time): how much of this teaching thing is about preparation (including schooling, practice teaching and immersion in books on educational theory), and how much about intuition? In other words, how much of this profession can be learned, in a linear, logical sense, and how much must be felt? Before I could formulate a coherent response, the throngs of teenagedom had entered the classroom. The bell rang, and we began at the beginning.

Several years have passed since that first day, yet it seems so far gone now that all of my memories of those moments remain tinged with a sepia hue, each particle of dust forever free-floating in the shafts of light that bathed my inaugural student body. By no means in these years have I become an expert on teaching, nor do I feign to admit any sort of expertise whatsoever on my subject matter or teacher-student relations. Sure, my classroom management skills are much better than they were on day one, although that isn’t saying too much, except that perhaps I am now more blunt and impatient — also older and fatter — and thus, more scary.

What I have begun to understand, however, is the answer to my own question regarding preparation and intuition, learning and feeling. I wondered when I began this gig if this teaching thing wasn’t already a natural human attribute in the first place (and not just a natural attribute for me, but for everyone). I mean, as a teacher, doesn’t it all come down to something very simple: to loving your students as much as  — or more than — you love your subject area, and then clearly evidencing that love on a daily basis? (If the “L” word freaks you out, think “passion,” “interest” or “intentionality.”) Intuitively, this made sense. Under the harsh humming lights of post-industrialized North America, however, this intuitive logic was suspect. In the shadow of my first day fears, I distrusted my intuition — that thing that told me that teaching is as much about feeling as it is about knowing — and passed it off as merely a misplaced and sophomoric confidence. This profession certainly couldn’t be as simple as it seemed. Who did I think I was, anyway? Benjamin Bloom? Lev Vygotsky? Come on.

And then I took five very important, very literal, steps. I walked across the hallway to meet, for the first time, the head of the English department. We talked briefly about resources and lack thereof, and as I made my way to the door, he stopped me, saying: “Hey — we’re all imposters, you know.” I was thrown: “Sorry, what?” He looked at me closely, wild hair thrown back from his English department head forehead, “I mean, we’re all afraid of being ‘outed.’ We’re all afraid that one day, someone’s going to walk into our classroom and expose us as a fake.” For a pep talk, I found his choice of words on this first day of my new career somewhat disheartening. For bread and butter truth, however, his words refreshed me down to the marrow of my bones. I smiled. The clock lost its grip on gravity, and the day sauntered on.

So I’m not Ben Bloom or Lev Vygotsky, or even Parker Palmer, but I do know one thing, and like most things, the dang thing is paradoxical. As teachers, we have to trust the intuitive process. Trusting this process will allow us to both free ourselves from our preconceived notions about what it means to be properly prepared for our positions of power. This means that we cannot hide behind the static evidence of our viability as teachers — the resumes, credentials and weeks-long summer courses that we use to fend off those nasty feelings of “imposter-hood” that we all face on our worst days in the classroom. We have to let go of the account in which we keep track of all that we have done to “earn” our titles or our pay grade or our special distinction or the extra letters after our last name. In place of these outward signs of value, it is the viscera of vocatio that is truly worth our energies.

When we are anxious, stressed and exhausted, as we are all wont to be at certain times of the teaching day and year, we are most prone to judging ourselves and our profession solely in the light of our preparation and self worth as teachers. When we feel the imposter, we lose touch with the intuitive side of teaching, and judge our efforts solely in the light of our capacity to get the job done, as if teaching were a profession with easily quantifiable results. Feeling the imposter, we chide ourselves without mercy — if only I had been more prepared, more knowledgeable, more “on my game” that lesson would have inspired, that child would have prospered, that conflict wouldn’t have occurred. But it is during those times precisely when we need not judgment, but inspiration. When we feel the imposter, we must embrace the artist. In order to delve into the art and mystery of teaching, we have to step back and reach down into the bowels of our intuition. It’s dirty work, and it doesn’t always fit nicely into the category of “professional development,” but it sure clears the mind and flushes out the heart. And it’s better for our students.

For me, delving into the bowels of my intuitive teaching self means driving to school with Guns n’ Roses or Vivaldi turned way up (radical, I know). It means focusing on the student, not the rubric. It means ignoring the pile of essays to be marked and watching several hours of bad television with my husband. It means taking a moment to find out why Zelda didn’t get her essay done, instead of simply reprimanding her for poor time management. It means cracking stupid jokes just to lighten the classroom mood. It means working hard to listen with my whole being to the child of God in front of me. It means believing, despite any evidence to the contrary, that I have been put into this particular relationship with these specific humans and this exact subject matter for a reason, whacked-out as that may seem.

I am saying nothing new, and nothing every teacher doesn’t already know. The art and science of teaching has been the topic of many an essay over the years. Old war heroes, though, they like to tell the same stories over and over, sometimes perhaps just to hear the comforting vibrato of their own voices in a lonely room. I suspect teachers are a little like this, too. We make stories from facts, gourmet dessert from mud pies. But it is the qualitative, not the quantitative aspect of teaching that we need to emphasize for one another if we want to encourage an atmosphere of mutual support and encouragement within our schools. Sure, it’s true that my dad got hit in the head, my mom only likes her own kids, and my grandma physically abused her students. Stripped of mystery and mythology, these accounts of teaching stand naked and alone in their starkness, and they reveal nothing about the true nature of their teaching experiences. Who would recount such seemingly awful details, and for what purpose? When understood in context, however, these facts take on a new life. As teachers, we are story-makers. We must continually seek to understand ourselves and our students in the context of the stories we find ourselves in. Doing so requires that we remain open to our intuitive sense of what it means to teach, and to remain in touch with our internal guidance as we make the preparations necessary for the next lesson. As we trust the process in this way, the plot gains legs to become the story that is our teaching career.

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