Teaching Hard

I’m tired.

I hate the end of the school year.

But let me tell you why.

Teaching requires an inordinate amount of energy. It’s why there is such a prejudice towards younger, newer teachers, and against older, wiser teachers: we all know that both age and inevitable cynicism detract from available verve (By the way, if I ever need a stage name, I’m going to use Available Verve.), and we know (Some of us know) just how much pep is required in this profession.

It’s a lot. Because we have to fight children all day.

I’m just going to leave that image to simmer for a minute.

Aaaaaand now I’ll explain.

Elementary school teachers have to fight to first contain, and then direct, a classroom full of sugar-hyped attention-deficient kidnadoes. Think about what it takes to force a child to eat when it doesn’t want to, to sleep when it doesn’t want to, to take a bath when it doesn’t want to; now think about making them do math. Elementary teachers have to be an unbreachable wall standing against a stampede, an immovable object against 25 — or 30 — or 35 — irresistible forces.

High school teachers have the opposite problem: our classrooms are carpeted with anthropomorphic phlegm-globs, like the spittoon of a frost giant with a head cold, that would rather sleep than breathe (And who would be ecstatic if they could sleep without breathing. Or circulating blood. Except you wouldn’t recognize the ecstasy, as expressing it would, like breathing, be too tiring.), and somehow we need to motivate them to read poetry and study history and solve mathematical equations. We must be an irresistible force for a room full of immovable objects.

In either case, it’s bloody exhausting.

Add in the requirements of pleasing supervisors (who want pre- and post-observation conferences, and PLC meeting minutes, and professional development buy-in) and calming frazzled parents (The most-common phrase a teacher hears from adults is probably “I just don’t know what to do with him/her.” It has always amazed me that I, who am and will ever remain childless, can somehow give out parenting advice without getting a face full of “Excuse me? Who the hell do you think you are?” It’s not because my advice is good, though — it’s because I care enough to give it, because I take the time to try. But this, too, is exhausting, because I am handing over just a little bit more of my time and my energy.) and the endless paperwork and the endless guilt, and you might be able to imagine how tiring this profession is.

But that’s not the hard part.

The hard part is that teachers, more than any profession other than the medical fields, emergency services, and ground-level social work, get emotionally invested in the work. My clientele, if we can call them that, are people. They are children (Though in my case they have beards, breasts, and body odor [Not all three at the same time (Well, not often [See, I can’t even make this joke without feeling bad for mocking them in such a personal way. But as an English nerd, I am very pleased by this:].).].), children that are unhappy most of the time. They are confused: confused by difficult school subjects, confused by awkward romance and even more awkward bodies, confused by changing social alliances and the tidal forces of unstable families. They are bereft of childhood, and lament that lost innocence; they are terrified by a future both uncertain and looming, and avoid everything that reminds them of it. And they are angry, and sad, about all of those things.

In “Dover Beach,” Matthew Arnold described our modern world this way:

…For the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.


Arnold was describing a world without faith. That’s adolescence. That’s my students.

I sympathize with them. I remember it. I remember how my world got so very much harder when I became drenched in hormones around 8th grade (though not, sadly, drenched in sex appeal and confidence to match), and then exponentially harder again when I got to high school and, for the first time, had to work hard to succeed academically. I remember my hopes and dreams feeling shattered by reality. How everything seemed so dark, and so hopeless, and so insane. All of my writing at the time was about madness, loss, betrayal, destruction, murder. About fear and anger. That’s all I was for several years, a ball of fear and anger. With pimples. And an erection.

So when I talk to my students, I feel for them, and I want to help. Helping generally means listening to their problems, really listening and then trying to give some sort of useful response. A lot of the time — too much, really — I can’t help, and I know it; but that’s not any easier, especially when it’s because I know they wouldn’t listen to what I have to say, or that I shouldn’t say it because they should figure it out for themselves. Holding the words in is as hard as speaking them. Sometimes it’s harder. When one of my nerdy students — and as a lifelong nerd and a former awkward loner (Perhaps I flatter myself with that “former,” but my wife tells me I’m handsome and cool and funny, so shut up.), I feel the nerds’ pain more intensely — when one of them tells an awkward joke, or says the wrong thing at the wrong time, or laughs like a dork or fails to control their body odor, I want to say, “This is why girls don’t talk to you. This — and your hair.” But I can’t say it. It wouldn’t help. And it wouldn’t be right for me to do.

It’s hard to remember that. It takes effort to remind myself that I don’t have all the answers, that what worked for me won’t work for all of my students, that often they cannot hear me or believe me because of who I am. The key is to remember that they are in the same situation: no one can hear or believe them, either, because of who they are. But even when I remember that nothing I say will help, I still want to help. So I do what I can: I help them with schoolwork.

I try not to give my students busywork, because I want to show that I value their time. So my assignments tend to be lengthier, and more thoughtful. To help them both be successful and feel confident, I try to read everything they write, and give the best feedback I can; I am known for writing more on some essays than the students themselves. I respond to their thoughts more than the form of them, the grammar and syntax and vocabulary, because the ideas are the important part and also, much of the time, their strength.

But all of that takes time and energy. If I just gave them worksheets all day, I could grade everything in five minutes — or even give them to a T.A. to grade. Or my wife, who loves grading. She likes the power of the red pen. But because I give them extended questions and thought-provoking assignments, and because I want to respond to their thoughts, it means I have to grade everything myself, and I have to read everything, and I have to pay attention while I’m doing it.

And then I have to try to fix their problems. But it’s just like fixing their life problems: sometimes I can’t, and sometimes I shouldn’t; and even when I can and should, it takes time and effort. At least when they come to me with their life problems, they want an answer; but when the issue is that they don’t know when to use a semi-colon or what the point of The Odyssey is, they don’t generally want to deal with fixing that problem; they just want it to go away so they can sleep.

This is probably the worst thing: that when I try to help them, by making their assignments more meaningful and effective, they want me to give them work that is easier. They want worksheets. Because they are tired and stressed, and they don’t want to think, and if I’m trying to be helpful, why can’t I just give them easy stuff to do, or even better, no work at all? Why do I have to make them think all the time?

That’s why they turn into a sticky layer of marshmallow fluff melting over a desk. And then it’s up to me to motivate them, to scrape them up, mold them back into a vaguely humanoid shape, and crack open their brains so I can pour in the knowledge.

Except that’s not actually the way it works. I have to get them to think. Which means I have to get them to want to think.

Which is hard. And it makes me tired.

So then the end of the school year comes slouching towards us. They’re tired and sick of school, and thus that much harder to motivate. I am exhausted myself, and so now I need to do two motivatings: I have to perk myself up to perk them up. God forbid I have seniors, because then the inertia of the Senior Slump becomes quite simply insurmountable. And, though I don’t want to set myself up as being different from other teachers, I do have a couple of added difficulties that I don’t know if they share: first, I didn’t and don’t like school (though I love education), and so the glamor of the end of the school year, the proms and the yearbook signings and the graduation ceremonies, all fail to cheer me; and second, I don’t want to use grades as a means of motivating my students.

I don’t believe in it. Too much emphasis is placed on grades already for this very reason, so that they might be a more effective stick and carrot for tempting and prodding the phlegmatics. (That’s the name of my new band, by the way. The Phlegmatics. Available Verve and the Phlegmatics.) But grades are deceptive: they are an inaccurate measure. If a kid gets an A in my class, was it because of hard work? Natural ability which made effort unnecessary? Is the kid a successful cheat? Was it because my class was too easy? Because this kid had the advantage of a stable home life, with enough money for food and clothing so that this kid didn’t have to work 20-30 hours a week after school? Was it because this kid has learning disabilities and consequent accommodations?

Grades do not help students learn. Grades teach students to game the system. My students focus on large assignments rather than small ones, because small ones don’t change grades as much. But without the practice that comes from doing small assignments, and the steady incremental improvement gained thereby, they don’t do very well on the large assignments. So they ask for extra help. They ask if they can do work over again for a higher grade (Meaning I have to grade it a second time, after reading it a second time), or ask if I can look over work before they turn it in (so I can look it over again) and tell them what grade it would get (Before I grade it again, officially). They hunt, like pigs after truffles, for extra credit. And, of course, they cheat. Not because they’re lazy or stupid, most of the time, but because they don’t think they can do the assignment well enough to get the grade they want. And much of the time, they’re right — again because of the lack of steady incremental progress. That’s what grades do: they focus only on the ends, and thus destroy the means. They harm education. They replace education.

And then because we use grades as carrot and as stick, they cause stress, for students, for parents, for teachers, for schools. And that makes everything worse: my students are more miserable, and more exhausted, and so am I, both from their stress and from my own. Which is always worst at the end of the year, when the grade becomes THE GRADE.

I don’t want to add to their stress and misery. I don’t want to scare them. So I don’t hold their grades over their heads. They’re up there anyway, that sword of Damocles called THE TRANSCRIPT and THE PERMANENT RECORD, but I don’t point to it and put on my angry face. (Full disclosure: my own transcript, which was pretty ugly, hurt me exactly — none. Affected me not at all. Which is part of the reason I don’t try to use grades as a stick, because they meant zip to me personally back when I was a rage-horn-ball. But again: does that apply to all other people? Probably not.)

Unfortunately, that means I have to find some other way to motivate them. And the best one — the only one — requires of me a higher output of energy. I have to make the class, and the work, interesting. To teenagers. I have to make it useful, and also fun. I have to treat my students like the unique feeling individuals they are, and I need to show them that what matters is the thinking and the learning — not the grades.

I have to do that five times a day, every day, for ten months. And the farther we get into the year, and the closer we get to summer, the harder it gets.

I hate the end of the school year.

I’m tired.


2 thoughts on “Teaching Hard

  1. Firstly, I plainly refute that teens’ romantic relationships are markedly less awkward than their awkward bodies. It was recent for me, I remember, the things being said and done were Awk. Ward.

    Secondly, I think these things are so much harder for us over-thinkers. Not to imply that your points are dramatic or exaggerated. Only that there are those of us who can’t just switch it off and compartalize.

    You’re almost there.


    1. I would agree that things are more difficult when one thinks about them too much. I like thinking that makes us stronger, having flexed the mental muscles more than most do. Probably it just makes us like Sisyphus: pointless, exhausted, and frequently flattened by a rolling boulder.

      I bow to your superior wisdom regarding teenaged relationships. I try not to think about mine too much.


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