So I had insomnia last night, again. I woke up about 3am and couldn’t get back to sleep: I was too busy fretting about my teaching. (It didn’t help that I had an annoying earworm, the chorus of Five Finger Death Punch’s “Jekyll and Hyde,” repeating in my mind the whole time. But the main thing was the fretting.) Am I teaching fast enough? Am I teaching right enough? Am I teaching hard enough?
It is a constant worry. Not just for me, I’m sure, but for most teachers. It’s why the Standards movement has gained so much ground among teachers, even though logically, standards have very little to offer teachers other than more work and less individual freedom. Because teaching is a profession with an enormous amount of uncertainty. The goals are uncertain – am I teaching my students reading and writing? Critical thinking? Good citizenship? Obedience and conformity? – and the measurements are uncertain – do I want them to get high grades, or high standardized test scores? Or do I want them to feel self-confident and happy? – and the future of one’s employment is the most uncertain of all: because not only does it rest on the vagaries of school population and school funding, but it also rests on those same uncertain, everchanging goals and measurements. Teaching is like walking through a fog bank on the edge of a cliff and trying to shoot a bullseye with a bow and arrow. And I don’t mean a target: I mean the actual eye of an actual bull, that is moving somewhere through the fog, and may be trying to knock you off the cliff – especially if you shoot him with the arrow.
But here’s the thing: everything about teaching is uncertain, except for this: teachers are important, and good teachers are doubly so; and I think, after sixteen years, it is certain that I am a good teacher. I think I can know that, even if I don’t know anything else for sure. I have always been able to work well with my students, and even when the curriculum has been drastically changed, I have generally been able to adapt to the new stuff and still get good results. I am slow, both in covering material and in keeping up with paperwork; and I am a bit of a maverick, in that I tend to push for my own choices of material and my own goals rather than the ones preferred by my administrators; but our goals are generally pretty congruent, because I always have the students’ best interests in mind. It’s one of the things that makes me a good teacher. And I have had former students, and their parents, come back to me and tell me that my class was their best class, that it was one of the things they looked forward to in their school day; they have said that they learned a lot from me; they have said that I changed the way they thought, or they read, or they wrote. Bull’s eye.
Unfortunately, my confidence in myself doesn’t actually translate to a lack of worry. Partly because I am a worrier by nature, and partly because I am surrounded by a whole world of people telling me to do something differently. “You’re teaching THAT?! Don’t teach that – teach this!” “You’re teaching that THAT way?!? Don’t teach that way – teach this way. And also this way. And kind of this way, too. And make sure you have clear lesson, unit, and semester plans, all prepared in advance and shared to a Google document with everyone else who wants to read them and laugh behind their hands at you.” “Make sure they get high test scores. But not on that test – that’s the old test. Use this test. And also, keep the parents happy – which means make sure they get high grades, since that’s what pleases parents.””Oh – and check for dress code violations, and make sure they aren’t fooling around in the supply closet.” I tell myself all the time that all I need to do is my best; but it never feels like enough. At least I think that. Particularly when I wake up at 3am. It all makes it very difficult: to teach, and also to sleep.
But finally, I got back to sleep. And I had a dream. In the dream, I was making my wife drive me to school early so that I could donate a pile of art books that we didn’t want any more, that I thought my students might enjoy or be able to use. And when I got there (In standard dream fashion, it was raining Biblically, and the school was something like an old haunted Victorian, and I actually had a suite of my own – and needed to take a shower before class started – and the principal I talked to was the one from Oregon before I moved here in 2014), before I went inside, a sleepy student – it was still dark, before sunrise, plus the rain – asked if she could lie down in the back of the car, and because she was obviously tired and cold, I let her, over my wife’s irritated objections. I went inside with my art book donation, and there found that I had a new assignment: now all of my classes were going to be taught outside. (Apparently in the middle of a deluge. Hey, why not? They can learn about water conservation and climate change. And hypothermia.) Starting that morning. I objected to this, even threatening to quit, but my administrator asked me to slow down, in the middle of my outraged temper tantrum, and explain why I wasn’t willing to make this change; and in thinking about it, I realized that I was teaching things that all related pretty well to being outside – Thoreau’s Walden and Frost’s Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening and the like. And I threw up my hands and said, “Fine. Fine, I’ll do it. But can I please have a moment to myself before there are students in my face?” My administrator left, and I burst into tears.
Then I woke up. And in the shower, I realized: there I was, donating my possessions, my time, my car, my wife’s patience, to my students, and my school was still screwing around with me for no good reason – and I was still doing what they asked. I do everything that is asked of me, and I do it as well as I possibly can, which is generally pretty well. And I do what is really required: I try to do what is best for my students.
Even my subconscious is tired of me worrying about this crap.