Reflections on a First Week of a Different Sort

OK, so here I am again. It’s been a week since my last post – it’ll probably be a week until my next one. Why? Because I’ve started that oh so integral part of my journey this spring – working for a living.

I spent this week filling in for an English teacher at a secondary school here in London. Well, just barely. To get there for 8am, I have to be out of bed for 545. Definitely not something I’ll be doing for more than the next week!

“Year” levels here are equivalent to our Canadian grade levels. I’ve been teaching two different Year 9 classes, two different Year 11 classes, a Year 9 class, a Year 10 class, and a homeroom section of Year 9s. It’s been tough. They don’t know me, I don’t know them – and they all know each other. I’ve tried my best to keep things happy and productive for all of us, and there have certainly been moments and lessons where I’ve succeeded… but the bottom line is, at this point in the year, with their teacher having now been out for four weeks, and with the knowledge that at any point I could simply disappear just like the last supply teacher, it’s hard for even the keenest of them to really get behind the work we’re doing together. On top of that, the teacher before me left nothing behind, and the school system itself, while its content is familar, is structured in an unfamiliar way. So I’ve spent this week playing catchup, and there’ve been some much longer days than I thought I’d have as a supply teacher.

But we’re nearly there, and I think that by the end of this week I’ll have these classes as back on track as it’s in my power to have them.

As many of you know, I’m a bit of a perfectionist. It’s why I sometimes prefer the company of books to the company of people – particularly unruly, unhappy teenaged people. But that perfectionism can get in the way of a life well and meaningfully lived – and one good thing about teaching is that it pushes me past that comfort threshold. Because in imperfection, in interaction, in improvisation – all things that are the teacher’s lifeblood – can come some amazing moments of connection and accomplishment. There were some real moments of triumph this week, for me and the students in my charge.

The Year 9s really enjoyed getting Canada pins and pencils as prizes in a Romeo and Juliet quiz. One of the Year 9 classes was just mesmerized by the Baz Luhrmann version of the play when I brought it in, and I think that bodes well for their work on it this coming week. The Year 11s, whose behaviour the first time I had them wasn’t exactly appropriate for how old they are, and how close to their government exams they are, really met me halfway on Thursday and had a very productive writing lesson.

And the little smiles and connections and good-natured jokes I’ve had from students sprinkled through all these classes tells me that I can make some sort of difference to them just by being present, and kind. One place this has been particularly evident is with my smallest class, a group of about 5 (attendance varies) Year 11s who, truth be told, are really just biding their time until they get to leave school. And while their language is often shocking, they really are very nice kids… and the nicer I am to them, while still walking that professional line and emphasizing the importance of the work we have to do, the pleasanter they are and the more we get done during class.

I anticipate a successful week ahead – because I am going to work to make it a success. And the great thing is, I’m not alone – the teachers at this school have been wonderful to me, supportive and kind.

To be honest with you, though, I don’t think I’ll be taking any long term positions teaching in this country. I love the city, and I’m enjoying all there is to do and see and think about… but the school system, if this school is any indication (and it sounds like it is), is too regimented and exam-oriented for me. At this point I still prefer our system in BC, frustratingly open though it may sometimes be, for the creativity and freedom and real-world focus it allows teachers and students alike. I’m not saying that the system here isn’t preparing kids for the real world – simply that, from what I’ve seen, there seems to be more of a “just get through and pass the exam” attitude than I’ve seen in other schools and other systems.

And to continue to be honest with you, I’m actually not so sure I’ll end up being a career teacher… I do enjoy parts of it, and at this moment in my life its portability is key for me, and I do appreciate the way it forces me out of my comfort zone. But there are some reasons that I may not stick around.

I don’t want to become one of those people who has to harden a part of themselves in order to keep going in this career, and I’ve certainly seen it happen. When I’m striving to be friendly but not friends, to remain firm and enforce rules, a little part of my soul is burning away, because I do want to be friends, with everyone. I think that’s why I’m here, why we’re all here, as George Eliot once said: to make life more bearable for each other. And I know there is a way to make discipline and professionalism a part of that goal without turning cold – but I haven’t found it yet. I am looking.

And this feeds right into the second reason I think that a long teaching career might not be in the cards for me – I’m not so sure how much I believe in or care about our current educational system. Now don’t get me wrong – I absolutely believe that every human being is both deserving and capable of access to knowledge and skills to process that knowledge and apply it to their lives. But this particular system we’ve come up with, of sticking 30 people together in a little room, just because they happen to live near each other and be about the same age and/or “skill level” (whatever that means), can be absolutely absurd when you really think about it. The moments that I love about teaching, the ones that give me that calm and accomplished feeling of ‘I just did something to make someone else’s life better’, always, ALWAYS come one on one, or at best in very small groups. In tutoring, or in the learning centre, or when I’m circulating around the classroom once the day’s instructions have been haltingly given. The times I feel out of my element, and sometimes, devoid of purpose, are when I’m facing all 30 at once, trying in vain to get them to listen to a set of instructions that might, perhaps, be getting through to 5 or 6 of them. I know that some of this is a matter of simple practice and experience, and that there are all sorts of economic constraints against individual instruction for all… but I also know that recognizing your own strengths and weakness is important, and while there are people out there who absolutely thrive before a crowd, and should be doing that part of this job because they’ll do it well, I am not one of them. I am not so much people person as I am a person person. I can make a real difference one on one, but I fear that years in this job would simply make me into nothing more than a reluctant disciplinarian. I’d like to think I could avoid that, carve out a space for myself where I can pursue the sorts of values for myself and my students that I see as important – but I’m not sure how willing I am to devote an entire career to that journey.

So something with some softer edges may ultimately be for me – within the teaching system or without. And really, that’s the final reason. That what you do with your life should be something that makes you happy – and I always thought that a profession like teaching, with its noble reputation, its guarantee that at the end of your day you’ll always feel like you gave something to the world, was the key to my happiness. But as I grow up and become a little more realistic, not to mention a little more selfish (in the positive sense of that word – there IS a positive sense, you know! Because if YOU don’t look after you, who will?), I realize that really, the most important thing is to find something that you love doing first, and let the world-changingness follow if it will. JM Barrie used to say that “it’s not work unless you’d rather be doing something else”, and I think I owe it to myself to find a place I truly want to go every day, filled with people I want to be with, and tasks that make me whistle while I work. And I know it’s out there, in a school or an office or an open field somewhere. And every step here, every accomplishment and even every failure, is bringing me closer to it.

So I’m on the lookout, sure, like we all always are, for greener grass. But in the meantime I’m being both pragmatic and grateful… teaching, right now, is making me more money than the bottom rung of anything else could. It’s letting me have the run of this amazing part of the world, soak up all I can from it, and that’s a very good thing. And there are lots of things about the job to enjoy. But right now that’s what it feels like – a job, not a calling. And that’s okay for now. I am still listening carefully for that call, and all the while doing all the things that make me happy – writing, and exploring, and getting to know people. And enjoying the freedom that this job can provide, both personally and professionally, along with its triumphs and trials.

My goodness that was far more angsty and less newsy than any post so far. Hope there was something in there that worked for you. Stay tuned… I’ve got a week off coming up, more travels planned, and the Douglas Adams Memorial Lecture is just around the corner. Love you all.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Boffo on March 5, 2010 at 1:38 pm

    Just got around to reading your blog and was happy to hear you are hanging in…teaching is no bed of roses and it does take a special breed to do it and not become jaded with the folderol that surrounds that actual profession itself… heart went out to you re your feelings of not being sure of want to stick with it and I can sure relate…anyway hand in kiddo…there’s light at the end of the tunnel…Love Boffo


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