Teaching and life

Teaching is a very rewardable profession despite its inherent downsides.  One would think from all of the publicity that it is an amazing profession to get into because of the supposed little work it entails. At least, that is what you often hear.  Then you hear, even from members of your own family that, “Those who cannot, teach.”  You hear about the summer vacations and the like.

I have always felt that perhaps, those who complain about it should try it for a week and see how they manage to deal with the numerous commitments and being pulled at every angle from someone with a need.  One of the reasons you hear so much about it is because of its visibility.  It is right there in the spotlight, day in day out.  It is amazing, though, that like so many other things, you don’t hear about the successes, you hear about its failings. 

There are many schools where success is dealt with on a daily basis.  This is not to say that it happens all the time, we are dealing with human beings who have issues and who are flawed, therefore failure and problems are going to occur.

I remember my sons taking a serious look at what I did for a living and seeing me spend so much time fixing and repairing things around the house.  Early on, the only way we got newer things was to resort to the DIY (do it yourself) route, otherwise that new kitchen, for example, would have been an impossibility.  Does anyone ever think about things like that?  My summers always had numerous jobs that I had to attack to make our habitation up to snuff and take care of its issues, be they peeling paint or the need for updated plumbing.  Yes, I was able to go with my sons to the pool every day in the summer but that was after teaching summer school (that my married, female colleagues refused to teach because they needed time off) and then attending to my job list.  My sons said, “Dad, you may have a great job, but I am not going to be a teacher because it is too much work!”  The good news is that although I was working around the house, I was there with them.

Nobody ever talks about the demands the regular “joe” teacher has.  Do they talk about responsibilities from the administration?  Do they ever mention the work it takes to keep up with one’s colleagues and having to collaborate (which isn’t always easy, as I found out) with colleagues, listen to and attend to students’ needs and dealing with the very bright all the way to those with learning issues?  How about the calls, e-mails, etc. from parents who need counsel, want to know how to help their children more, and then there were those who had the intense need to get involved in “micro-management” in an area where they thought they were experts but in fact had very little training?

My school day was always an early one, mostly by choice, but the school I taught in had unwritten rules about the work ethic.  We, as a staff, always wondered whether it was the institution which made us that way or if we were hired because of our work propensities.  I would leave for school very early, generally arriving before half past six, at the latest by a quarter to seven.  One of the reasons was that I had to park my less than beautiful car (in the early years) in a location that wasn’t tremendously far from the building.  Although I love walking, schlepping in vast amounts of materials and dealing with the elements was sometimes tough.  I remember as well students asking me if that was really me in the rust encumbered vehicle from a previous era as they drove up in their expensive cars.

My school day ended very late.  Most of the days ended around five in the afternoon, it was rare that I was lucky enough to leave by four or so.  I had so many nights where I either had to return or just stay there for meetings.  When my students were in plays and such, I would try and see them in their activities.  I was also involved in sponsoring clubs and in taking students to Europe. The latter was a yearlong activity of preparation and work.  It was all worth every second.

Teaching has changed and the financial tough times my family endured have changed a bit.  Starting salaries are better now and they are very much deserved.  I watch new teachers and I am continually amazed at the hoops they must jump throughout during their first years, meetings, evaluations, etc.  It is not easy.

What kept me going was the students.  They were, if I can stereotype them, amazing.  They made all of the downsides of the teaching situation so much easier. I am still in touch with so many of my former students and hearing from them always brings a smile to my face.  They always have something kind to say and thank me for what I did for them.  I recall oh so many students who, having difficulties at home or in some other area, would literally spend a good fifteen or twenty minutes with me so I could hear what was on their minds.  I remember the countless students who felt they were at the end of their tether.  We would always brainstorm ways of dealing with issues, find someone else to help, etc. 

I think I may have mentioned this before, but the hardest lesson I ever learned was when I realized that I was incapable of being able to help everyone.  Some students just don’t connect with you, some think you are unfair, some perceive that you don’t like them (that was a very hard one for me to take), perceptions are so interesting among individuals.  It is very hard not being able to reach someone, when that person’s eyes are determined not to see you as a help in solving problems.  I only wish someone in my classes had alerted me to this fact.  The other issue I found tough and still do when I tutor is dealing with individuals who don’t realize their intelligence and/or self worth.  They have no idea how much being like this is a hindrance.

During my career, I had oh so many good moments and I had a smattering of less than great moments that made me question what the heck I was doing trying to teach students, some of whom had no desire to learn anything.  I remember the time that my class was interrupted by a mom who demanded to talk to me about her daughter.  My first reaction was quite to the point, I thanked her for wanting to talk to me but reminded her that I was there first to do my job of teaching and that if she wanted to communicate with me, which was great, that we needed to at least wait until my free period.  She pointed out to me angrily that I was “discriminating against the Brits” in my having sent her daughter out of the classroom for having called me something inappropriate, something which had  a different meaning in American English vs. British English.  That was the card she was playing.  I remember that one of the administrators, who should have known me well, was actually questioning me about it.  It was so silly, it was such a waste of time, but these things can happen all the time and I found that no matter how careful you were, there were going to be touchy moments every now and then.

I remember another moment where I was seated with a celebrity dad who was trying to get me to change a grade on an exam that was affecting his son’s overall performance in the class and put him on the brink of failure.  This meeting was serious and with my department chairman who thankfully happened to see my point and the total picture.  The dad said that I “was destroying his son’s future.”  I reminded that dad that perhaps the son had some involvement in this and that he might just be making a point in pursuing failure when he was fully capable of success.  I also tried to make a point that failure is actually not always a bad thing, that we have to learn  from it.  Edison failed so many times before success.

Frankly, any one of the these tough situations would take that person trying to fill in a teacher’s shoes for a week would send them running.  It was and is not always easy.  Would I do it again?  In a heartbeat, for sure.  A good teacher has to be a smart teacher because there are so many hats to be worn and we are criticized so easily. 

Another really tough thing was the reaction to inappropriate gestures toward students.  Every now and then a student would need a pat on the back or a hug.  As a male teacher, I always felt very, very uncomfortable here.  When your natural inclination in a situation is to console and you cannot, it becomes a very awkward situation.  You must learn to deal with that, there is no choice, the ramifications are so clear.

This brings me to the question, what is making me think about my teaching career and provoking these thoughts into an appearance in my brain?  It actually is quite simple.  Recent events in my life with my talented, intelligent son coming home and informing us that he needed help and had to get his life back into gear made me think of this.  The other issue is that in coming home, he managed to literally re-open the family wound of the loss of the older boys’ business and its ramifications.  Am I upset that he brought this to the forefront with his appearance in our home?   Absolutely not!  It is far better to make sure to deal with the problems we are facing, problems that are very simply brought about by a bad economy.  My being upset at the present time is also simple, once again I am faced with one of the biggest regrets in my entire career, being unable to help someone I care about.  Helplessness in this area is absolute hell.  I felt that in the classroom and I feel that in my personal life.  I honestly think I am dealing well with it, I am taking that one day at a time, meditating, reflecting, praying, and I am convinced that by being there and listening that this too shall pass and that we shall move on to a better place where we can all be more of a family once again.


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