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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Backlash

I've noticed something interesting about myself this year.  I've had a change in, well, I'm not exactly sure what you would call it.  Anyone who's ever worked with me could tell you that in my first four years of teaching, I was the kind of guy who wore a tie every day except Fridays.  I thought about teaching nearly 24/7.  I was obsessed with being perfect.  This year, I've learned to let go.

For the first time, I'm wearing jeans to work on a regular basis.  I force myself to put in my iPod and think about something that's not school as soon as I get on the subway and begin my commute home.  I'm aware that I'm not the best teacher my kids could have, but it doesn't bother me like it used to.

One might look at this phenomenon and infer that I've become jaded, that I've lost my passion/flare for teaching.  I might have interpreted it that way myself were I able to look into a crystal ball four years ago and witness this transformation.  But I don't see it that way.

After a hellish six months in DCPS, and an amazing eight months of unemployment, I've decided (or some might say I've learned) that taking teaching too seriously is both hazardous for my health and only marginally beneficial for my students, and even then, the marginal benefits are only occasional.

I think a big part of reason for this change (which, I think, has largely been unconscious) was my experience in DC.  I burned myself out trying to be perfect at a school where being perfect was especially impossible.  It was almost as if the administrators created requirements for teachers so that, at any given moment, they could point out areas in which teachers were lacking, no matter how competent they were or how much time they put into their work.  I was made to feel as if I were single-handedly responsible for the achievement gap because my objectives weren't written in the same place on the board every day with the objective-writing formula the administration arbitrarily agreed upon with no teacher input.  And I bought into it until I reached my breaking point, the result of which was the severe deterioration of my mental and physical health, and, of course, my quitting in January.

Since January, I've had a lot of time to think about who I am and how I organize my priorities.  In that time I've come to realize that being a perfectionist really is a personality flaw, not just something you say in an interview when they ask you about your weaknesses to impress.  My perfectionist tendencies drove me nearly to a place where I began to reconsider my career.

Luckily, in March, I took a trip with my mother up and down the West Coast, during which time we had a lot of time to talk about life and such.  And during one of those conversations, she told me with some scorn in her voice that I couldn't be perfect; nobody wants to deal/work/live with people who are perfect.  And I knew she was right in a way I'd never quite grasped before.

It was actually quite arrogant of me to assume that I could be excellent at my job on a daily basis, especially in my first five years.  I am not capable of solving all of my students problems, and I never will be no matter how good I get.  I work at a school where 100% of my students are minorities, 100% are on free lunch, and 100% are English language learners.  The amount of work that would be required to make up for the shortcomings they face as a result of the abdication of responsibility by both society and many of their families is far beyond what I am capable of.  And I think, for the first time in my career, my actions are beginning to indicate an awareness of this reality.

I entered teaching in 2006 with high hopes of making drastic differences in the lives of all my students.  I was suckered in by the Cult of the Magical Teacher, and I believed in being that person in students' lives who made all the difference.  So I worked and I worked and I worked, and I failed and I failed and I failed.  In the process, I became significantly better at my practice, but I also learned that overworking myself was, more often than not, counterproductive.

This semester, I walk into my classroom with lessons that I know will not be perfect.  I know my students will not get as much out of them as they would if I had ten more years of experience.  I know I will probably need to drastically alter many of them in the future.  I know I'm falling far short of what many of my kids need on a daily basis.  However, I've learned spending four more hours at night racking my brain over how to tweak my lesson will likely not result in much improvement (if any), and that my failure in this endeavor is not my fault.  I've also learned that my To Do list with twenty things on it, most of which are impractical administrative requirements that are due the next day, will sometimes have to wait until the morning if I've just gotten home after a twelve-hour day and need time to relax.  Some of those things won't get done, and it won't make any difference in the grand scheme of things.

After reading over this post, I realize that I've definitely become the teacher who I would have referred to as jaded a few years ago.  I was more arrogant and naive then.  If the more "jaded" approach I've stumbled into during my first semester teaching in the Bronx keeps me in the profession, then I'll take jaded over ignorant and inexperienced any day.

11 comments:

  1. You're not jaded. You're realistic. You could have left the profession like too many do every year. It sounds instead that you have found a way to sustain yourself over the long haul. The current, very powerful crop of reformers (few of whom are educators, parents of public school children or intimately aware of life in the inner city) think it's easy to teach. The consequence (unintended, I'm not sure) of their simplistic, media-fueled mindset is forcing a school and classroom environment that they would find inadequate for or even harmful to their own children. Reading between the lines, I sense that your new perspective will allow you to still do your best to meet current expectations, but, more importantly, create a more nurturing place for your students to feel valued, acknowledge their own weaknesses, awaken their strengths and imagine their futures--and that life is whole lot more than test scores.

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  2. Congratulations on working through exhaustion, the Cult of the Magic Teacher, and recognizing that perfectionism isn't your best friend.

    It sounds as if you've gain a healthy perspective on teaching, and what you can realistically achieve. You and your students will be the better for this.

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  3. Good. The sooner you learn that, the better. You will get to the point where you know what you can and cannot do. For example, I generally work about 50ish hours a week, but I know that I can do 60-70 in a week if I HAVE TO (for college rec weekend, or something like that).

    You need to figure out what you are capable of doing and still having a life, and it sounds like you are on the way to doing that. Just make sure you don't swing too far :-)

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  4. Growth! You're experiencing GROWTH.

    Thanks to experience and Thanks to your mother

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  5. RE, watch the British documentary series entitled Seven-up, directed by Michael Apted. Pay close attention to the story of Bruce up to the age of 49. I think you might find it interesting.

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  6. That attitude will lead to growth. It's impossible to grow when you don't ever have a moment to relax or reflect, like in DCPS.

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  7. Welcome to our group. You have described what every teacher working in a difficult environment goes through. I know you will stay in this profession and you will excel. Good luck!

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  8. Bravo on having boundaries now! I know this feeling. I'm finally in a position where I feel like a good teacher and it's because I don't work for DCPS!

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  9. I would have to agree with the previous commenters. Also, having taught with you, it makes it easier for me, since I can now teach without being intimidated.

    =)

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  10. I began teaching in 2005, and I am entering my sixth year of teaching. As a high school English teacher, I am well aware of the grueling post-school hours spent grading papers, or correcting the same grammatical error again and again. But I also see such progress in my students and their ability to articulate their thoughts. I think you just need to focus more on what is occurring in your classroom and less on what is not. If you do not wish to become jaded, you must emphasize the positive as you assess your day and contribution. Incidentally, I invite you to read my blog at teachermandc.wordpress.com.

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  11. I decided to go into teaching as a second career... and so I didn't start teaching until I was 29. I had already "mastered" a career before hand, and I came in with a totally different attitude than most teachers who are fresh out of university. (Even though I was too) - I always called myself "pre-jaded" - and realized very quickly that the education system will continue to consume you as long as you give yourself up to it. The more you put it, the more it wants... and soon you'll be prepping for 4-6 hours a night. Nope, not me. I LOVE LOVE LOVE teaching - love the kids, and they can tell. My teaching works. - the kids learn, and they learn just as well as they do in the classroom of some of my colleagues =(the kind that DO work 4 hours a night for one lesson plan!) :) (Love the blog by the way!)

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