Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Last Days of School

I have a lot of regrets about my pathetically short career as a teacher.
But not parting with $29.95 to buy The First Days of School isn't one of them.
The book by Harry and Rosemary Wong is the bible for new teachers. You see them showing up during the new teachers induction, its perky green font sticking out of their shiny, new tote bags. If they ever forgot it you saw them turn pale and give the kind of look reserved for the first passenger on the Titanic who does a lifeboat count.
For the uninitiated the Wongs write about how being a teacher is the best career in the world. Turn to page 106 and there's Harry dressed for success resplendent in a waistcoat in the door of his classroom, his hand outstretched to connect with those of his students, radiating Oriental efficiency from every pore.
"I love to stand at the door on the first day with a giant smile on my face, hand stuck out in an invitational pose, waiting for those 'little darlings' to come down the hall," the caption reads.
I don't want to shatter any illusions here, but I tried a similar thing and gave up after the second spurned handshake. The sight of a tsumani of 12th graders rolling my way convinced me I would be crushed into a pulp on the first day of school unless I retreated.
It didn't end as suddenly as that but I was crushed over the next few weeks.
I can't pinpoint exactly how and why I failed but I found it hard to act like a teacher at times.
It takes a few semesters to click into the mindset of a teacher which is similar to that of a prison guard. Always be suspicious and assume the little darlings are lying or on the make unless you have evidence to the contrary in the form of a pass, an email or something else official.
I had some effective teaching moments but I failed to be a classroom cop.
And at the final reckoning I realized two months in I was already beginning to hate the humorless automotan I knew I had to become to keep order. It was hard to switch off at times. I was barking orders at my daughter across the supermarket aisle and middle aged ladies were giving me funny looks.
As Wong correctly points out, the most important factor governing learning is classroom management. On many afternoons the words of the great classroom Confuscius would come back to haunt me at the end of another 90 minutes of hell under artificial lighting when I sat in the middle of a maelstrom of paper balls and mangled desks.
My head of department took a dim view and rightly so. Desks out of line and books thrown around were tantamount to an invitation to riot. From then on I was fastidious about lined up desks and paper on the floor, although they didn't always listen.
And my thoughts were out of line with my departent head on one key area. I felt the uneven desks and papers thrown around were a symptom of a general lack of respect, rather than the cause of the chaos.
Wong says humans have a success instict. I'm not sure this was the case with all of my 10th graders. Indeed some seemed to have a failure instict and told me they saw their future in shoplifting. This leads me to conclude either Wong is wrong or some of them weren't human.
With this in mind I spent 10 minutes of one of my lessons looking to see if any of my students had small antenna pointing out of their heads.
It broke up the lesson and wasn't any more useless than some of the activities suggsted in the local authority's curriculum guide; jigsaw activities; fishbone maps; sequential episode maps; thematic maps etc.
I considered doing a sequential episode map with my kids and changed my mind. This was, afterall, a class that took 15 minutes to sort themselves into four groups.
But they were good at some group activities. Fighting for one. With no effective prior direction and little preparatory work two of my 10th graders successfully managed to beat each other to a pulp, while I hopefully pressed the red panic button.
"Why didn't you break it up? You played rugby back in Britain," one student asked me afterward.
Those exaggerations always come back to bite you.
So now my teaching career is practically over and although I'll miss the prospect of working without pay next year, it's not all bad. For one thing I have more time to read Wong's tome.
Wong said schools should organize a first day of school celebration where the teachers should stand at the bus stop and welcome them. "Wave and smile like it's aunt Mabel whom you have not seen in 14 years and the airplane has just pulled up to the jetway."
Hmmm. I feel I need to contact Wong or find him on Twitter. I actually had an aunt called Mabel. She was objectionable and flatulent and last cracked a smile the day Prince Albert died.
My family never failed to crack open the champagne at the sight of her oversized backside waddling away to the bus stop.
On the subject of flatulence, Wong doesn't tell you what to do when someone breaks wind and the whole class runs screaming to the door.
I suppose if I'd had the classroom management thing down to pat they would have remained glued to their undersized chairs, their nostrils twitching, fearing my withering gaze more than the odor.
My kids weren't really like that but my fellow teachers told me it took time to get it right. Nobody listened to Lenin and Trotsky much at first. It took a civil war and a lot of upheavals before Stalin came in to impose some heavy duty classroom management.
Nor does Wong devote any lines to insects which, to my mind, is a grave omission in The First Days of Schools.
It only took an oversized fly to reduce my best class to chaos. Just when they were calming down the infernal creature would reappear to torment me. When one student tried to swat it on a girl's head, the victim wanted to see me outside to press charges.
They don't tell you how to deal with that kind of thing on the training course.
My fellow teachers told me there's a lot that you learn on the job. I have nothing but admiration for these heroes of the education system, who go into a war zone every day without complaint.
That's not strictly true. There was a guy I met sometimes at the photocopier who reminded me of Travis Bicker, the De Niro character in Taxi Driver.
He told me the conditions were getting worse, the kids were getting worse; nobody wanted to learn.
"I gotta get out of teaching," he told me in a New York drawl.
He was drawn and on edge. I wondered what he would do next.
The day I realized he was six years younger than me my mind went on a loop and those words kept circulating in my head. "I gotta get out of teaching."

3 comments:

  1. I have heard teacher horroe stories from all three of my aunts, all teachers, all want out.

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  2. Wow sounds hairy. I could never do it. Kudos for trying

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  3. Thanks guys - but I merely put my toe in the water before retreating back to journalism

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