Tuesday, June 19, 2012

It's not about the pizza

I don't know how many times I've told myself over the last 11 months, "You'll have to do that differently next time around," but I find myself saying it again today, the last day of my fourth term of teaching.

For me, the hardest thing has been putting in so much effort and often getting so little back. It doesn't matter how interesting I make the class, how thorough the lecture is, how many opportunities I offer for success, or how varied I make the delivery in order to accommodate different learners. It doesn't matter about the subject, the classroom, the chairs, or the color of the dry-erase pens. It doesn't matter if I bring donuts or pizza or neither:

There will always be students who cheat, lie, make excuses, or simply don't care.

It's nothing personal. But still, each term I add another statement to my big first-day-of-class fear-of-god speech, taking a freedom, lately abused by another class, away from future classes. With every term, I learn how being the teacher, in many cases, isn't just about passing along information, but about finding ways to make sure the information, a messy bundle of ideas and tools and tasks, doesn't get lost on the tricky path it takes from me to the student and back to me again. I can control how the bundle is packaged. And I have the skills to judge the worth of what's returned to me. The thing I can't control is what happens while the information is with the student.

Don't get me wrong. Many students are very good. They're present, they turn in good to excellent work, and they do their best to stay engaged in what are very long classes in their very busy lives. On the bad days, I think of them. I try not to think about that student sitting in the back with her head on the desk, snoring away, never turning work in, making elaborate excuses for why she's late, and feeling sorely abused when she gets her grades back. She's the absolute worst. Selfish, unaware, wasting space and time, changing the dynamic of the classroom, and discouraging her teacher without knowing it. She has potential, sure. But this is not the time in her path when that potential is being realized. Instead, she's paying tuition to sit in class and dream about boys. How do I know what she's dreaming? I know because she was me. (I'm saying she was literally me. I'm not describing someone in my classes--do you really think I'd let someone snore?!)

So, I get it: The student response cannot be the fuel to your teaching or else you'll putter along and soon stall out. The fuel has to be something else. But, good grief do the slackers get to me! I can't help but be frustrated. I can't help but write a curse-ridden email response in my head before writing a polite, if direct, email in real life. I can't help sometimes feeling utterly discouraged and disappointed!

"Do you think I am an automaton?--a machine without feelings?" Well, I'm not. I'm just a regular old human. And sometimes, the situation gets to me.

I do love teaching. I love teaching those who want to be taught. I love sharing information I think is worth caring about. It's awesome to see students making connections as a result of my words. But I'm in the process of learning to accept that what I send out, that package of precious things, may come back mangled, or may not come back at all. I'm learning how to keep trying, how to continue sending my best stuff in spite of the wasters, and even to some degree in spite of those who take good care to return the information looking better than it did before. It must be about something else. So I'm trying to discover:

What keeps a teacher going in those times when no one is listening?