If I’ve Taught

Teaching middle school students is exhausting in every imaginable and inconceivable, unpredictable way. Rewarding, never boring. But exhausting. You use every trick in the book on Monday, and your classroom is mischief-managed as a Mary Poppins Sunday School, and on Tuesday, you use all the same tricks, and Minion One squirts Minion Two in with a water bottle, spilling water all over the floor while you’re teaching them about theme, tone, and mood, and then he’s the one to throw a terrible-two-year-old style hissy fit when you and your mentor teacher say they can’t keep the bottles at their desks anymore.

“This is so stupid!” Well, we’re in agreement there, dear.

And you’ll try to remember Love and Logic and all that “pre-frontal cortex isn’t developed yet” crap, but you still catch yourself (too late) saying harshly and rather loudly, “It is not my problem that you yahoos can’t handle the basic privilege of a stinking water bottle, so don’t put this on me! It’s your issue, not mine!”

Some time later you remember to unclench your teeth.

They didn’t do so hot on their last grammar test. Maybe it’s them; maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s lack of learning, lack of teaching–or it’s apathy.

“I can teach you how to diagram a sentence, but what good does it do if you don’t care about your own learning?” I say.

Maybe at the end of the day, I can’t make a buncha hormonal and disoriented seventh and eighth grade kids care about nominative pronoun case or whether the -ing word is a gerund or a adjectival participle. I try my darnedest anyway.

They need to learn. I tell them that. I need to teach. I tell them that. But what do I hope they learn? And what do I hope I teach, between the laundry list of state standards here and demands of showing growth and data there? Past perfect progressive tense? Sure. How to articulate theme by hashtagging the literary work first and then turning it into a sentence? You bet.

But. There’s always a but. (Side note, don’t say stuff like that to middle schoolers or they’ll never come back. Also, avoid the number 69, the phrase, “Just do it,” and NEVER mention the whip, the nae-nae, or the quan. Netflix and chill is off-limits as well.)

If I’ve taught students anything these past 5 weeks of student teaching, I hope it’s that (1) they damned sure better have high expectations and standards for themselves and others and (2) they damned sure better extend both grace and consequences to themselves and others when the standards aren’t met. All is striving; all is grace. Life is striving; life is grace.

It’s a delicate balance, but a worthy one. And when you’re a hot mess and can’t quite put yourself together, you get up and do what you gotta do anyway, and you choose hope and honesty and humility even if despair and deceit and pride are the easier pills to swallow. And you say sorry when it’s needed, pick your battles carefully, and you treat people with respect even if they drive you bonkers, and don’t you ever call someone stupid, but if you slip up and say damn it, I’ll pretend I didn’t hear you.

One student thanked me for never assuming the worst in her and her classmates. I said thank you to her for doing the same for me. I think all they want is to be heard, to be respected, and to have great things expected of them. They rise to that occasion more often than not. Other times, you want to smoosh their adorable, enigmatic faces, and I’m not gonna lie, I’m smugly satisfied when I hear, “Guys, angry Mrs. F. is so scary.” I’m stuck somewhere between being the kind of teacher that lets students breathe and be while they learn while also being the teacher that demands respect. I honestly am not sure how to be both. I’m not even sure I know how to be just one or the other.

So I ask, “How come you zip your lips for her, but when I ask you for the zillionth time to shush, you keep on yammering on and on?”

Usually, they say something like, “Well, so-and-so scares me!”

Hrmph. I want to be scary. But I also don’t want to be scary.

This teaching thing is tough and existential and weird.

For all the times I’ve told them, “I am weary of your continuous choice to behave this way,” and, “In what realm is this behavior acceptable?” and, “None of us can be at our best when we are working against one another like this,” and, “I am struggling; is this hard for anyone else?” and “I want you to know I go home every day wondering how I can be better for you tomorrow,” I hope what they hear is, “I am for you, not against you,” and, “You are capable of more,” and “Whatever I expect of you, I expect tenfold of myself, and when we both fail one another, we both come right back the next day and try it again, and that’s what really counts,” and, “We’re only human, but we should try to be more anyway.”

Teaching is such a beautiful, chaotic kaleidoscope of a calling, and there are snares, bindings, and traps that catch us and trip us, making us forget why we chose this path. I have wondered if I have made a terrible mistake. I have called my mom, crying, “There is no way in hell that I am cut out for this because I am too weak, sick, scared, incapable, uncertain, depressed, anxious, fatigued–” you name it. I have been slapped in the face with the reminder as to why I dropped the education program in my undergrad: my body was exhausted and sick.

Truth be told, I have both inadvertently and intentionally (at times) let students see me as I fall, which means, too, that they watched me get back up and nurse my wounds and keep on marching. Because the spirit is stronger than the body when you’re on the path He has paved (or rather, left unpaved) for you.

(Is this why Robert Frost is in our poetry curriculum? Am I to learn alongside my students that the road less traveled makes all the difference in the economy of the soul?)

As one student said, “You can’t truly know good without evil. You can’t know what light is like without knowing what dark is like first.” Yes, honey! I am so glad you have that wisdom at such a young age–and I hope your knowledge of the light is more extensive than that of the dark.

I hope they know they are capable of both the terrible and terrific, that their propensity for the widest range of emotions and thoughts and fears is a beautiful and powerful thing, that they are worthwhile, obnoxious as hell, and they’ve exhausted and emptied me in all the best and worst ways because their souls and lives are imbibed with so much purpose, and I bear the burden and privilege that I am allowed to intersect with their journey along the way with great severity, consideration, and joy.

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