Are there solutions to this problem?
Last week, I had a trying morning. I felt like knocking my Prep students about their heads and yelling “Grow up!” When I returned, simmering, to my office and booted up the computer, a status update from the same date two years earlier popped up in my Facebook sidebar. What had I been thinking on that exact day in 2009?
“Just not feeling it. Is 40 a good time for a career change?”
I remember that day in 2009, and the days after. By the end of that semester, I was having a pretty good time. A few months later, I was having the best semester of my life. And now it’s come around to “Ugh!” again.
The moral? Everything is cyclical. I will never get to a place where the hard part is over and the rest of my career is a cakewalk.
As Rilke put it, “Just keep going. No feeling is final.”
I read Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach a few years ago, and now I’m listening to it as an audiobook. Palmer has a lot to say about the moments when we get angry, tired and self-critical. One way to face these feelings, he says, is through presence. We need to be fully present, fully connected, to all our teaching experiences. We avoid being present out of fear.
One of my students is disconnecting. He was recruited by the athletics department from a small town in the north of Quebec; he would not be attending an English college otherwise, because he barely speaks English at all. He’s bothering me. His sullen, sometimes slightly belligerent manner throws me off my game in the classroom. He asks questions in an aggrieved tone when it’s obvious that the information he needs will be coming along any minute now. He plays showily with his cell phone. He mutters things to his neighbour, who laughs, but seems a bit sheepish about it.
At the same time, I know why he’s behaving this way: he’s seventeen, he’s confused, he’s tired, he’s living on his own in the student residence and learning how to fend for himself, and every day is an exhausting ordeal of trying to function in a language he doesn’t fully understand. And, let’s face it: he might just dislike me. Football players and I don’t have much in common, and I refused to edit one of his Humanities assignments and instructed him to go to the Learning Centre instead.
My inclination is to ignore him, but I know that this will be disastrous, so I’m trying to find ways to be fully present. I ask him after class if he’s feeling ok, as he seems tired today. I promise to answer his questions in a moment, and then ask if he has the info he needs. At the same time, I’m ready to tell him to leave the class if his behaviour becomes truly distracting to me or others. I have a feeling I’ll have to have conversations with him. I HATE these conversations, believe me. If I listened to my fear of confrontation, I’d pretend none of this was happening.
But no. I will remain present. If it kills me.
Learning is difficult, and teaching is a constant process of learning. They will get frustrated, and so will I, because if we’re doing our jobs right, we’re taking on tasks that aren’t easy. Getting fed up is normal, and it doesn’t have to be destructive, as long as we recognize it for what it is: a knee-jerk response to fear. Fear of losing control, of being disliked, of failing at whatever it is we’re trying to do. We can go beyond the knee-jerk if we give ourselves, and them, some authentic and receptive time.
My tendency, when the fear arises, is to become coldly, witheringly annoyed. I know this about myself, and I judge myself for it. It’s ineffective and sometimes downright mean. But it’s possible to know this and work to change it without beating myself up. I can try to approach the student who bothers me with a real desire to understand. I can walk into class curious about what will happen. I can try to maintain a sense of humour instead of a steel grip. And when I am just plain pissed off, it doesn’t mean I’m a terrible teacher or a miserable person. It just means I have more work to do.
By the same token, when they are angry, frustrated, checking out, even rude, I don’t have to write them off. I may never grow to like some of them, and I may have to struggle all semester to work with some of them productively, but what’s wrong with that? A little struggle never hurt anyone.
I want a job that never makes me mad. Unfortunately, I live in the real world with other human beings. I’m going to try to give myself some basic help: more sleep, plenty of vegetables, maybe even a bit of fresh air sometime between now and Christmas. And then I’m going to maintain perspective, stay present, and be patient, with them and me. I may have to kick someone out of class or give them a good talking-to, but I won’t smack anyone or quit my job.
Not today, anyhow. We’ll see how I feel this time next year.
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Image by Christian Popescu