Without People: Reprise

As the semester draws to a close, I have more and more days like this one, which happened back in 2010.  Few turn out this well, however.

*

Yesterday, when I left school, I wanted to live in a world without people in it for just a little while.

My classes that morning had gone well – my Child Studies students just finished reading the first Harry Potter book, and we talked about why most of them loved it, and I asked them to make lists of books they’ve read and loved, and why they loved them.  I sometimes make sweeping statements about how “young people don’t read,” and this exercise always reminds me that I’m wrong, and it cheers me.

Nevertheless, there were, as usual, irritations.  One young man laughed uproariously when he got his last assignment back; he explained to his friends, well within my earshot, that he hadn’t read the book and his 90% was “ridiculous.”  Other students talked at inappropriate times and looked amused when I waited with thin tolerance for them to stop.

So, regardless of the fact that everyone else clearly enjoyed the lesson and participated enthusiastically in making lists, discussing with partners and sharing with the class, I headed for the metro feeling that people, especially young people, suck.

I was heading downtown to buy a birthday present for my fiancé.  Downtown, and the trains downtown, are filled with people, and I didn’t like people today, but there was nothing to be done.  I managed to score an isolated corner seat, and this made me feel better.

A young man in a red Adidas track suit, white headphones dangling from his zirconia-studded ears, hair rigid with gel on top of his rhythmically bobbing head, slid into the seat opposite me.  He was CEGEP-student age – in fact, it was more than likely that he was coming from my school, and he was the last thing I wanted to see right now.

The solution?  One of the “TED talk” videos on my iPod.  I keep them for emergencies, for days when I have to be out in the world but want to be inside a cocoon.

I allowed myself to sink into Michael Shermer’s talk about how people are idiots.  I soon began to smile, and probably even laughed out loud.  When it came time to push my way out of the train, I barely registered the fact that people were cramming their way in without waiting for others to exit, something that usually makes me furious.

Ten minutes later, standing at the counter of the clinic where I planned to buy my fiancé a coupon for a therapeutic massage (because he also has days when the world is too much), I realized that I no longer had my purse.  Hiding inside my “TED talk” cocoon, far away from the real world, I had left my purse on the train.

*

I ran back to the metro.  Standing by the turnstiles were three burly Montreal police officers: white, bald-headed, further thickened by their armoured vests and various deadly accoutrements.  They were consulting, and, as I approached, one said a businesslike “Ok, let’s go,” in the inflected way that the Québecois make “Ok, let’s go” a French expression.  They clearly had  somewhere to be, but when they saw me, they stopped and gave me their full attention.

“Yes?” the biggest one said.

Now, this is unusual.  The metro is outside an Anglophone college (not mine), so perhaps they were right to assume that I was an English speaker, but I was fully prepared to discuss the matter in French, and police officers I’ve dealt with in Montreal have been fairly adamant about doing so.  These men didn’t seem to be adamant about anything except making sure I was all right.

I explained the situation, and they outlined without delay what I needed to do: find someone who can let you into your house (my keys were gone), call to cancel your credit and bank cards, go to the nearest police station and file a report, then go to the lost and found at the central metro station tomorrow morning, because you never know.  Then they escorted me through the turnstiles so I could get back on the train (my metro pass was gone) and the biggest officer put a hand on my shoulder and said, “It could be worse.  It’s not the end of the world.  Good luck.”

*

Thus followed three very unpleasant hours.  Our neighbour, who has copies of our keys, wasn’t home.  I walked a few blocks to the home of a friend who usually has our keys, but he couldn’t find them and then had a vague memory of returning them to my fiancé the last time he came to visit us.  I called a third friend, and she had our keys, but when I arrived at her door, I realized that I had forgotten to ask for her new door code, and so I couldn’t get into her building; finally, a nearby boutique let me use their phone to call her.  All in all, it was an hour before I could get into my house.

Then I called the credit card company and the bank, had a long discussion about whether I should put a stop on all cheques (my chequebook was in my bag – but no, the landlord has postdated cheques that would be blocked), and went around the corner to the police station, where I filed the requisite report but was told that there was little I could do about identity fraud if someone tried to use my passport or social insurance number for nefarious purposes.  And then I went home to wait for my fiancé.

Between the tasks that needed doing and the numbness that was probably due to shock, I managed to hold it together until he walked through the door.

He made me change out of my work clothes and lie down on the couch.  He covered me with a blanket and ordered us a pizza for dinner.  He headed out to the bank to get me some cash to carry with me the following day.  He made me watch some stupid show he hates on the Food Network instead of allowing me to persuade him to watch the hockey game.

And then the phone rang.  It was someone we had contacted about officiating at our wedding; she was calling to ask some questions and arrange for us to meet her.  We had quite a long conversation.  She was a British woman with a calm voice, and I found myself growing quieter and quieter as we spoke.  I’m getting married, I thought, and this nice lady is going to marry us.  As the police officer said, things could be much worse.

And when I hung up, I checked the dial tone, and it was beeping to indicate a message.

“Hello?  I am wondering if you know Miss Siobhan Curious.” The voice was young, and male, and hesitant, with an accent that sounded Middle Eastern.  “I am looking for this lady, because I found her bag on the metro.”

*

When I called back, the young man’s mother answered the phone.  “Yes, yes!” she cried in French.  “It is my boy who called you, he found your bag!”  And she passed the phone to him.

“Hello?”  He was clearly a teenager; even his “hello” sounded like it didn’t know itself yet.

My thanks were effusive, maybe slightly hysterical.  When I was able to draw breath, I said, “I’m sorry.  What is your name, please?”

“Reza,” he said.

“Reza,” I said.  “Thank you so much.”

He asked if I could come to a metro station the next afternoon, so he could meet me on his way to school and give me my bag.  “Of course,” I said.  “How will I know you?”

“Well, I know how you look,” he said.

“Oh, of course you do, you have my ID cards!  I didn’t think of that.”

“Yes,” he said, “but I saw you on the train.  I sat across from you.  I saw you get up and leave your bag.”

And then I could see him clearly.  Red Adidas track suit.  Zirconias in his ears.  Dangling headphones.  Stiff, gelled hair.  The last person in the world I’d wanted to be looking at while I made my way downtown.

“Reza,” I said.  “Thank you.  You have made me very happy.”

Image by chidseyc

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Arrows into Blossoms: Reprise

My meditation practice has fallen to the wayside these days.  It would be wise for me to return to it.  In November 2009, I was tired of a lot of things, and some Buddhist reflections were helpful.  In particular, I spent time thinking about the writings of Pema Chodron, a tattoo of the Buddha under the bodhi tree, and how hard times and irritating people are opportunities for growth.  My thoughts on these subjects appear below.  The upshot: being pissed off is not so bad, really.

*

I’ve just finished reading Pema Chodron’s Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears. If you’re not familiar with Chodron, she is the world’s most famous Tibetan Buddhist American nun, and her works are meant to help Westerners understand the precepts of Tibetan Buddhism and apply them usefully in their own lives.  I found Taking the Leap, like all her books, inspiring, reassuring, and helpful.

At one point, she describes a famous Buddhist image that I hadn’t heard of before.  Before mentioning the image specifically, she tells a part of the story of the Buddha that many people are familiar with.  When the Buddha sat under the bodhi tree (where he eventually attained enlightenment), Mara, “the evil one,” came along and tempted him with beautiful women, delicious food, insults, and all other sorts of distracting objects.  Chodron says,

In traditional versions of the story, it’s said that no matter what appeared, whether it was demons or soldiers with weapons or alluring women, he had no reaction to it at all.  I’ve always thought, however, that perhaps the Buddha did experience emotions during that long night, but recognized them as simply dynamic energy moving through.  The feelings and sensations came up and passed away, came up and passed away.  They didn’t set off a chain reaction.

This state of being – the ability to experience emotion without being “hooked” by it, without being dragged into a whole self-feeding narrative of, say, anger, self-righteousness, and more anger – is the subject of Taking the Leap and some of Chodron’s other works.  I’d be willing to spend the rest of my life working toward this state of mind.

For example, I’ve been seething because the students in my most difficult class absolutely refused to cooperate with an activity I asked them to do last week, an activity that is essential in preparing them to do their next assignment.  They talked when I asked them to work alone and quietly.  They insisted that they “had to leave class now” and that they should be allowed to finish the assignment at home, even though I had clearly explained that this activity was practice for an essay they would have to write entirely in class.  They refused to press themselves beyond the simple declaration that “I don’t understand this story.”

I couldn’t calm my irritation, my sense that their stubborn resistance was a personal attack.  There is, of course, room to explore whether the assignment I gave them was too difficult, whether they haven’t had adequate preparation, whether I’m expecting something they can’t deliver.  But the deeper problem is that I was angry with them, and couldn’t shake it.

It’s possible to see any difficult situation as an attack from Mara.  We’re under threat, and we can react angrily or with panic or self-loathing.  But there’s another possible approach.  We can see the attack as food for our growth, as an opportunity for us to develop loving-kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity.  Difficulties are fertile soil for training our minds, and can be greeted with eagerness and gratitide.

A situation like mine, for example, is an opportunity to develop compassion.  The day after this frustrating lesson, my Philosophy of Education teacher returned an assignment to me, and I didn’t do as well on it as I always expect to do on my coursework.  In reading through his comments, it became clear to me that I simply hadn’t understood the criteria he was evaluating me on, and didn’t understand the process of philosophical inquiry he wanted me to go through – in fact, I realized that I didn’t have a clear idea of what a “philosophical approach” entailed, and so had no way of engaging in it.  At first, I was furious and defensive.

And then I remembered my class from the previous day.  This is exactly what they were feeling, I realized.  They were feeling it for a number of different reasons, and the fact that they don’t understand is due to a number of factors that they could have controlled – by showing up to class more often, for example – but the feeling is the same.  I get it.  And understanding where they’re coming from, and why, can relieve some of my feelings of helplessness and irritation.

After Chodron retells the above snippet of the story of the Buddha, she mentions the image I’ve taken all this time to get to.  She says,

This process is often depicted in paintings as weapons transforming into flowers – warriors shooting thousands of flaming arrows at the Buddha as he sits under the bodhi tree but the arrows becoming blossoms.

Immediately after reading these lines, I put the book down and ran to Google Images to find a depiction of this moment.  I wasn’t satisfied with the images I found; none captured the beautiful scene in my imagination, the blazing arrows morphing into a shower of soft flowers and cascading around the Buddha like snow.  If I could hold a pencil steady, I would’ve tried to draw or paint it myself.  Finally, though, I found this image, by the artist Austin Kleon:

buddhaflowersarrows

He describes the process of creating this image, a tattoo for a friend, here.  If I someday decide to get a tattoo, I may ask permission to use this.  In the meantime, I may have to post it on the cover of my course binder, to remind myself that every challenge can be transformed into flowers if I can only see it, not as a battle to be fought, but as an opportunity for growth and for deeper understanding of the human mind and the human condition.

This doesn’t mean I can make my students do what I want.  But maybe it means I can suffer less as I try to help them.

One Minute of Solitude: Reprise

solitude

We are six weeks into the semester, and I’m starting to pinpoint small classroom management issues and think about appropriate responses.  Nothing major has arisen so far (fingers crossed), but whenever I am confronted with hints of passive-aggressiveness, defiance or rudeness, I start evaluating what I need to do: ignore? Confront? Defuse in some other manner?

This always makes me think of past experiences, and one class from the autumn of 2009 has been coming to mind.  Here’s an early attempt I made to curb their inappropriate behaviour.  Take a guess: do you imagine this approach was effective?  Do you think it would be effective in one of your difficult classes?

*

Two of my three classes this term have been, so far, focused yet energetic, respectful yet lively. The third has been a bit of a pain in the ass.

This class meets from 4-6 in the afternoon – the worst possible time. They’re tired. I’m tired. Their brains are buzzing from a day’s worth of Red Bull and adolescent drama. They’re so done with learning.

What’s more, there’s a little gang of boys who seem to find a lot of stuff funny. I’m not sure, but from a couple of murmured, oblique exchanges that I’ve caught in passing, I’m beginning to think this has something to do with physical attributes of mine that they like.

Also: this is a remedial English class, and so far the work we’ve been doing has foundational (read: pretty easy.) Some of them are bored.

All this makes for a frenetic, nervous and silly atmosphere. After our second meeting, it became clear that this was going to be a continual problem if I didn’t do something to nip it in the bud.

What? I wondered. I stewed about it for a while. Should I throw people out? Should I give a speech? (Past experience suggests that speeches don’t work.) Should I separate the silly boys to the four corners of the room? Should I barrel through material that some students need to focus on so that other students won’t be bored?

And then I remembered a technique that a friend mentioned a while ago.  She said that begins her classes by allowing the students to shuffle around, chatter, etc. for about five minutes. Then she asks them to sit for one minute in complete silence before they take a deep breath and begin.

This, I thought, seems like a way to, if not eradicate the squirms and giggles, at least keep them more or less in check – to start on a calmer ground, so that escalation will be minimal.

So yesterday afternoon, when I was writing the class agenda on the board, I called the first item “One Minute of Solitude.” I then asked the students to make sure their desks were separated into rows and their cell phones were turned off and put out of sight.

“Last class,” I explained, “I was observing you. I noticed that there was a lot of very nervous energy in the room. It’s late in the day, people are tired , it’s hard to focus, people can’t stop laughing. So I want to do an exercise with you that I sometimes do with late classes. I want you to close your eyes. You can put your head down on your desk if you want. I’m going to turn out the light. And I want you to sit silently for 60 seconds. I’m going to time it, and if there are any distractions – if anyone speaks, if anyone’s cell phone goes off, if someone knocks on the door because they’re late – we’re going to start again.”

“Are we do this for a reason?” Khawar asked.

“Yes,” I said. “A nervous, agitated mind is not a good learning mind. Energy and enthusiasm are good; agitation is not. You’ve all been very busy all day, and your minds are busy too. This is a way to settle our minds so we can learn better.”

I turned out the light. I flicked my iPod stopwatch and said, “Go.”

60 seconds of silence is long. At about the 40 second mark, a couple of students shifted impatiently and looked around, but no one made any noise. And when the minute was up, I quietly said, “That’s it,” and turned the lights back on. They lifted their heads blurrily.

“How did that feel?” I asked.

“Calm,” Khawar said.

“Long,” Philippe said.

“We’re going to do this every class,” I said. “For some of you, it might be the only 60 seconds of calm you have all day. I hope maybe you’ll come to enjoy it.”

Did it help? I think it did, a bit. The major failing was that two of the boys who most needed this exercise came late, and so didn’t do it; as soon as they walked in, the energy in the room ramped up again. However, it never quite reached the height of foolishness that it had the class before, and overall, the work got done and the wasted time was minimal.

I’m a bit nervous about starting every class this way, but I’m hoping that, instead of becoming tedious, it really will be a tiny oasis of peace for some of them. And perhaps some of them will learn that if they can’t sit still and quiet for 60 seconds, it’s probably causing them some problems that they should really address…

Image by barunpatro

When You Are Uncool: Reprise

As promised, today I begin a Thursday series of posts from the archives – posts that have long since disappeared from view but that I still like.  New readers may be encountering them for the first time; if you’ve been reading this blog since the beginning, maybe you’ll see something new in the post this time around.

The first is a slightly edited version of “When You Are Uncool,” a post that first appeared in December of 2008.  Some of the details of this post are no longer true – for example, my bra size has decreased considerably (yes, this is relevant; you’ll see.)  Nevertheless, the questions raised here still seem significant to me.  Should teachers aspire to be “cool”?  Is it possible to alienate students with one’s coolness or lack thereof?  Please give me your thoughts.

*

In September 2008, the New York Times Sunday Magazine’s yearly “College Issue” contained a piece by Mark Edmundson called “Geek Lessons: Why Good Teaching Will Never Be Fashionable.”  Edmundson summarizes his premise in a quote from the movie Almost Famous, out of the mouth of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character, the real-life music journalist Lester Bangs: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you are uncool.”

According to Edmundson, good teachers are not cool. He lists off the ways teachers can be cool: “You emulate your students. You do what they do, but with a little bit of adult élan. You like what they like: listen to their tunes, immerse in their technology. …The most common way to become a hip teacher now … is to go wild for computers.”

A truly good teacher, Edmundson writes, is not like this – or, perhaps I can extrapolate, is not invested in being like this. “Good teachers see the world in alternate terms, and they push their students to test out these new, potentially enriching perspectives. Sometimes they do so in ways that are, to say the least, peculiar.”

He describes a teacher entering the classroom through the window and asking students to define the word door. Another teacher takes his students outside so they can, with their bodies, create a kinetic scale model of the solar system, complete with orbiting and rotating. (I remember reading, in Lorrie Moore’s novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital, about a similar class project in which one student, the narrator, was forgotten well into the night as she stood shivering outside the town library. She was Pluto.) “The good teacher is sometimes willing to be a little ridiculous: he wears red or green socks so a kid will always have an excuse to start a conversation with him; she bumbles with her purse to make her more maladroit kids feel at ease.”

The “Bangsian” professor, Edmundson acknowledges, is taking a risk. Students like cool teachers. They give them good evaluations. But according to Edmundson, “students don’t rebel against eccentric, surprising teachers. They rebel against eccentric, surprising teachers who take themselves too seriously.” The key, if you’re uncool, is to know it and be able to laugh at yourself, just like the fictionalized Lester Bangs.

Now, I’ve never been cool. I was deeply uncool as a child and young adolescent, was tormented and harassed for being uncool. In high school, I had plenty of friends, but I was also a lower-achieving version of Tracy Flick in Election, my hand always in the air and my smarty-pants mouth always running over with big words. I’ve always felt that everyone else knew some profound secret that I didn’t understand, a secret that allowed them to interact comfortably and unselfconsciously with others.

When I began teaching, I felt cool for the first time in my life. I was very young and acceptably good-looking, two qualities that immediately set a teacher on the road to cool. I also cared about my students, a lot, and cared even more about what they thought of me, so I wore clothes I thought they’d appreciate, did activities with them that I thought they’d like, and said “Yes” to almost everything they asked. I was an assistant teacher, so I wasn’t expected to discipline anyone – if students didn’t behave with me, they were removed from my class and returned to their regular teacher – so I rarely had to do anything that a child could construe as mean.

Students wanted to hang out with me on the playground, to hold my hand in the street, to share a room with me when we were on school trips. Never mind that these students were nine, ten and eleven years old and I was congratulating myself for being “cool” in their eyes.

I then began teaching at a high school, and my “coolness” was even more apparent and even more rewarding. I was barely out of high school myself. I was living in a small town where there were no young adults, all of them having left for the city to study or work. So I had no real friends. But to my students, I was cool.

I was an attractive twenty-year-old Anglophone (read: foreigner) who spoke French with a cute accent and had nothing better to do than chaperone school dances and go shopping in the city for slightly, but not threateningly, funky clothes. The boys wrote me love notes. Some of the girls, especially the “cool” ones, disliked me at first, but they came around when I was nice to them. When the Gulf War broke out and I drew a peace sign on my face with eyeliner every morning, the kids started doing it too. They wanted to be like me.

But I also went out of my way to be like them. I played games with them in the classroom, without ever asking myself what the pedagogical purpose of them was. I translated one student’s soap opera-style film script into English and spent all my free time, for the last two months of my time there, casting, directing and videotaping it. I went to volleyball games. I listened to French Canadian pop music. I watched Chambres en ville and Les filles de Caleb, the téléromans that they loved.

It wasn’t hard: I was a young person myself, and found these things enjoyable. I was almost effortlessly, almost naturally, popular.

It was intoxicating.

And then I started getting older.

The transition was a slow, and not a steady, one. I still loved my job, and my students, and that made me cool. When I was working in contexts where students were well-behaved and enthusiastic about what I was teaching, my own enthusiasm was enough to make me cool. I was, for many years, still young, and looked even younger. That was cool.

But I’m really not cool any longer.

I’m no longer good-looking by any teenager’s standard. The music most of them listen to is vapid and boring as far as I’m concerned. I’m not attracted to clothes that a seventeen-year-old would consider fashionable. I hate cell phones. Hate them. And, just as I used to say “Yes” to almost anything my students asked for, I now find myself saying “No” over, and over, and over.

It’s been very difficult for me to let go of the ego-trip, the sense of validation, that I got out of being “cool” all those years. I decided to become a teacher because of the feeling of self-worth that I got from being in the classroom. That feeling came from the way the students responded to me, a feeling I’d never had growing up. And as time went on, their responses changed. For a while, I thought that maybe my reasons for teaching were gone.

I’m no longer cool, but that isn’t the problem. The problem is that I haven’t resigned myself. I’m still looking for the kinds of responses I got when I was nineteen and twenty years old, and that’s just not going to happen.

What’s more, those responses had nothing to do with my students learning anything. I was validating my students just as they were, making them feel good about themselves by liking what they liked and never refusing them anything. But learning is not about being affirmed over and over. Learning is about being put in a position where you need to adapt and change.

I like Edmunson’s example of the red and green socks.

Most teachers I know spend time thinking about their clothes. When you’re standing up in front of rooms full of people all day, you can’t help but worry about your appearance. I know of teachers who safety-pin their flies closed every day, just in case. A colleague told me a while ago about female teachers who wear padded bras to avoid the problem of “nipplus erectus” in cold classrooms. (This option isn’t open to me: I wear a G-cup, and padding my bra would lead to a whole different set of fashion problems.) You don’t want to own too many sweaters that are similar, because then students will accuse you of wearing the same clothes all the time.

I mean, you don’t want to be laughed at. You take yourself seriously.

Even up to a few years ago, I got comments on evaluations along the lines of “I love the way miss dresses! It’s very special.” And I got comments like “One thing the teacher could improve: Her fashion sense.” I enjoyed comments like the former, and was baffled and hurt by comments like the latter. I still couldn’t grasp that I couldn’t please everyone all the time (even though I am, and always have been, well aware that my fashion sense is random and tenuous and sometimes just plain absent.)

Since reading Edmunson’s article, I’ve been musing about going in an entirely different direction.

I knit my own socks, often in hilarious colours. My hand-knit socks are not cool. Until now, it would never have occurred to me to wear a pair of my hand-knit socks in the classroom, unless they were well hidden inside boots.

But last night, as I finished up a thick pair in peony pink and sage green worsted, I held them up and had a vision of walking into the classroom in them, of a student saying, “Oh my God, miss, where did you get those socks?” And then we could have a conversation about sock knitting.

Sock knitting may be cool these days amongst hipster thirty-somethings, but to my students, believe me, sock knitting is not cool. It, and my pink-and-green socks, set me apart from them.

But we could talk about sock knitting, something this student would never have thought of doing, just like she would never have thought of wearing pink and green wool socks.

And even if she didn’t hear another word I said all class, she might go home and tell her sister or her father, “My teacher is a nutjob. You should have seen the socks she was wearing today. And then she told me she knit them herself. I mean, are you kidding me?”

And her vision of the world would have expanded to include people who knit, and wear, pink and green worsted wool socks.

People who, in other words, don’t take themselves very seriously.

I think Lester Bangs would approve.

Image by Riesma Pawestri

Ready…Set…Ugh.

Today is the first day of the new school year.  I am absolutely, unequivocally uninterested in being here.  I feel no excitement about meeting my classes, no anticipation of good things that may unfold.  Granted, I also feel no dread.  I’m simply unable to connect with the reality of it all.  The arrival of the new semester is like a vague, neutral, lucid dream: I know I’m in it, and it feels unreal, but I can’t shake myself awake.

I expect this will pass as my classes become groups of real people and my lessons become actual events.  I’m a bit worried, though, that my mind is so completely elsewhere that I’m going to do some things badly at the start  and will be unable to recover.  This has happened to me in the past: bungling the first lesson has led to a sour relationship with the class; failing to proofread early emails has created conflicts with students that never needed to happen.  The art of teaching often involves responding thoughtfully to the unexpected, and the first couple of days of the term are always full of the unexpected, and are also crucial for setting the tone for the rest of the semester.

I can tell myself to take extra care and tread lightly, but I have been nursing a mild headache for several days and am feeling less than able to monitor myself.  I think I need some concrete advice.  What do you do when you need to be in top form but you’re really, really not feeling it?  It could be when you need to teach a first class, or run a 5k race, or deal with your mother-in-law.  How do you ensure that you are ready to face what you encounter even if you don’t think you’re up to the task?

Please hurry!  My first class begins in 5…4…3…….!  (But I’m sure I can apply your advice tomorrow, and the rest of the week, and next year, so no matter when you’re reading this, give me what you’ve got.)

Image by Sanja Gjenero

What’s In a Name?

What do your students call you?  Would you rather they called you something else?

A couple of years ago, a reader named “Viceroy” left this baffling comment on a post that had nothing to do with his observation.

I notice that your students, who appear to be 17 & 18 years old, are required to addess [sic] you as “Miss”. Is this a symptom of the Anglo-Saxon education system where the student is required to humiliate himself/herself every time the teacher is spoken to? I’ve been teaching now for 25 years, and no student has ever called me by anything other than my first name. Makes I think for a much more relaxed and mutually respectful atmosphere.

After trying to puzzle out what he was talking about, I replied thusly:

What an odd comment. My students are in no way required to call me “miss” – in fact, I and many of my colleagues have struggled for years to get our students to call us by our names, even going so far as refusing to answer when we’re addressed as simply “sir” or “miss.” Most of us have given up the fight, as they persist in calling us by these titles, with no name attached, no matter what we do. I now tell my students that I prefer that they call me by my first name or by “Ms. Curious,” whichever they’re comfortable with, but most instinctively call me by the catch-all “miss,” and I suspect some would be hard-pressed to tell you my name if you asked them.

(The commenter’s choice of username – “Viceroy” – probably deserves some parsing, but let’s not bother.)

This exchange came to mind this afternoon, as my friend Susan and I were playing hooky from our grading and having afternoon tea (scones! cucumber sandwiches!) at the lovely Montreal salon Le Maitre Chocolatier.  Susan, also a CEGEP teacher, mentioned that she refuses to answer her students if they call her just “Miss,” and that after a few weeks of being ignored, they cave and learn her name.  She especially loves it when they call her “Miss Susan.”

I’ve never been able to stick to my guns that long.  And the truth is, although I did try for years to get them to call me “Siobhan” – out of some sort of anti-authoritarian principle, I suppose – I have always felt a twinge of discomfort when they do.  I still hate “Miss” as a generic teacher name, but I’m resigned to it.  “Ma’am,” on the other hand, charms me – I know some colleagues detest it, as it makes them feel old, but as far as I’m concerned, being old is an asset to a teacher.  And I do love “Miss Siobhan,” but when a student calls me “Ms. Curious,” that sits just right with me.  I sometimes wonder if I should instruct them to do so, and refuse to answer to anything else.

(At least one of my colleagues insists on being addressed as “Dr. _________.”  This has always struck me as insufferable, but if we were teaching university, I doubt I’d think twice about it.  Maybe I’m just a self-hating lowly CEGEP instructor.)

I believe we should all get to decide what others call us, but when it comes to choosing battles, this one seems less than pressing.  On the other hand, Susan says that when her students concede to call her by her name, it changes the tone in the classroom – the relationship becomes more reciprocal, and they seem to feel more of a responsibility to treat that relationship properly.

Do you have rules about how your students address you?  Do they follow them?

Image by Jakub Krechowicz

How I Saved My Teaching Career: Step 6: Meditate

This is the seventh post in a series on how to overcome burnout and love teaching again.   See the end of this post for previous entries.

I have a confession to make.  I’m a bad meditator.

Meditation is incredibly boring.  Everything in me resists doing it, and I can avoid it for months.  If I don’t meditate first thing in the morning, I won’t do it at all.  When I wake up, however, meditation is at the absolute bottom of the list of things I want to do.  (Second from the bottom is going for a run; if I have to choose, the run wins.)

Nevertheless, if I hadn’t started practicing meditation, I doubt I’d still be a teacher.

I’m probably not the only person in the world who spends a lot of time in mental conversation with people who aren’t there.  (I might be unusual in that I also have these conversations out loud, with nobody, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.)  When, for example, a student is driving me crazy, I spend a lot of time talking to him even though he’s not around.  I lie awake at night having furious arguments with him.  I practice, over and over, how I’m going to react the next time he does whatever he did this morning.

This can have positive results; I sometimes come to solutions by wrestling with problems this way.  My methods, however, usually outweigh their usefulness.

My anxiety about things that aren’t happening right now used to be even more intense than it is now.  I often found myself knotted up about something a student had done three years before, a student whose whereabouts were unknown to me now.  I projected all sorts of catastrophes onto the coming semester, and the projection could be self-fulfilling: I walked into the classroom tense and defensive, and this caused problems.

Then I began to meditate.

The central principle in Buddhist meditation is “dwelling in the present moment.”  The practice goes like this: you sit in a (relatively) comfortable, erect position on a cushion or chair.  You half-close your eyes, drawing your gaze close to you.  You place your attention on your breath: you breathe in with the awareness that you are breathing in, and breathe out knowing you are breathing out.  You do this for ten minutes, forty minutes, an hour, or as many hours as you are told to.

Inevitably, your mind wanders.  You start making a grocery list, arguing with someone who irritated you earlier that day, or fantasizing about the good-looking person sitting on the cushion in front of you.  When you notice that your mind has wandered off this way, you gently label your mental activity by saying “thinking” to yourself (silently), and then you draw your attention back to your breath.  Until it wanders off again.

There are many other, more advanced, meditation practices, but this is the basic one.  It’s incredibly simple, and yet incredibly difficult.

I read a few books on meditation, and took some courses at my local Shambhala centre.  At first, I had trouble fitting my sitting practice into my daily routine.  Then, during one of my meditation courses, a teacher said that meditating for ten minutes every day is better that not meditating at all.

When I heard that, I committed to sitting for ten minutes every morning before I left the house.  For ten minutes, I practiced paying close attention to the only thing that was happening: my breath going in, and my breath going out.

And then, something remarkable happened.  Just as I focused attention on my breath when I was sitting, I found myself focusing attention on the actions of students and my emotional responses when they were happening.  Instead of brooding and scheming, I cultivated my curiosity.  “Look what just happened!  I wonder what will happen next?”

If a student was making me crazy by talking in class, my natural tendency was to freeze, to second-guess myself, to hesitate.  What if I told her to stop, and she got angry?  What if she still talked and I had to do something further, and then she hated me, and said something rude in response?  Would it prove once and for all that I was a bad teacher?

As I practiced meditating, though, I found myself able to say, “Jennie, your continual talking is making me furious.  If you can’t stop talking, you’ll need to leave the class.”  I simply responded in the moment, and waited to see what the consequences were, and responded to them when they arrived.  “Look at that!” I would think.  “Farid just said something rude.  What does one do when a student says something rude?  Let’s try saying, ‘Farid, that was a rude thing to say.  Did you intend to be rude, or were you just not thinking?’  And then let’s see what happens.”

Through practicing meditation, I’m learning to experience the world and my students much more directly, with a fresh, inquisitive perspective.  A lot of exciting stuff has started to happen as a result, including a lot of learning.  Mine and theirs.

In the past couple of years, my meditation practice has become spotty: I tend to turn to it when my anxiety is spinning out of control, instead of maintaining a steady practice.  I’d like to ease myself back into it.  Meditating makes me a better teacher, and a better person.  And the world and the classroom are very interesting places when you experience them moment by moment, exactly as they are.

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Leave a comment!  In what ways have your spiritual/contemplative/religious practices helped you in your job?  I’d love to hear from you.

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Previous posts in this series:

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The series “How I Saved My Teaching Career” was originally published on the TimesOnline’s education blog, School Gate, in 2009.  Thanks to School Gate’s editor, Sarah Ebner, for her permission to repost.

Image by Penny Matthews

How I Saved My Teaching Career: Step 4: Face Your Fears

This is the fifth post in a series on how to overcome burnout and love teaching again.   See the end of this post for previous entries.

When I first started teaching, I was scared.  Terrified, in fact.

I’d taken a job as a Second Language Monitor – a sort of assistant language teacher – in a small elementary school in Ottawa, where I was finishing my bachelor’s degree.  I’d never had any intention of becoming a teacher, but this was a well-paid part-time government position that would look excellent on a CV and that was designed for university students, leaving time for our studies.

I had terrible stage fright.  However, I told myself: It’s just a job.  If it’s terrible, I can quit.

As it turned out, it was not terrible.  Within a few weeks, my fear had turned to delight.  Not only did I not quit, but when my contract ran out in April, I stayed on until June as a volunteer, coming in to the school five days a week when I could.

Since then, the stages of my teaching career have all been touched by fear.

  1. I moved to a small town in Quebec to work full-time as a Language Monitor.  I was afraid I’d be lonely, but my job consumed me and I had no time for loneliness.
  2. While doing my education degree, I took an internship in a school for disadvantaged students.  I went to work every day terrified of the chaos that was bound to happen.  It did happen, but I survived, and at the end of my stage the students gave me a list of pointers on being a better teacher (“Be more strict!”  “Don’t take any crap!”)
  3. I took a job giving private English lessons in offices all over Montreal.  I was nervous about navigating public transit to distant areas of the city.  In the process, I got to see places I might never have traveled to otherwise.
  4. I moved to Japan to teach junior high school; I spent every day worried about some unfamiliar task I would need to accomplish.  I learned more there than at any other time in my life.
  5. Before I began teaching CEGEP, I worked as a substitute public school teacher.  Many days I woke up petrified of what was in store: a school I’d never been to, in a part of the city I’d never visited, with students who believed that giving me hell was their responsibility.  I told myself, “It’s good to do things that scare me.”  And some days were awful, but I always learned something.

When I began teaching CEGEP, I wasn’t scared.  I had a lot of teaching experience.  I was excited about teaching literature after so many years of focusing on ESL.  I found my young adult students interesting, and enjoyed being around them.

However, as the years passed and I became more and more tired and unhappy, I realized that I was becoming afraid of walking into the classroom.

My fear was the result of trauma.  Regardless of how many terrific students I had, I was confused by the students who cheated, spoke to me rudely, or refused to engage.  I’d had difficult students before, but I’d had more time and energy to break through their defenses.  Now, I was taking negative attitudes personally, and I was hurt.  I shut down, put up walls, and held all my students at arm’s length, to avoid feeling victimized.

My fears were threefold:

  1. Fear of being disliked.  In the past, most students had liked me.  I was young; I was good-looking “for a teacher;” I really cared about them and their success.  In most of my teaching jobs, I wasn’t responsible for grading or disciplining students; I’d rarely been obliged to say “no.”  All this had changed.
  2. Fear of confrontation.  In life, as in the classroom, I detest fights.  Aggression and displays of anger upset me deeply.  When I’m angry, I become icy cold.  When faced with inappropriate behavior – whether in a student or a friend – I tend to ignore it, at least outwardly, although I can stew about it for years.  I was afraid of confronting students who behaved inappropriately; I froze them out and ignored them, and this made things worse.
  3. Fear of doing a bad job.  My sense of identity was now tied to being a “good teacher.”  However, my definition of “good teacher” wasn’t accurate.  Until now, I’d rarely considered how much my students were learning – instead, I was concerned about whether they were enjoying themselves, and me.  I was afraid that if my students didn’t all love me, I wasn’t good at my job.  But of course, this isn’t true.  My job is to help them learn, not to win their approval.

Identifying these fears was a major step in recovering from my burnout.  As I unpacked them, I realized that I needed to change my conception of “good teaching,” I needed to confront classroom difficulties head-on, and I needed to let go of the fantasy that I’d one day walk into the classroom with total confidence that everything would go well.

Fear is a part of any important work.  We don’t need to get over it, but we may need to change our approach to it.  In my next post, I’ll discuss one way I tried to deal with my fears: I got more training.

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Have you had to confront particular fears in the course of your job?  How successful have you been in doing so?  I’d love to hear your stories.

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Previous posts in this series:

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The series “How I Saved My Teaching Career” was originally published on the TimesOnline’s education blog, School Gate, in 2009.  Thanks to School Gate’s editor, Sarah Ebner, for her permission to repost.

Image by Scott Liddell

I Like Teaching You

Today is the first day of the new semester.  I’m not exactly pumped.  I’ve been working all weekend to find a motivator, or an inspiration, or a visualization to turn to when I feel it’s all too much.  What’s my objective for the next fifteen weeks?  What mantra will I repeat to myself on the days when I’m wondering what it’s all for?

In mulling it over, I asked myself, “What have I done for my students lately that made me feel good?”

In December, as I was marking students’ final papers and writing feedback, I found myself, in a number of instances, appending the line “It was a pleasure having you in my class” to my comments.  A simple thing.  I wrote it only when it was true.  And each time, a little wash of warmth swept over me.

I need to remember to do this, I thought.  Whenever I’m writing final notes to students, I need to acknowledge the enjoyment those students have given me.

But why restrict it to final notes?  Could I make it a practice to ALWAYS say positive personal things to students when they occur to me?  Not just “What a great pair of boots!” or “You did a bang-up job on that paper,” but also “Your contributions really light up the classroom” and “Your friendly demeanour is going to open a lot of doors for you in your life.”

When I first began teaching, I saw each student/teacher relationship as an intimate connection.  Once I started teaching CEGEP, I burned out quickly; the emotional energy necessary for such a connection with every student was not sustainable.  Since then, I’ve been trying to find a balance, and I’ve erred on the side of being distant and chilly.  Perhaps it’s time to start working toward a middle ground, one where I can say, in myriad ways, “I like teaching you.”

Do you have a goal for the semester?  Did you have one for last semester?  How did it pan out?  I will keep you posted on how I do with this one, and on any consequences I observe.

Image by Richard Dudley

Bloggers Anonymous

As is usual this time of year, I’m dealing with a trying student.  Yesterday, as a cathartic measure, I prepared a post in which I collated our email exchange since the beginning of the semester.  If you are not me, this exchange is no doubt extremely entertaining.  (If you are me, you spent most of yesterday meditating because it’s the only thing that prevented you from wrecking stuff and cursing constantly.)

However, this morning, I’m finding myself reluctant to publish it.

When this blog was being read by only a handful of friends and colleagues and the occasional visitor, I felt fine about posting stories about students, including almost word-for-word dialogue and emails.  I was taking plenty of steps to protect my students’ privacy, including the following:

  • My real name doesn’t appear anywhere on this blog, and I’ve taken strict measures to prevent my real name and my blogonym from being connected to each other anywhere on the internet.
  • I never mention the name of my college.
  • I change all names and identifying features of any students I mention.
  • Although plenty of my friends and colleagues know that I’m the blog’s author, it’s highly unlikely that they would recognize students in any of my stories.  My college is large – even if we’re teaching the same person at the same time, there’s usually no way for a teacher to know that this person is the one I’m referring to in a post.
  • The only people who are likely to recognize a student in a post are a) the student him/herself, or b) other students in the class, if the post describes an event that happens in the classroom.  For this reason, I’ve tried very  hard not to let my students know that I keep this blog, and so far, I think I’ve been successful.  There have been times that it would have been valuable for me to share it with them, but I never have.

Given all of the above, I’d be interested in your thoughts on this matter.  Is it okay for a teacher to tell true, detailed stories about interactions with students if no one is likely to ever know who the students are?  What about publishing emails from students – are these confidential?  (I believe the law concerning letters is that the recipient is the owner.  Is this true for emails?)  Is there a difference between reproducing a brief email and a long exchange?

As this blog gains more exposure, I’ve been trying to be more prudent.  But telling true stories is helpful to me, and seems to be helpful to readers as well.  I miss it.

What’s a teacher blogger to do?

Image by Richard Dudley