Why Do I Have To Learn This? Blogiversary Post #3

I asked my students to read the essay I discuss in this post, and to explain which of Menand’s three “theories” they subscribed to.  Their responses were mixed.  Then they asked me which theory I believed in, and I was unable to give them a definitive answer.  Almost three years later, I’m still not sure.  What about you?

This, my eighth-most-shared post of the last seven years, first appeared in 2011.

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Every so often, students ask me, “Why do we have to learn this?”

It’s no use telling them that learning is a good thing, period.  They’re taking seven or eight classes.  Some are doing “part-time” jobs that have them working thirty hours a week.  Making out with their boyfriends is a good thing.  Playing Mortal Kombat is a good thing.  Reading a book or understanding “setting” is … required for some reason.

In an essay called “Live and Learn: Why We Have College,”   Louis Menand reports that, soon after he started teaching at a public university, a student asked him, “Why did we have to read this book?” (a question Menand says he never got  at his former, Ivy League, teaching job.  This surprises me a little.)  According to Menand, your answer to this question will depend on your view of university education.

Those who hold one view will say,

You are reading these books because you’re in college, and these are the kinds of books that people in college read.

For such people, a university degree is a signal that one has learned certain things, a useful tag for indicating that you know things that other people don’t, that you’ve read books that non-university people have not.

Those holding another view will say,

You’re reading these books because they teach you things about the world and yourself that, if you do not learn them in college, you are unlikely to learn anywhere else.

This view holds that

 people will, given a choice, learn only what they need to know for success. They will have no incentive to acquire the knowledge and skills important for life as an informed citizen, or as a reflective and culturally literate human being. College exposes future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing.

That is to say: because you’re in college, you have a chance to do things that are valuable, but that won’t necessarily earn you a big salary or help you land a client.  So read this book that I say will improve you.

If you believe that college is a threshing machine, separating wheat from chaff (Theory 1), then grades, at least passing ones, are what matters, so that when you graduate, you will be seen as wheat, not chaff, in the larger world.  If you believe that college is a place to accumulate knowledge that will serve you in all aspects of your life and self, (Theory 2), then learning is what matters, regardless of the grades attached to it.

These theories are not compatible.  Learning requires risks, frustrations, even failures.  “Good grades,” more often than not, require a lot of memorization, or at least an understanding of what the teacher wants and a willingness to try to produce it.  A desire for good grades can be detrimental to actual learning.

As Menand points out, though, our colleges and universities (and, I would add, our schools, from first grade forward) seem to operate as though BOTH theories were true.  We tell our students that learning is what matters, that we are teaching them to think critically, that they will be better, fuller people because they went to college.  And then we teach them that a bad grade is, well, bad.  Sometimes we even get angry with them because they fail a test or misunderstand an assignment.

To complicate matters, Menand claims that these two theories really only address education of the liberal arts variety.  Most college students, on the other hand, are not majoring in humanities of any kind: the most popular major in the US is business, followed by education and the health professions.  For these students, Menand writes, university is about neither grades as a sorting tool nor learning for its own sake.

The theory that fits their situation—Theory 3—is that advanced economies demand specialized knowledge and skills, and, since high school is aimed at the general learner, college is where people can be taught what they need in order to enter a vocation…

Nevertheless, he points out, students in these programs are almost always required to take courses in English and other humanities.  This is where many – perhaps most – of the students in my English classes find themselves.  Everyone must take four English courses, regardless of their program.  There is no literature major at my college; the closest we have are programs in communications (subtitle: art, media, theatre) and in modern languages, along with a very small liberal arts cohort.  Most of my students are in science, social science, or professional programs.  Science students are usually strong students, and sometimes they care about learning things, but their bent is often toward getting into medical school or engineering programs in university (Theory 1).  Social science students, especially those without specialized majors, frequently have no idea what they want to do and had poor high school grades, making them ineligible for more rigorous programs (Theory? What theory?)  And students in industrial electronics or office systems technology or nursing are likely to tell me that they can see the point of learning grammar or maybe even how to structure an essay, but reading Death of a Salesman is of no use to them whatever (Theory 3).

And really, are they wrong?  The fact is, unless I or another English teacher sparks something in them that gives Death of a Salesman meaning, it might forever remain a dead pile of alphabet on the page for them (or maybe it will forever remain the image of John Malkovich, as Biff, dripping from all his facial orifices as he weeps, a scene students find both disgusting and hilarious.)

Our vision of “college” is hopelessly outdated.  Throughout his essay, Menand outlines the same historical trajectory that Alan Jacob does: the  broadening of the university student population since the days when a college education was reserved for the upper classes.  By the 1980s, universities were full of people of all different cultural, educational, gender and economic backgrounds, many of whom could never have gone to college in the pre-war era.

These students did not regard college as a finishing school or a ticket punch. There was much more at stake for them …. For these groups, college was central to the experience of making it—not only financially but socially and personally. They were finally getting a bite at the apple. College was supposed to be hard. Its difficulty was a token of its transformational powers.  This is why “Why did we have to buy this book?” [is] such a great question. The student who asked it was not complaining. He was trying to understand how the magic worked.

Menand is describing a Theory 1 response that he feels has all but disappeared: going to college makes me important and special.  I know that some of my students still feel this; they may have recently arrived in Canada from a place where a university education was impossible for them, or they may come from a family where they are the first to have graduated from high school.

Most, however are NOT trying to understand some magic external to themselves.  When my students ask, “Why do I have to learn this?”, they are trying to make sense of a system that seems arbitrary, full of hoops to jump through and dead-end labyrinths.  They truly do not understand why they have to do all these things we’re asking them to do.  What does this have to do with my career, or my life? they ask.

Maybe it’s never been explained to them, but more likely, it’s been explained to them over and over, and they just. Don’t. Buy it.  And why not?  Because it’s MY theory, MY reasoning, MY agenda, and I have not even taken a second to ask what their agendas are.

Is it possible for us to take the question “Why do I have to learn this?” seriously?  Because it is a serious question.  We often moan about how students no longer want to learn for the sake of learning, but we need to think about what we’re saying.  “Learning for its own sake” is an incredibly privileged activity, one that requires time, money, and the luxury of wandering along a wide, brachiated path into the future.  Most students do not have these privileges; they need to see their school and homework hours as useful.  If I can’t convince them that the definition of “useful” is bigger than the definition we’ve taught them until now, then a passing grade will be their only incentive.

“Why do I have to read/think about/know this?” is a place at which education can begin, if we answer the question authentically, or, even better, if we ask them to answer it for us.  If we show interest in their theories, they might become curious about ours, and together, we might be able to make some learning happen.

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Monday: how I saved my teaching career.

Image by Bjorn Snelders

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Corporatizing Education: A Justification

speckled paperSo let me just put this out there.

Yesterday I attended a talk by the renowned/infamous literary theorist Stanley Fish.  Fish’s talk was entitled “What are the Humanities Worth?”  He began exploring this question by referencing Louis Menand’s article “Live and Learn: Why We Have College.”

Menand  poses a similar question, often asked by students: “Why do I have to read this?”  Menand’s initial response is “Because this is the sort of book students in college read.” Menand feels this response is inadequate, but according to Stanley Fish, this is exactly what we should be telling students: “Just because.”  What are the humanities worth?  Don’t ask that question, Stanley Fish replies.  (But you just did, Mr. Fish!!)

The auditorium was packed with students, and as I looked around, it was clear that many of them a) had no idea what he was talking about, or b) were unconvinced by his assertion that the poem “The Fore-runners” by George Herbert is  its own justification and that we shouldn’t need to say anything more about the issue.

My main problem with his (entertaining and erudite) talk was this: he started by referencing Menand, who wants to determine why we should REQUIRE STUDENTS to study certain things.  He ended by explaining why the study of the humanities should continue to exist and why colleges and universities should continue to fund those studies.  (Sort of: his talk was also a sort of rail against the whole enterprise of “justification,” a position I also take issue with: more on this in a moment.)  These are not the same question.  Sure, the study of, say, literature, has all sorts of value that can’t be quantified, but Menand isn’t asking about that.  He’s asking a question that I often ask.  Why should every single student who enters a given institution, regardless of his/her personal goals, be required to study literary analysis, philosophy, etc.?

Fish’s premise in his talk was that “justification” entails explaining the monetary benefit of something, and he scorned the attitude that the purpose of an education is to qualify oneself for a good job.  This is all very well for Mr. Stanley Fish, who outlined his own career trajectory nicely during the Q&A: he finished his doctorate in the ’60s, was immediately hired as an academic, and has been in a comfortable tenured job ever since, in addition to having the passion and skills required to be a world-famous cultural critic.  For my average student, who has limited literacy, whose parents may well be scrabbling to make a living after their recent arrival from another country, and who doesn’t particularly like school but knows that he/she has no hope in hell of earning a decent wage without at least a college degree, the problem with viewing an education as part of a career path may be less obvious.

I’m not sure such a student needs to be investing him/herself in the study of George Herbert.  I’m not sure that a CEGEP education, as it is currently organized, is serving that student as well as it could.  I agree that many students benefit from spending time with poetry, or the living conditions in medieval France, or the works of Aristotle.  For some students, though, these studies are frustrating and impenetrable, and the upshot is that they leave these courses having learned little, and feeling relieved that they jumped through one more hoop on their way to the life and career they want.

I have an odd little educational fantasy that might not be fantasy at all – I’m surprised that it is not a more active reality.

What would happen if established corporations, industries etc. set up their own “universities”?

For example: say you graduate from high school and you are currently inclined to work as a telephone technician.  To do so, you need to apply to “colleges” established by major telephone companies like Bell Canada. These colleges do not just involve technical training; they are created by teams of highly trained educational consultants, as well as corporate managers, who determine together what kind of community they want the company to be, what qualities employees should possess, and what kinds of study would encourage these qualities. Literature and philosophy courses, therefore, would have a focus that might seem clearly relevant to students, even if they would also expose students to larger ideas, like the broccoli your mom pureed into your delicious buttery mashed potatoes.

Credits from these colleges would be transferable and recognized by other companies.  Let’s say you apply to study with every telephone company in the country and are accepted by all of them; you choose to study with Bell, but when you graduate, no jobs with Bell are available.  Not just your education but your application history would be valuable information on your CV, and hiring practices would need to account for an applicant’s entire experience.  If you complete some of your studies but decide that working with telephones is not for you, your application to study with a local plumbing company would need to include a personal reflection on what you’ve learned so far and why it makes you a good candidate to study and apprentice with them.

What are the problems with such a system?  What are the benefits?  When I look around at many of my students who are struggling to make ends meet, to fit in all their required courses, and to find the relevance in a lot of their class material, I ask myself what might provide them with greater motivation and therefore greater learning.  Telling them, a la Stanley Fish, that they shouldn’t be looking for relevance, that they’re asking the wrong questions, is not going to cut it with most of them.  Would it help if the goal was clear, and if it was really and truly the student’s own personal goal?

Image by Billy Frank Alexander

Classroom Blogging

nIMK48mI’m having my students keep blogs again.  I’m both excited and wary.

Student blogs are a lot more fun to read than papers, but they’re also more difficult to evaluate.  The setup process has gone fairly smoothly so far, but it’s still been a lot of work.  Reading a ton of blog posts every week can be really inspiring, but can also be draining.

The setup for my class is this: Each student will keep a blog.  They’ve been assigned to “blog teams” and are required to comment on others’ blogs as well.  There are minimum requirements they must meet to pass, but if they want to do well, they will have to post more regularly and engage more actively in their blog networks.

I’ve done a few things to ease the burden of reading, commenting on and grading 82 student blogs.

  • I’m requiring students to post only 3 times a month.  However, this is a MINIMUM requirement; a student who wants 100% on this assignment will need to do more than that.
  • I’ve created very detailed written guidelines on possible blog topics, protocols for commenting, and evaluation criteria.  Some students seem overwhelmed by this flood of information at the moment, but I hope they will find it useful as they get into the blogs.
  • Rather than receiving a grade for each post (impossible!) or a single grade at the end of the term (as I did last time; totally overwhelming), students will receive a grade for February (and a face-to-face meeting for feedback), a grade for March, and a grade for April.
  • I’ve decided to set aside a few minutes at the beginning of each class for blog concerns.  Today we’ll go over the mechanics of putting up their first post and making their first comments; next week we will talk about the ins and outs of using images (including copyright issues.)

Their first posts are due on Friday.  Do you have any advice?  I love student blogs, but last time I used them, I thought the workload might put me in an early grave.  What tips do you have for streamlining, responding, tackling problems, and otherwise making this assignment as effective as possible?

Image by charcoal

ClassROOM: Teaching and Physical Space

ChairI was thrilled when I learned my schedule this semester: noon to 4 most days, a nice change from my usual 8 a.m. start.  Then I learned the catch.  When you teach in the middle of the day, it seems, you’re much more likely to end up in a terrible classroom.

My first class of the semester was in a room with no computer projection system.  A major inconvenience for that course, but resolvable – we have portable systems that are usually available, as long as I book in advance and leave for class early enough to get to the IT Centre first.

My next class was, to my astonished chagrin, in the college amphitheatre.  It is, as the name would suggest, a lecture hall.  It seats around 100, so the first order of business was to move everyone in my class of 40 down into the first 4 rows.  The bigger problem is that – well, that it’s a lecture hall.  It has a wonderful big projection screen and interesting acoustics, but I’ve never lectured for more than 10 minutes at a go in my life.  The seats are bolted to the tables, and it’s impossible for me to get between rows; when it comes to group work, moving students around is going to be a crazy headache.  Doing in-class essays is also going to be a challenge, as everyone’s right on top of everyone else.  Lecture halls are for lecturing, not teaching.  I have no idea how I’m going to work with this space.  (When I asked the students how they feel about it, though, they said, “It’s cool!  It’s like being at the movies!”  I guess so, but they’re unlikely to still feel that way after staring at ME for a few weeks.)

The next day I had my third class.  It’s in an almost windowless room in the basement, and five minutes before our first lesson, all the power in the building went out.  I fumbled my way downstairs to find that the students were all shining their phones around to see each other, as the room was completely black.  Mercifully, the power came on about 10 minutes in – or maybe not so mercifully; the fluorescent glare revealed up a blank, bunged-up, low room twice as deep as it was wide, meaning that I seemed to be shouting at the students in the back through a train tunnel.  I have no trouble projecting, but a room like this magnifies student-in-the-last-row behaviour issues; they truly believe themselves to be invisible, so I have a feeling a lot of pauses and “ladies in the back, I’m still talking”s are going to be necessary.

Some colleagues have suggested that I make room change requests – the winter semester is never as crowded as the fall, so there’s an outside chance that such requests will be honoured.  However, I’m curious.  How will working in these spaces affect my teaching and my students’ learning?  How can I accommodate myself and my lessons in creative ways?  Is it even possible that dealing with challenging spaces will make me a better teacher?  I’m tempted to stick with these weird rooms and see what happens.

Have you had experiences, good or bad, with challenging classrooms or other teaching spaces?  How did you deal with them?  What did you learn?

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Friends, I’ve taken on too many projects.  I’m going to do my absolute best to post once a week at least, but the next few weeks may be sporadic.  I’ll do my best to be back on a regular schedule as soon as possible.  I hope your winter semester is starting off really well!

Image by Agnes Scholiers

Now You’ve Made Me Mad: Reprise

I don’t like this time of the semester.  A couple of years ago at around this time, I summarized why.

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What do you mean, “Why am I failing English?”

You’ve failed EVERY SINGLE ASSIGNMENT since the beginning of the course.  You handed in your first essay 2 weeks late, and you wouldn’t have handed it in at all if I hadn’t asked you where the hell it was.  You got 37% on your last practice essay, but you didn’t ask me a SINGLE QUESTION about why, or even look at the detailed feedback sheet I filled out for you, and then you went ahead and wrote the real essay, and got a 40% on that.

What do you mean, what can you do to catch up?  There are TWO WEEKS left in the semester.  You’ve been failing English since the fourth or fifth week – why are you coming to see me about this now?  Your grades have been posted up this whole time.  The fact that you’re failing English is NOT NEWS.

Yes, I’m sure your other courses HAVE been very difficult.  If you’ve chosen to prioritize your other courses, then that is a perfectly legitimate choice.  We all make such choices.  Most of us also recognize that if we don’t prioritize something, we’re not likely to do very well in it.

Why am I angry with you?  I’m angry with you because you’ve had 13 weeks to deal with this problem, and yet you march into my office when the semester is, for all intents and purposes, OVER, and you suggest that a) the fact that you’re failing English is a total surprise to you, and b) I am somehow responsible for the fact that you are surprised, and c) I should now be doing something to help you deal with this problem.  THERE IS NOTHING THAT CAN BE DONE NOW, and certainly nothing that I can do.  The time for dealing with this problem has PASSED.

What’s that?  Why don’t I care about your success?

I do care about your success.  I care about it very much.  I’ve been sitting here in my office, and standing in your classroom, caring about it, all semester.

You’ve been so busy not doing your work, you haven’t noticed.

Photo by Dominic Morel

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 5: Get More Training

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

One advantage of being a teacher is that it’s easy to keep learning, and learning, and learning.

I got my education degree years ago, specializing in Teaching English as a Second Language.  It was one of the most useful things I’ve done with my life.  It was also one of my most enjoyable experiences.  The program I chose (at Concordia University in Montreal ) was collegial, well-organized and both theoretical and practical.  I made a lot of good friends who were serious about becoming great teachers.

When I began teaching CEGEP, I was grateful to have done some formal educational training.  (An education degree is not required for CEGEP teachers; we need only have a Masters in our discipline.)  Years later, when I began to burn out, I spent some time thinking fondly of the days of my education studies.  There’d been hardships during my time as an education student – personal problems, a difficult high-school internship – so it hadn’t all been rosy.  Also, I’d taught in various contexts before beginning my degree, so I hadn’t had any illusions about life in the classroom.  But I’d loved being a student, and I’d loved learning how to be a better teacher.

Now, as a discouraged mid-career teacher, it occurred to me that getting more training might be one way to overcome my fatigue and bitterness.

I went about furthering my education in three ways.  If you’re a teacher who needs to refresh your perspective, you might want to investigate possibilities like these.

1. Formal schooling

CEGEP teachers have the option of pursuing a Diploma or Masters in Education, specializing in college teaching, through a program called the Master Teacher Program.  Professional development funds pay the tuition, and teachers usually do one course per term in order to maintain a manageable workload.  The courses offer a balance between theory and practical application, something I appreciated while doing my B.Ed.

I signed up, and was lucky enough to land an excellent teacher – one of my senior colleagues – in my first course.  There’s been no looking back.  I have completed ten of the courses and intend to follow the Masters program through to the end.

Not only has more formal schooling given me the chance to train, it has also reminded me of what it’s like to be a student.  Teachers can forget how it feels to be on the other side of the desk: finding time for homework, worrying about grades, fretting over the things we don’t understand.  Spending some time in our students’ shoes can change our perception of them and help us with our patience.

2. Reading

I began reading education blogs, searching for stories and advice from other teachers who were having difficulties.  The blogs themselves were immensely helpful, but in addition, they often recommended books on subjects I was interested in investigating further.

Also, the short readings I was doing in my Master Teacher Program sometimes inspired me to seek out the original, complete texts.  I began accumulating a library of books on education.  Over time, classroom problems sent me running back to that bookshelf; there was almost always a volume I could pull down that offered me some useful ideas.

Here are a few books that have helped me in tackling classroom issues and understanding my difficulties:

…and, always:

3. Collaboration

I’d always been prone to playing hooky on pedagogical days and ignoring memos about workshops and forums.  I realized I needed to invest more in the chances I had to bone up on new or rusty skills.  I began noting upcoming training sessions in my agenda and trying to attend one once a month or so.  Workshops ranged from roundtable discussions on classroom management issues to training sessions in using classroom technology.  I learned stuff, and I got to spend time with other teachers wanting to learn stuff.  It was invigorating.

I’ve slacked away from such activities in the last year or two, but I have good intentions of investing more in them again once once some personal matters settle.  It’s all very well to focus energy on the day-to-day nitty-gritty of running our classrooms, but some time collaborating with our colleagues so we can all learn more is always time well spent.

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One of the advantages of being a teacher is that we can, if we’re open to it, learn many, many new things every day.  This happens naturally, because we regularly meet new people and deal with unfamiliar situations.  However, sometimes we need to make a more formal commitment to training ourselves.  If you need to freshen up your classroom attitude, consider a skill that you don’t have or that you’ve let stagnate.  Do you need to assert yourself more?  Are you avoiding technology in your classroom? Are you behind on trends in your field?  There’s probably a course you can take, a book you can read, or a workshop you can sign up for.  In my experience, being a student can do a teacher a lot of good.

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Leave a comment!  How have you upgraded your skills and kept learning in your job?  How would you like to?  We’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 Michal Zacharzewski

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

How I Saved My Teaching Career: Step 3: Find Your Community

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

Teaching can be lonely.  We spend a lot of time with our students, but our relationships with them can feel adversarial and/or distant.  Even our good relationships with students are complex: they’re usually younger than us, and although it’s our job to try to understand them, they have no obligation – and often no ability – to understand us.

What’s more, many teachers are independent-minded people who prefer to tackle problems on their own.  I’m like that.  It’s helped me in some areas of my life, but when it comes to burnout, confronting it without support is unwise.

When I first began teaching, my emotional satisfaction came almost entirely from my relationships with students.  (You can see some discussion of this topic here.)  As my job changed and I grew older, I realized that my students weren’t my friends.  I became aware that fostering a community that supported me in my job, that I could turn to when things were rough, and that gave me healthy perspective on what I was doing was essential.

I began shaping and nurturing that community in three forms.

1. Family and friends.

These people were already there for me.  Most of them weren’t teachers.  They didn’t necessarily have advice to give about my professional problems and anxieties; if they did, the advice wasn’t always helpful.  But they did know me.  They were able to listen, relate my experiences to their own, and point out ways of seeing that were more productive than mine.  Perhaps most importantly, they were able to talk to me about something other than my work.

I don’t know about you, but during the semester, I think of little besides teaching.  Friends who don’t work with me go months without seeing me.  If someone wants to have coffee, my response is usually, “Well, how about Thanksgiving weekend/Easter weekend/reading week?  Otherwise, I’ll see you once I’ve submitted my final grades.”

I had to remind myself that my job was not my whole life.  I needed to talk to The Husband about things other than work.  I needed to go for drinks with people who didn’t know or care about the students who refused to do their homework or who cheated on exams, people who just want to talk about books, or gossip.

If I was going to feel like part of a supportive community, I realized, I needed to take care of the relationships I already had.

2.  Colleagues.

I work in an extremely supportive and friendly environment.  Many of my colleagues – including faculty, administration, and staff – have become good friends.  I also have friends who are teachers at other institutions. Sometimes talking to another teacher is the only way to grapple with an issue.  When things started going badly for me in the classroom, I started to lean on my colleagues more for advice, comfort, or just a beer at the end of the day.

If I hadn’t already had strong relationships with my colleagues, I would have tried to establish some.  We all need peers we can turn to for help or just moral support.  Often, there’s someone in the staff we’ve never really gotten to know, but whom we suspect we have something in common with; an invitation to dinner or coffee can pave the way to a deeper friendship.  And there may be more structured ways to forge connections, like book clubs or happy hours.

Obviously, we can’t connect with everyone, but we need some friends in the workplace.

3.  Online connections.

When job exhaustion first overtook me, I started keeping this blog. In a later post, I’ll discuss how invaluable the blog has been in helping my overcome my burnout, but it’s not the only online tool I use.  Reading others’ blogs, participating in online forums, setting up a Twitter account and creating a page on Facebook are all ways to both maintain contact with current friends and colleagues and also generate new connections.

Teachers and education specialists are, as a rule, very interested in reading, writing and talking about teaching.  Over time, it’s possible to build an international network of articulate, passionate and curious educators who want nothing more than to continue the conversation.  My network has sustained me through some difficult moments – if something troubles me at school, I blog about it, tweet about it, or Google the issue and see if others have something to say about it.  I almost always end up feeling better.

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I felt alone in my burnout, but I wasn’t; recognizing this was one of the keys to getting better.  Reaching out to friends, family, colleagues and online comrades helped me through some of my challenges.  Recognizing and expanding one’s community requires effort, but the payoff is enormous.

If you’re a burnt-out teacher, you might want to look around you and ask: Who are my friends?  How can I find more?

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What kinds of support and connections help you most in your job?  Do you know of any helpful resources for developing and sustaining connections between educators, or between members of other professions?  Leave a comment!  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Previous posts in this series:

Next post: facing my fears.

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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 Sanja Gjenero

How I Saved My Teaching Career: Step 1: Take Stock. Is It Worth It?

This is the second post in a series on how to overcome burnout and love teaching again.  For the introductory post, go here.

On Monday, I introduced my career crisis.  After teaching joyfully for many years, I was tired, discouraged and ready to quit.

But I paused before throwing in the towel.  I took a deep breath, and took stock.  Was it really time to look for a new job?

I asked myself some questions.  You might want to consider them, too.

 1.  Are these feelings new?

For years, the classroom had felt like my natural habitat: a place where I was more comfortable than almost anywhere else.  Even if a lesson was disastrous, I was INTERESTED in the disaster and how it had happened.  My students fascinated me, and I wanted to know and help them as much as possible.  This had changed only recently: I was now so irritated by students who were disruptive or disengaged that I was failing to appreciate everyone else.

I’d loved my job once.  Maybe I could again.

2. Do I (still) love what I teach? 

 Was it possible that I still loved teaching but would rather be teaching another subject?

I continued to love language and literature, but I was now less interested in fiction, my area of greatest expertise, and more intrigued by personal narrative.  I asked myself if I could incorporate more of these kinds of texts into my lessons.

I also asked myself – perhaps for the first time – why I thought literature should be important to my students.  Why should we read, write, study and analyze texts?  Did these activities have real value for students like mine, who rarely read for pleasure and who often resented being asked to engage with literature?  Could I do more to communicate my passion about these topics?

 3.  How much do I hate grading?

 I rarely meet a teacher who has anything good to say about grading.  However, some teachers find the pressures of marking so crushing that they leave the profession.  Teachers of literature, and other subjects that require mostly essay writing, are especially vulnerable, as are conscientious teachers who feel compelled to give students lots of detailed feedback.

One dedicated English teacher I know left on maternity leave and continually found excuses not to return, saying she might never go back to teaching because the thought of grading mountains of essays caused her to curl up into a fetal ball. Retired friends talked about how they missed everything about teaching but the marking.  It wasn’t just me.  Grading papers is brutal.

My own hatred of grading had gone from a normal aversion to two extreme physical reactions.  For one, I had developed a repetitive strain injury in my hand, arm and neck – it had first manifested a few years before, the result of compulsive journal writing, but it was now so painful to write by hand that I avoided it at all costs, even at the expense of grocery lists and phone messages.  I had also seen an old problem reassert itself: hyperventilation.  I was literally suffocating each time a pile of papers landed on my desk.

I would have to find ways to cut down on the grading.  If this proved possible, I might be able to stay.

 4.  How do I feel about my work environment?

 When I talked to friends (teachers and others) who were dissatisfied with their jobs, a number of them told me, “I love what I’m doing, but my workplace is toxic.  I can’t stand my manager/my colleagues/the administration…”

One evening a few years ago, I called a friend, in tears over a student who was making my life hell.  She responded, “Imagine how you’d feel if the a**hole you were crying about was your boss.”

Her point was clear.  The staff, faculty and management at my college were supportive.  We often took refuge together in offices, union lounges and bars, talking about our difficulties or just enjoying one another’s company.  (For example, if you’d like to know how print shop employees can fill your life with sunshine, go here.)

A positive work environment is precious, and rare.  Did I want to give it up?

 5.  Teaching has many secondary advantages.  How important are they? 

Besides being around young people and taking pride in what we do for them, there are other perks to being a teacher.  These often include long vacations (even after the grading and prepping), flexible work schedules (we can do some of our work at home in our pyjamas), autonomy (in our classrooms, we call many of the shots), and eventually, job security (turning one’s back on a tenured/senior position is no joke.)

It’s important to me to have stretches of time to work on my own projects like fiction writing, studying, and blogging.  Creative and stimulating jobs are often less than financially stable.  When I fantasized about other possible careers – writing full-time, going to culinary school – I couldn’t imagine one in which security, freedom, inspiration and emotional reward would be so balanced.

Jobs are hard.  Period.  My teaching job was, by all objective and subjective measures, a good job.  Did I really think I would find a better one?

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We all know bitter, unsatisfied teachers.  The world doesn’t need more of them.  If I’d come to the conclusion that I didn’t like teaching, I’d have begun looking for other work.

However, this first step – taking stock of my real feelings – made one thing clear: teaching suited me.  There were serious challenges that sometimes seemed like too much to handle, but they were balanced by the rewards: the chance to do something meaningful, to be comfortably paid for it, to have time to myself, to engage with material that mattered to me, and to work with people I liked and respected.  I wasn’t done.  I was just tired.

I didn’t want to quit; I wanted a new attitude.  What I needed, I realized, was a break.  In my next post, I’ll tell you how I got one, and how it helped.

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Have you ever considered leaving your job?  What questions did you ask yourself?  What were your conclusions?  Do you have advice for the rest of us?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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 Michal Zacharzewski