Ten Wonderful Things, Part Three: Early Mornings

At least ten things went right this semester.  This is the third one.

3.  Early Morning Classes

A few semesters ago, I requested the “early schedule” (8 a.m. – 4 p.m., as opposed to 10 a.m – 6 p.m.) for the first time.

I had been relegated to the early schedule fairly often in my early CEGEP teaching days, when my preferences were moot and I took what I was given.  (In fact, I frequently taught Cont Ed courses from 6-10 at night, and then taught again at 8 the next morning.  My office mate and I concocted all sorts of plans to set up a cot in our office so we wouldn’t have to go home at all, but never did it because apparently security guards check offices in order to stymie such plans.)

Once I graduated to full-time ranks, I vowed that, given the choice, I’d never teach another 8 a.m. class.

But in the years that followed, I noticed something about the late schedule.  The late schedule is great if it’s not actually late.  Teaching between 10 and 4 is nice.  Students are awake, but resigned to being trapped at school for however many more hours.  They tend to be at the peak of their productivity (such as it is) somewhere during those hours.

However, 4-6 p.m. classes are never good.  Never.  Students are exhausted.  So am I.  Students are desperate to get out ten minutes early so they can catch a bus that will get them home an hour earlier than the next one will.  Students have been drinking a variety of caffeinated drinks since early morning, and have probably ingested at least one mild but illegal mind-altering substance in the parking lot.  4-6 p.m. is a particularly nightmarish time for remedial classes, where a lot of students tend to know little and care less about their own learning patterns and biological rhythms, and so are not likely to have, say, gone for a quick walk around the block or drunk lots of water or even completed the necessary homework before coming to class.

So, as an experiment, the semester after I returned from my last sabbatical, I decided to request the early schedule.  How bad could it be? I thought.  I’d often hauled myself out of bed at 5:30 a.m. when I was a private language teacher; if need be, I could nap.  I would have time in the afternoons to get marking and planning done, and even to get home and make dinner instead of living on takeout and whatever I could scrounge from the back of the freezer.  And colleagues often told me that they loved getting all their teaching done by noon.

It was not only not bad.  It was fantastic.

All of the above turned out to be true.  I was completely unable to have a social nightlife, even on the weekends, because I was falling asleep by 9 p.m., but frankly, I’m not much of a partier.  I was able to sit in my office at work until everything was ready for the next day, and STILL be on my bike and on my way home before rush hour traffic began.  And prepping and marking after class was far less stressful and more effective than scrambling to get things done before going in to teach in the afternoon.

What I hadn’t counted on, though, was the remarkable difference in the students.

You’d think that an 8 a.m. class would make for a lot of late arrivals, but I really didn’t notice more than at any other time.  (This term, I had a student in my 8 a.m. whom I’d previously taught in a class that began at noon, and he supported a theory that I have held for a long time: people who are late are late.  This student was a “late” person, and the time he was expected to show up made no difference to his lateness.  The only way to make “late” people show up on time is to lie to them about schedules, and you can’t really do that in a classroom context.  Punctual people will show up on time for class at 8 or at 4 or at 1 in the morning, because that is what punctual people do.)

What I did notice was that students come in at 8 a.m. wanting to do something.  Occasionally a head will go down on a desk, but, more often than not, in the early morning, students are grateful to be given a task, any task.  A lot of lecturing goes over less well, but I don’t lecture much anyway.  Group work, pair work, and class discussion are all pretty effective at 8 a.m., because they’ve just had their first cup of coffee and they need to keep that blood moving.

Also, students are less likely to spend a lot of time texting their friends, because their friends aren’t awake yet.  What’s more, they’re not ready to be disruptive, because if they’re the disruptive type, they probably a) didn’t sign up for an 8 a.m. class or b) were up late last night causing trouble, and so slept through the alarm, or c) are groggy.

Finally, teaching at 8 a.m. gives me a chance to give them a good start to their day.  Now, if I’m giving or returning a test, I can’t count on them being happy about it, but otherwise, I can try to find ways to make them laugh, make them think, or make them talk about things they care about.

I was especially grateful for my early schedule this semester, because last term I didn’t get one even though I requested it.  I have my fingers crossed for the fall.  I will happily get up at 5:30 every morning for the rest of my teaching life if it makes my job as enjoyable as it has been this term.

*

Previously on the list:

Wonderful thing #2: Incorrect First Impressions

Wonderful thing #1: My IB Students

Image by Oleksiy Petrenko

A World Without People

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 The Fiancé.  Downtown, and the trains downtown, are filled with people, and people were the last thing I wanted to deal with, 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 The 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 would have been 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.  My 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 The 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 The 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 vaguely 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.  Exactly the kind of young person I hadn’t wanted to be looking at while I made my way downtown.

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

Image by Brano Hudak

What I’m Learning From Roberto Bolaño’s The Skating Rink

A friend gave me a copy of The Skating Rink for my birthday a couple of weeks ago.  I’d told her that I’ve been trying to get into mystery novels lately, and she’s been devouring Bolaño but didn’t want to plunge me into his difficult masterpiece 2666.

It’s a relatively slim book, with an attractive, mysterious cover, and hey – a murder mystery.  So I was looking forward to it, and, after polishing off a couple of other things, picked it up in great anticipation.

It was hard.

The language wasn’t hard.  It’s narrated by three men, oral-history style, so the diction is simple and conversational.  Even structurally, it’s pretty accessible; each chapter is one long paragraph, which was in some cases disorienting, but the chapters are short, no more than a few pages. And there’s no question but that it’s brilliant.  The story is sinewy and double-crosses itself so that you have to read more and more slowly, backtracking and pausing and questioning.

It’s set in a fictional Spanish town outside Barcelona.  I’ve never been to Spain – it’s next on my list – and maybe some more intimate cultural knowledge would have helped me.  The three narrators were indistinguishable to me until well into the first 3rd of the book; maybe if I had some personal associations with the names “Gaspar,” “Remo” and “Enric,” they would have solidified for me sooner.

(I love names.  As a child I kept lists of names; I would comb through magazine mastheads and the credits of movies to find names that were new to me and write them down.  Every so often I’d alphabetize the lists – by hand, of course, on notepaper – so that I could spend more time looking at them and sounding the names out in my head.  For most of my life, I’ve had an uncanny ability to remember people’s names, although that has declined in recent years.)

What’s more, none of the characters – the narrators, the beautiful figure skater at the centre of the story, the old opera singer, her young companion…– were the sort of people one would really want to spend any time with.  I know this is a facile criticism; in fact, it’s not a criticism at all.  “Creating likable characters” is an overrated skill; creating unlikable but interesting characters is a far greater feat.  And these characters are all supremely interesting.

It’s a very good book, and I found it difficult to read.  And this was an important experience, because it reminded me of what my students go through all the time.

My friend chose this book for me, and I could have chosen not to read it.  I decided to read it through to the end because:

  • Bolaño is an important writer, and, as a reader, writer and teacher of literature, I should know something about his work,
  • I could recognize that the book is brilliantly written, even if I wasn’t compulsively swept along by it,
  • My friend loves Bolaño, and she’s smarter than me in many ways, so I know she’s on to something.

So I was able to engage in and appreciate this tough reading experience because I can recognize that it will bring me something.  And the truth is, when I say “tough,” what I mean is “I didn’t feel obsessed with the urge to devour this book to the exclusion of everything else I have to do.”

My students, however, are in a different position.  First of all, they don’t get to choose whether they finish the books I assign.  (Well, they do – their latest writing assignments suggest of many of them decided not to finish, or in some cases even to start, Franny and Zooey – but the impact for them is much greater than it is for me when I abandon a book.)

Also, my students have not received years of training in the reading of literature.  In fact, many of them don’t even have years of experience in reading simple books – a good number of them have probably never read a book, certainly not a work of fiction, unless it was assigned in school.  Therefore, I expect their responses to my “motivations” would go something like this:

  • “You say this guy’s an ‘important writer.’  Why should I care?  What do ‘important writers’ have to do with my life?  A bunch of people somewhere decided that this guy is important.  I don’t think he’s important.”
  • “You say this book is ‘brilliantly written.’  What makes it brilliant?  Who says it’s not just some guy amusing himself without caring what his reader wants?  If someone else calls this ‘brilliant writing,’ why should that matter to me if I don’t understand what the guy’s saying or why he’s saying it?”
  • “I guess maybe my English teacher is smarter than me.  Or maybe not.  She seems to think she is.   But why does that mean that I should read the things she thinks I should read?  That guy sitting up front in the third row is probably smarter than me, too, but I guarantee you that the stuff he likes is as boring as the stuff my English teacher likes.  If my English teacher likes this book, then I probably won’t, because my English teacher is NOTHING LIKE ME.”

We’re each the centre of our own universe, including our own reading universe.  My friends recommend books to me – sometimes I read them, sometimes I don’t finish them, sometimes I never pick them up.  I tell my students to read things because I think they should, and because I think they might even enjoy them.  They don’t get to decide what to do with that information; they either follow my recommendations or they risk failing their English course.

Granted, school is not a book club (although I sometimes wish I could make my classes more like book clubs, and I’m taking steps to see if that can happen.)  But if I can at least empathize with my students’ struggle to read books they don’t really like, maybe I can find ways to help them get something out of them.

I’m glad I read The Skating Rink through to the end.  It will stay in my mind far longer than some of my more comfortable reads.  I’d like my students to be glad about their difficult reading experiences too.  I don’t know if it’s too late, if they’re too old, to learn this skill if they don’t already have it: the skill of taking satisfaction in meeting an unappetizing challenge.  But maybe teaching them this skill is one of the most essential parts of my job.

If anyone has any pointers on how to teach it, I’m all ears.

What I’m Learning From What I’m Reading: Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto

On Thursday, I received a number of pre-spring-break, post-1st-major-assignment visits, emails and phone calls from students who are now hopelessly behind.

These communiqués are always bad for my blood pressure.  I start obsessing about what I will say if they challenge my “no makeups without a medical excuse” policy.  I twitch every time I think of the student who insists that she DID hand in the essay on the due date, and promises to email me a copy at the end of the day, but then doesn’t.  I start anticipating.  I start feeling sorry for myself, and angry at them.

On Friday morning, sitting on the metro on the way to work, I was reading the last few chapters of Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, but I was distracted, thinking about the phone messages that might be waiting for me when I arrived at the office.  I put the book down on my lap and stared at the bobbing metro wall for a while.  It was decorated with one of those shocking STD service announcements that show a girl’s panties down around her thighs, her crotch covered by a black bubble and text that translates as “The thing about chlamydia is that often you can’t see it.”

Everything, I thought, is a slippery slope.

Then I looked down at the book in my lap.  And I thought:

You know what?  I’m not being held hostage by South American terrorists.

*

[Note: something else I’d like to learn: if anyone has any knowledge of what constitutes “fair use” of book cover images for blog posts, I would like very much to know.  I’m assuming that I’m safe to use a cover image for a post like this, but I can’t find any clear confirmation of this fact.]

Literature and the Meaningful Life

Here’s a little something I found in my inbox this morning.

What makes for a meaningful life? I consider each day, not just the life as a whole. I look at four ingredients. First, was it a day of virtue? I’m talking about …avoiding harmful behavior of body, speech, and mind; devoting ourselves to wholesome behavior and to qualities like awareness and compassion. Second, I’d like to feel happy rather than miserable. The realized beings I’ve known exemplify extraordinary states of well-being, and it shows in their demeanor, their way of dealing with adversity, with life, with other people. And third, pursuit of the truth—seeking to understand the nature of life, of reality, of interpersonal relationships, or the nature of mind.

But you could do all that sitting quietly in a room. None of us exists in isolation, however, so there is a fourth ingredient: a meaningful life must also answer the question, “What have I brought to the world?” If I can look at a day and see that virtue, happiness, truth, and living an altruistic life are prominent elements, I can say, “You know, I’m a happy camper.” Pursuing happiness does not depend on my checkbook, or the behavior of my spouse, or my job, or my salary. I can live a meaningful life even if I only have ten minutes left.

-B. Alan Wallace from “What Is True Happiness” (Tricycle, Fall 2005)

The fourth ingredient is the one I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.  It’s the one that keeps me from quitting my job.

My personal life is pretty small: I have a wonderful fiancé, loving parents, good friends, a couple of cute and snuggly cats.  Very few people depend on me, and those who do depend on me for very little – the possible exception is The Fiancé, but even he could get along just fine without me if he had to.  Oh, and the cats – they’re people too – but their needs are simple.

If it’s true that “a meaningful life must also answer the question, ‘What have I brought to the world?’,” then my job as a teacher is the part of my life that answers that question the best.  Every day, when I walk into the classroom or meet with a student in my office, I have the opportunity to bring something to the world.  What I bring, and whether it helps anyone, is another question, but at least I am given that chance.

The question I posed yesterday – why should we teach literature? – is a similar question to the one Wallace raises, at least in the context of my job.  What am I bringing to the world when I coerce my students into reading books they don’t want to read and thinking about them in ways they don’t feel are useful?  Am I helping them?  Am I helping the world?

I think maybe I am, but I have to keep asking myself the question.

Image by Melodi T

Top 10 Posts of 2009

Have you gotten behind on your blog reading?  Do you wish you’d had time to read EVERY SINGLE POST here at Classroom as Microcosm this past year?  Or are you a new reader who doesn’t know how to get caught up on all this teacherly goodness?

Never fear – I’ve put together a handy list to help you get up to speed.  I checked out my stats meter for 2009 and compiled the posts that received the most hits in the last twelve months.  I don’t know for sure that these are the best posts I’ve published this year – maybe you can tell me! – but they’re the ones that made people take notice, for better or for worse.

1. Top 10 Student Excuses for Missing Class:

This post’s popularity is due in large part to Sarah Ebner at School Gate, who came across it and generously promoted it more than once to her TimeOnline readers.  It remains one of my favourite posts, because it reminds me each time I read it that my students are complex and interesting people, and that not all excuses are sneaky fictional attempts to avoid consequences!

2. 10 Reasons I Hate Grading Your Assignment:

A rising stat meter usually makes a blogger very happy: people are reading my post!  Hurrah!  In the case of this post, however, the rising meter eventually triggered a full-blown panic attack.  A lot of people were made very angry by this rant, in which I wax furious on green printer ink, 1-and-1/2 spacing, sloppy proofreading and unauthorized email submissions.  I also received some very nice comments and emails congratulating me on my uncompromising standards, but this post marks the first time, ever, in my life, that I wished people were paying a little less attention to me.

A follow-up post, in which I examine the effects of the negative feedback on my state of mind, was also high on the list of top posts.

3. Sulk and the 17-year-old Girl:

The saga of Mary, Melanie, and especially Marta begins here, and the anxiety of dealing with these difficult but interesting girls was more than offset by the pleasure I got from writing about them.  Later posts on the trio that also received lots of hits are part two of “Sulk…“, my wrap-up of several of the winter semester’s top stories, and a one-act screenplay of my final meeting with the three girls.

4. Who Says You Have To Go To College?:

The question of whether college is the best path for everyone has been on the table a lot in the past year, and this probably accounts for the popularity of this post.

5. Holden Caulfield Has Left the Building:

Have teenagers really had it with Holden Caulfield?  My classroom experience says yes and no.

6. Yannick’s debts:

I was surprised to see this post near the top, as it’s relatively recent, but the story of Yannick’s troubles and my refusal to baby him seems to have resonated with a lot of readers.

7. There Are Worse Things Than Dropping Out of School:

Another post that asks whether school is really for everyone.

8. If You Use This Phrase in Your Essay, You Will Fail:

Top 10 lists seem to always be a hit.  In this one, I enumerate some word choices that I’d be happy never to read again.

9. What I Did On My Summer “Vacation”:

This one came out in August, just as everyone was ready to start thinking about teaching again; maybe that’s why it received a lot of visits.  It’s a response to the 2009 Professional Development Meme; I had previously listed my professional development goals for the summer, and in this post I examine whether I met them.

10.  One Minute of Solitude:

After reading this post about how I implemented my friend Lorri’s “one minute of silence” exercise in my classroom, a lot of readers wrote to say that they were going to try it, too.  I didn’t maintain this exercise throughout the semester, but I may do it again sometime and stick with it to observe the results.

And, because I do love a good, justified rant, a bonus post…

11. Now You’ve Made Me Mad:

This one is worth it for the “angry kitty” photo alone.

Thank you so much for reading, commenting, and making my blogging so rewarding!

Image by Owais Khan

The New Semester: 10 Resolutions

Classes start again in less than two weeks.  (Primary, secondary and university teachers who are already back at work, I know what you’re thinking: “Shut up.”  Believe me, I know how good I’ve got it.)

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions.  However, one theme that presents itself frequently in my Buddhist meditation practice and my yoga classes is that of “setting an intention.”  Why am I doing this?  What do I want from it?  Where will I place my effort?

So before the kicks to the head begin, I thought I’d “set some intentions” for the semester.  What am I going to focus on when the going gets rough?

1. I will work hard.

Teachers will look at #1 and say, “Like you’ll have a choice.”  Fair enough.  However, one of my greatest struggles is that I resist work and resent it.  What will happen if I decide that I want to work hard?  What if I look at every stack of papers and every test that needs to be prepared and I think, “Here’s another chance to work hard, just like I wanted”?

2. I will not count the days until the end of the semester.

I need to stop wishing my life away.  I need to see my work life for what it is: the place where I learn and grow more than I do anywhere else.

3. I will approach my students as people, not problems.

Registration is in progress, and today I checked my student lists, which are about half complete.  So far, two familiar names caused my heart to sink a little.

Am I going to walk in anticipating difficulties?  Or am I going to walk in with the attitude that these students are complex, evolving beings who are bound to surprise me in one way or another?  If I can truly be present with my students, I can help them more and they, in turn, can teach me something.

4. I will meditate.  Every morning, if possible.

Meditation keeps me grounded and sane. It gives me perspective and helps me to stop working myself into a lather.  I have an early schedule this semester – my classes often begin at 8 a.m. – and I prefer to meditate in the mornings, so it will be tricky.  But even 10 minutes a day makes a big difference, so I need to work it in somehow.

5. I will take care of my body.

Exercise is the first thing to go when I get busy.  I love my yoga classes, but I often skip them when there are too many other things on my plate.  I also love to ski and to jog, and doing these things makes me feel better about everything.  Besides, I’m getting married in September, and I’d like shopping for a dress to be something other than a continuous pounding of my self-esteem.  So I need to exercise, if not every day (that might be asking too much), then at least as regularly as I can manage.

6. I will not forget about my friends.

I find it very difficult, during the semester, to maintain a social life outside of work.  I’m too stressed to enjoy parties, and even scheduling coffee or dinner feels like a chore rather than a break.  I need to change my perspective on this.  My obligations to my work community are important, but so are my connections to my larger community. Spending time with friends gives me distance from whatever’s going on at work.

7. I will find enjoyment in even difficult or tedious tasks.

There are things about teaching that I hate.  It is possible to hate them less by taking joy in small or big things.

I hate grading essays, but I do like playing with different coloured pens, Post-Its, rubber stamps and other stationery bits.  I also enjoy methodical tasks like grading MLA formatting, where I don’t need to think, but can just turn on some fun music and check things off a checklist.

I hate dealing with conflict.  However, a conflict with a student is an opportunity to examine myself more closely and learn something.  If I’m stressed about dealing with a difficult person, I often reconnect with my meditation practice, do more exercise, write more blog posts, and generally invest in activities that help me work through the problem.  Difficult people can be seen as “enemies” or as “gurus.” If I can stop fighting the problem and instead sink into it fully and be curious about it, I can actually take some pleasure in the process.

8. I will take care of my environment.

My offices, both at work and at home, need to be cleaned and reorganized.  My apartment also needs to be thoroughly scrubbed – I’m actually considering hiring someone to do this.  I detest cleaning, but I also detest living in grubby conditions.  I need to set the world around me in order.  It helps me feel better.

9. I will be grateful.

I have a great job and a great life. I need to actively remind myself of that, again and again.

I recently made a half-hearted attempt at a “gratitude journal.”  Every evening, I made a list of ten things (or more) that had happened that day that I was grateful for.  It was never difficult to come up with ten things; my list often extended to twenty items and beyond, and doing it made me feel great.

Last night, The Fiancé and I watched a segment of Dan Gilbert’s “This Emotional Life” in which he presents some of the techniques of “positive psychology.”  Taking time each day to note down things that went well is one practice that positive psychology teaches.  So it’s not just me – there’s some scientific backing for this.  One way or another, it improves my outlook.

10. I will set an intention every morning.

There are going to be problems.  Teaching is hard, and teaching well is especially hard, because it involves real engagement with real people, and real people are challenging.  There will be days when my stomach will be knotted with dread from the moment I wake up.  Setting an intention for the day – What do I want to learn?  How will I set that learning in motion? – can untie that knot and allow it to blossom into useful energy.

In the evening I can then examine my intention and how it shaped my day.  If I carried it out in some way, I can feel glad; if I avoided it altogether, I can feel glad that I have the insight to recognize that.  Buddhists call this daily activity of setting and examining intentions “one at the beginning, one at the end.”

I need to post this list up somewhere, and add to it.  A fifteen-week semester equals seventy-five school days.  If I can engage in each day with mindfulness, curiosity and effort, instead of just allowing the days to happen to me, I may be able to love what I do all the time.

Even when I feel like punching someone.  Which is bound to happen.

Image by Chutiporn Chaitachawong

Dear Auntie Siobhan: Should I Become a Teacher?

Hi Siobhan,
First, let me say that your blog is a great resource. I stumbled on it a few weeks ago and have read almost all of the entries. Your writing is refreshingly articulate, and I have enjoyed reading it.

I’m considering a career in CEGEP teaching down the line. At this stage I have the qualifications (an MA in English), but no teaching experience. My own CEGEP experience was fantastic. I was a Liberal Arts student at — College, where we addressed our teachers by first name and were intimately acquainted with everybody in the program. Knowledge for its own sake was celebrated, and a general atmosphere of intellectual freedom and exploration was encouraged.

I have to admit that while reading your blog has been great, it has contrasted a lot with my own CEGEP experience. When you speak about your students, who call you “miss”, they seem more child-like. It makes me a bit nervous about entering into this career! How much of your job is disciplinary? Would you recommend a career as a CEGEP teacher?

Thanks so much for writing your blog.

-Sonia

Dear Sonia:

Thanks so much for your note.  It’s great to hear that you’ve been reading my blog and getting something out of it.

I enjoy my job as a CEGEP teacher, but I find it very challenging.  There are indeed disciplinary issues, and some of them are serious.  There are also students who struggle a lot with academic challenges.  A Liberal Arts program at — College is not at all representative of the general CEGEP population; I regularly deal with students who can barely read and write in English (or, I suspect, in any language) and whose levels of maturity vary wildly.  In order to really enjoy teaching CEGEP, I think it’s necessary to embrace the challenges of working with such students.

Most of the CEGEP teachers I know who truly enjoy their jobs are people who have previous teaching experience or education degrees.  Working with high school students, in particular, is excellent preparation.  Most of the teachers I know who quickly burn out are those who come to the job  straight out of graduate school and expect to be working with the equivalent of university English majors.   It’s important to remember that English is a core subject at CEGEP – all students must take it, regardless of their program, and many have little interest and weak skills.

I taught in other venues for a number of years before becoming a CEGEP teacher.  CEGEP teaching has many advantages over other teaching jobs – we have long holidays, we have a lighter workload than secondary teachers, and we are not expected to research or publish like university professors (although our colleagues are usually excited and proud when we do!)  But as far as the teaching itself is concerned, most of my satisfaction  comes, not from the celebration of “knowledge for its own sake” or opportunities to encourage “intellectual freedom and exploration” – most of my students have little interest in these concepts – but from seeing students in difficulty overcome obstacles, or from seeing the occasional talented student really shine.

All CEGEPs are different, so you might be able to find a place with a similar atmosphere to the one you experienced as a student.  If your general goal is to become a CEGEP teacher, however, I think it’s important to examine whether the challenges of CEGEP teaching really interest you.

If you’d like to know more about some of the stages I went through in relation to my job, you might want to check out a series I wrote for the TimesOnline’s education blog, called “How I Saved My Teaching Career.” 

Good luck!  I hope you’ll think it over some more and come to the conclusion that’s right for you.  Any job is hard, and a CEGEP teaching job is a really good deal as jobs go, if teaching is what you want to do.  I’d be happy to know about the decision you come to, or any other questions you have.

Yours,
Siobhan

Image by srbichara

Arrows Into Blossoms

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 perhaps the world’s most famous Tibetan Buddhist American nun, and her works are meant to help Westerners understand the basic 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, almost obliquely, she describes a famous Buddhist image that I hadn’t heard of before.  Before mentioning the image specifically, she brings up a part of the story of the Buddha that many people are familiar with.  Most of us know that 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.  In discussing this part of the Buddha’s story, 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.  It’s also a state of mind that I am profoundly interested in, and one that I’d be willing to spend the rest of my life working toward.

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 seem to calm my irritated feelings about this, 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 am expecting something they can’t deliver.  But the deeper problem is that I was angry with them, and couldn’t seem to shake it.

It is possible to see any difficult situation in our lives as an attack from Mara.  We are under threat, and we can react angrily or with panic or self-loathing.  But there is 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 therefore 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.  At first, I was less than satisfied with the images I found; none of them 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 even hold a pencil steady I would try to draw or paint it myself, but that isn’t possible.  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.

trusting our intentions

connectingI haven’t had much time recently for blogging, or thinking about blogging, but I came across a quote this evening that sums up where my head is at these days, in the classroom and in the world.

Remember that you don’t have to like or admire someone to feel compassion for that person. All you have to do is to wish for that person to be happy. The more you can develop this attitude toward people you KNOW have misbehaved, the more you’ll be able to trust your intentions in any situation. -Thanissaro Bhikku

Image by Eastop