One Minute of Solitude: Reprise

solitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How did that feel?” I asked.

“Calm,” Khawar said.

“Long,” Philippe said.

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

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

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

Image by barunpatro

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Things I Learned From Buying a House #2: Money Does Not Grow On Trees

If it did, I’d have a lot more than I used to, because I didn’t use to own any trees, and now I own six.  Well, three trees, and two lilac bushes, and a cedar shrub.  Nevertheless, money doesn’t grow on any of them.

I have gone through periods in my adult life when I had almost no money.  One particularly trying time was right after I finished my Masters degree but before I found any steady work.  I had two cats who were often sick, so my credit card was maxed out on vet bills.  My rent was mercifully cheap, but weeks would go by when I had to scrape dinner together from whatever cans I found in the store cupboard, without even the luxury of a bunch of spinach or a carton of milk.  I’d have to refuse invitations because I couldn’t afford to buy bus tickets, and certainly couldn’t splurge for a taxi if I was out late and didn’t feel safe coming home alone.

Those months were truly terrible, and there were a couple of other periods like that, but these terrible times were mitigated by a few factors.

  • I knew the misery would end.  I had three university degrees, a wealth of working experience both in and out of my chosen field, and a clear career path.  I was in a rough patch, but I never had any doubt that someone would hire me to do something.  If need be, I would go back to working retail jobs until someone gave me work I wanted.
  • I had support.  I wouldn’t end up living on the street – if I had to, I would sublet my apartment and move back to my hometown to live with my father.  (During one tricky period between leases, I actually did move into my mother’s apartment for a couple of months.)  Friends offered to buy me dinner.  My ex-husband started picking up the vet bills when I couldn’t afford them.
  • I had, for the moment, a roof over my head, some cans in the store cupboard, clothes to wear, and working electricity and plumbing.  I was in no real physical danger, even if I felt like crap and was consumed by anxiety.

Once I landed a full-time, tenured teaching job, I stopped worrying about money.  I had no big-ticket items/bills in my life.  I consistently earned a bit more than I spent.  I paid off my student loans.  I occasionally had large expenses and didn’t have the cash in hand (a new computer; a trip to Banff; our wedding), but I put them on my credit card with the knowledge that I’d pay them off in a few months, and I did.

Then the landlord called to announce to my husband and me that he was reclaiming our apartment.  We had the money for a down payment, and everyone said, “Buy! Buy! Buy!”  So we did, and we don’t regret it, but the days of “not worrying about money” are over.

Since moving into our new home in July, I have been living paycheck-to-paycheck for the first time in many years.  I can’t just go to Amazon and order a couple of hundred dollars’ worth of books on a whim.  I can’t eat out five times a week if my week just happens to fall that way.  I can’t afford these 5 pounds I put on, because I can’t afford to buy new bras, but I can’t afford to join Weight Watchers again, either.  I spend a lot of time thinking about money.

This is the source of a lot of strain.  First off, the factors above still apply, but differently.

  • My poverty is once again a temporary situation, although much less temporary than in the past.  The mortgage payments and larger utility bills are not going to go away, nor will the maintenance our crumbly old house requires, nor our property and school taxes.  However, the massive expenses of the first year of home ownership (down payment, “welcome tax,” moving, major emergency repairs that we knew we needed to address, essential furniture) are taken care of.  If we stay in our new home, most of those expenses will not recur, and we can mete the other repairs, renovations and purchases out as we can afford them.
  • My support system is very different than it was when I was in my twenties.  My family is no longer in a position to help us out financially (my father, for example, already has a house full of adult children much younger than me who can’t seem to leave the nest, and so has no room for his middle-aged daughter and son-in-law if they fall on hard times.)  My friends have children, mortgages and job troubles of their own – I’m sure they’d offer me a couch and a hot meal if I needed it, but I’d be very embarrassed to ask.  However, I still have support, notably in the form of my husband.  We are in this together.  We also live in a country with a reasonable social safety net (for the moment…), so if one of us loses his/her job or gets sick, we will not be immediately destitute.
  • I may not be able to buy a bunch of books I’m not sure I want, or to eat out when I  could make myself beans and rice at home, but I have a tenured job, and my husband is also gainfully employed.  For now, at least, the paycheques are coming in and we are able to cover what needs to be covered.  We have a roof over our heads, and if that roof  falls in, someone will likely lend us the money to fix it.  We are in no immediate physical danger, even if we are pretty stressed out a lot of the time.

The strain has been a source of a lot of learning.

I am seeing some of my students’ troubles in a different light.  Every semester, I have a student or two who can’t afford to buy his or her books.  Yes, sometimes they can still afford their cell phones or their cars, but sometimes not.  Sometimes they have no internet at home, or even no computer.  I tell them to come use the computers at school, to borrow the books from classmates or the library, to find a way.  But sometimes they can’t access these facilities, or even my messages telling them to come see me, because they can’t pay their student fees.  I gently remind them that in some cases, we can’t go to  college, at least not right now, because we can’t afford it.  But this is easy for me to say.  There were times I thought I’d have to drop out of school because I had no money, but I knew this was never a real threat – my parents would have found some means to keep me there.  Now I’m thinking more and more about what it’s like when you truly cannot have something that you feel is essential – for example, toilets that work properly all the time – because you don’t have the money.

I’m also learning – or re-learning – how inspiring it can be to see the value in things.  I’m finding myself combing the shelves for books I never got around to reading because they didn’t satisfy some ephemeral impulse.  I’m opening the drawers of the DVD cabinet to see if there’s something I’d like to watch again.  I’m looking in the pantry and thinking, “Hmmm.  Lentils, jackfruit in syrup, and wakame.  Let me see.”  I’m SAVING UP for things.  (When I’ve paid off my credit card balance, I get to buy Season 5 of Inspector Lewis, AND new toilets.)  Everything, including the beat-up plastic flowerpots in the shed and the bottle of hand soap that I wasn’t using because it smells too strongly of geraniums, has value.  Every single day, I say a little thank-you because the cats are not sick.

This was something I knew as a child, when my weekly allowance meant I could buy one book once in a while, and maybe a bag of potato chips every couple of weeks or so.  I couldn’t have a new box of coloured pencils or a new ABBA cassette just because I felt like it.  (In fact, I grew up in a tiny town where my choice of books, cassettes and drawing implements was limited to what the local mall decided to stock, regardless of how much money I had.)  When I grew older and had a bank account full of student loan money and a pocket full of cafeteria meal tickets, and a backup plan in the form of a call home, I started to lose my sense that every item, every service, every pleasure, comes at a cost.  Many of my students are in that stage now – their phones, their nights out clubbing and drinking Grey Goose, their college education, are entitlements.  Money is abstract, and comes from mysterious sources not connected to their own day-to-day choices.

I can’t fault them for this; I’ve been there.  It’s good for me, though, not to be there now.  The knowledge that money is real, and that using it for one thing means we must compromise something else, would ideally be instilled in us very young, and maintained throughout the excesses of adolescence.  I admire those young people around me who seem to understand this, as I did not when I was their age.  I don’t envy them the hard times they have gone through, or are going through, in order to learn it, but I can only hope that they are putting the lessons to good use, as I will try to do.

Image by Sanja Gjenero

Things I Learned From Buying a House #1: I Can Do It

You can do things you don’t think you can do.

For most of my adult life, I said that I didn’t want to own a house.  It was too much responsibility.  I was willing to “pay someone else’s mortgage,” as people kept describing it, if it meant that someone else had to call the plumber when the drains stopped working.

The truth was, though, I just didn’t think I could do it.  I didn’t think I could take care of everything that owning a house seemed to require: not just calling the plumber, but dealing with the bank, having the roof redone, mowing the lawn, finding an electrician, lighting the gas furnace, choosing the right insurance.

Turns out, pretty much anyone can do these things.  I have yet to learn whether I like doing these things, or at least whether owning my own house makes them worth doing.  But I can ask for advice, look up YouTube videos, and tighten bolts.  I can learn how to paint a bannister properly and how to care for a birch tree.  It’s a lot of work.  Nevertheless, I can do it.

I find myself resisting tasks.  I don’t want to put up shelves in the bathroom.  It’s too much work.  Then I realize that the work is not the problem – somewhere, buried deep, is the belief that if I put the shelves up myself, they will fall down.  My husband seems to have the same conviction about his shelf-mounting abilities.  Can we afford to hire someone to put up shelves?  No.  Sooner or later, we will have to go to YouTube and learn how to put up shelves that won’t fall down.  Until we convince ourselves that we can learn to be capable shelf-putter-uppers, my toiletries are going to sit in an ugly cardboard box on the bathroom floor.

When my students don’t do their grammar exercises, don’t turn in their essays, don’t show up for quizzes, even don’t do the required reading, it’s sometimes because they are lazy or have other things on their minds.  Sometimes, though, there’s a deeper problem: they don’t think they can do it, and I’m not showing them they can.  More and more, I find myself breaking tasks into smaller and smaller steps and having students practice example after example, not so that they can “learn” the skill better, but so that they can see, “Hey, this isn’t so hard.  I can do this.”

The problem of self-efficacy may be the biggest in education.  This is not at all the same as self-esteem – you can feel great about yourself in general while still having a nagging low-level conviction that you can’t handle certain things.  I do not suffer from low self-esteem in the least, but when it comes to re-caulking my shower, I have yet to persuade myself that I have, or can acquire, the necessary skill set.

Saying “I can’t do this” is, in many cases, what prevents us.  Now that I have the house, I have no choice.  Unfortunately, my students can’t turn to YouTube to learn how to be skillful readers, and copying an essay from the internet is not the same as learning how to write one.  That’s what teachers are for.

On that note, if anyone wants to boost my self-efficacy by teaching me how to level a concrete basement floor, you know where to find me.

Image by Lajla Borg Jensen

The Uses of Boredom: Reprise

An earlier version of this week’s reprint appeared in July of 2009.  It tells the story of how and why I became a reader.  And it asks: how do we learn to like challenging tasks if we live in a world where boredom is impossible?

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boredomI became a reader because I was bored.

I learned to read when I was about four years old, but, like many children, I read only picture books until I was about seven. My parents brought me to the library every two weeks, and I filled up on library books at school as well, but picture books didn’t last long; I ended up reading them over and over because we had limited television options and, of course, no computer. (I was also a clumsy child with seasonal allergies who didn’t like to play outside.)

I occasionally glanced at the library shelves full of books for older children, and sometimes took one down to page through it, but I was intimidated. They were so thick, and if there were illustrations at all, they appeared only once a chapter or so. These “chapter books” seemed like too much work.

Every summer, we loaded up the car and drove for what seemed like months, but was probably about five hours, to our summer house to spend two or three weeks. Before leaving town, we took a special trip to the library to take out an extra-large stack of books on extended summer loan.  The summer I was seven, my mother used part of her precious borrowing allotment to take out a few “chapter books” for me. “But I don’t like chapter books,” I said. She ignored me.

I read through all my picture books in the car on the way to the coast, and even dipped into some of my brothers’ horror comics to pass the time. (They both suffered from carsickness, and so most of the reading material was mine for the duration of the trip.)  Then we arrived, and for two weeks, I had to keep myself entertained.  At the summer house, we had no television, and a seven-year-old, even one who likes math, can only play cribbage for so long. We found things to do: there was a tree behind the house full of fascinating fuzzy yellow caterpillars; there was a rusted old bedspring in the next lot that we liked to bounce on (and somehow none of us got tetanus); our parents took us to the beach or the nearby swimming hole every second day; and the blueberries needed picking and eating.

But then it rained. We were stuck in the house, lying on the creaky couch in the living room. We groaned and rolled our eyes at the tedium. We pressed our noses against the glass to make interesting smudges or write in the steam from our breath.

And then I saw, on the endtable, the little stack of “chapter books” my mother had brought for me.

I picked one up and leafed through it. I don’t remember what book it was, but there was a full-page woodcut at the beginning of each chapter, and the rest of the pages seemed dense and busy with text. The first woodcut was of two boys and a girl, maybe brothers and a sister just like my brothers and me. And there was a duck, I think. The duck caught my interest.

It was still raining. I started to read.

I read that entire book that afternoon, and started another after dinner. When bedtime came, I hid in the bathroom with that book until my parents threatened to shut down the power if I didn’t turn out the lights and go to bed.

The experience of being entirely transported into another world was one that would shape the rest of my childhood and adolescence. Until I pursued an English degree at university and ruined it all, reading became the most important activity in my life.  I might never have found it if we’d had cable TV, video games, or Internet access at that summer house.

These days, I marvel at those of my students who read for pleasure. These kids have no memory of a world without computers or cell phones. There are myriad forms of instant gratification available at their fingertips at all times. Even so, some of them still love reading. My IB students and I had a discussion last term about the future of the novel, and they rhapsodized about books; Anny told us that her bookshelf is near her bed and sometimes she’ll pull the books out and smell the pages because they make her so happy.

Most of my students, however, have no interest in reading, and I have to say that I don’t blame them. Even I don’t read for pleasure much any more, especially fiction – I watch television and films, read blogs online, and listen to nonfiction as podcasts and audiofiles.  I’m a writer and English teacher, and was a voracious reader from the age of seven. If I’m not reading, what chance do my overstimulated students have, especially if they’ve never been bored long enough to reach out to a book they might normally not be bothered with?

A colleague and I were discussing his children one day, and he said that he and his wife had been debating the restrictions they should place on computer use and television viewing. He said that during their conversation, he’d had a revelation. “I want my kids to have the chance to be bored,” he said.  How much creative discovery has taken place because a child or an adult was trapped inside on a rainy day and all the picture books had been read, all the video games had been won, or the cable had gone out? How much more would teenagers learn about themselves if they put their cell phones away for a few days at a time?

We could argue that kids go to school, so they know plenty about boredom. But would they be able to make more use of the “boring” hours they spend sitting at a desk if they had more chances, on their own time, to lie on the couch, look around the room, and find something new to read? If they spent more time wandering through the woods, picking up sticks to use as toys, or examining the insides of flowers?  Some of my most stimulating memories of my childhood are of doing these kinds of things, and some of the most interesting people I know, young and old, grew up in environments where there was no, or limited, access to televisions, computers, game consoles, etc. They got bored, and they had to do something about it.

Most importantly, someone was there to hand them a book, a chemistry set, or a basketball, and say, “See what you can do with this.” Is this what’s missing from many of our kids’ lives? Is this what Anny’s parents did – turned off the television, handed her a book, and said, “Try this on”?

My greatest fear is not that many young people will never learn to enjoy books, although I do think that’s a shame. My greatest fear is that many will never discover things they could really love, things that could make them better, happier people, because they’re filling their time with easy distractions.

I love easy distractions as much as the next person, and you are as likely to find me checking Facebook and playing Plants vs. Zombies as reading a novel these days. But at least I had a chance. What chance do some of these kids have?

Too Many Books

The Husband and I are moving soon.  The other night, we invited a mover over to give us a quote.  He looked around and said, “It’s going to cost you a fortune.  You have too many books.”

I know what some of you are thinking.  Never!  Sacrilege!  No such thing!  These were not my responses.  I nodded, resignedly, and said, “I know.  I know.”

We do indeed have too many books.  How do I know this?  Because for days – nay, weeks – now, I have been ruthlessly culling books.  I’ve been pulling books off shelves and staring at them and saying things like, “Where did this come from?” and “Why did I buy this?” and “When will I ever, conceivably, read this again?”  The Husband has been doing the same, and we now have a pile of what looks like hundreds of books in the middle of the living room floor, waiting for the second-hand bookstore man to come and sort them and judge them and, we hope, pay us for some of them.

Purging books is a painful business.  Why?  Why is it so much harder to let go of a book, even a book we don’t particularly like or a book whose purpose has been served, than it is to dispose of most other things, even more expensive things – an article of clothing, a tchotchke, an electronic gadget?

A friend recently told me that she regularly tries to winnow down her book collection and can’t do it, because even the books she doesn’t like or has never read symbolize something: her independent intellectual life, which is so different from the life lived by everyone else in her working-class immigrant family.  She described pulling a collection of Joyce Carol Oates stories from a shelf – a collection she’s never read – putting it on the “discard” pile, and then pulling it back out and returning it to the shelf.  “I bought it when I began university,” she said.  “It was a book that signified the person I was becoming, a person who read contemporary American literary authors.  I can’t stand Joyce Carol Oates!  But I still have that damn book.”

I find myself feeling exactly the same thing as I stand before my shelves staring once again at that copy of Swann’s Way that I have tried to read four times.  On my last attempt, I trudged 300 pages into it before giving up.  Every time I do a book purge, I consider getting rid of it.  This time I was successful!  Why?  Because I have bought myself the newish Lydia Davis translation of Swann’s Way, and so I can still be the sort of person who has Proust on my bookshelf, and who can firmly believe that I will one day be the sort of person who has actually read Proust.

(Repeat for: Ulysses, The Voyage Out, about twenty back issues of Granta, Barack Obama’s memoir, and so forth.)

Other reasons I struggle when giving up a book?

  • It has a personal inscription in it, even if a) I’ve never read the book, or b) I didn’t like the book, or c) I no longer like the person who gave it to me.
  • It was given to me by The Husband, mostly because I know he will be peeved when he finds it in the “discard” pile.
  • It might, possibly, contain an article, short story or chapter that I might, possibly, use in a course that I might, possibly, design one day.
  • I loved it once, even though I will certainly never read it again.

One of the biggest problems is my collection of children’s and young adult books.  I keep some of them because I still love them  and can imagine re-reading them from time to time.  Others have sentimental resonance.  But I have far too many, including some I’ve never read all the way through.  I sometimes consider paring the collection down, but I have a fantasy that I will one day propose, and have approved, a project for a reading zone at my college.  This reading zone would be a quiet room full of books appealing to teenagers, and I would re-design my Preparation for College English course around it.  I would bring my struggling second-language readers to the reading zone and present them with shelves and shelves full of books that would instantly grab their attention because they are made to do so, unlike the dusty dun-coloured hardbacks in the library.  How can I get rid of these books when it’s possible that I can someday bring this project to fruition?  Never mind that it will never be approved, for a thousand reasons.  I need to cling to these books just in case.

I know: some of you will say, “Why on earth would you want to get rid of any of your books?  Who cares what the movers say or how much it will cost to move them?  Books are sacred!  Hold on to your books!”  (This is more or less what my father said to me on the phone this afternoon.)

But here’s the thing: I love books, and I find them beautiful, and I become very attached to some of them.  But they aren’t sacred.  They’re  things.

This seems to be a great point of contention for some people.  For example, I’ve been reading a lot of home decor magazines and blogs lately, and a lot of attention is paid to books as decorative objects.  This upsets some readers.  A lot.  Check out this post on my favourite design blog, Apartment Therapy, in which the writer argues for the practice of organizing books by colour, and some commenters respond with rage verging on apoplexy.

I’m not sure I could bring myself to treat books with quite that degree of objectification.  (Besides, I don’t think it looks all that nice.)  But there have been moments of my purge in which I have given myself pause because I have wondered if my house will look sad and empty because it will be less bursting with books.  If, god forbid, my house will look like less of a READER’S house.

And these moments have confirmed for me what I have suspected all along: books are stuff.  They take up space.  And the more space I devote to the ones I don’t really care about, the less respect I am showing for the ones I really love.  So I have to be ruthless to be kind.  Kind to myself, kind to our budget, kind to my house, kind to my movers, and kind to my favourite books.

Are you able to treat your books with both the love and the firmness they deserve?  When a book has had its day, are you able to let it go?  Or do you love your piles and piles of books as much as you love each book itself?  Do you wish you could liberate yourself from your mountains of books, or do those mountains make you happy?  I always feel lighter, if a little saddened, when a pile of books makes its way out the door.  I rarely miss a book once it’s gone, and in the age of Amazon, I can be pretty sure that if I do, I’ll be able to find it again.  If your home is full of books you don’t love, maybe it’s time to start saying goodbye.

But according to my movers, I’m no one to talk.

Image by Marja Flick-Buijs

Things They Should Teach In School

The Husband and I have just finalized a deal to purchase a house.  (To read about one of the more dramatic  adventures of our search, go here.)  In the process, we’ve had to do all sorts of things that we’ve never had to do before.  We didn’t have the faintest clue how to tackle some of these things: how to best negotiate the terms of a mortgage, or what to look for in a real estate agent, or how to read a co-ownership agreement.

Along the way, someone said to The Husband, “Buying a house is one of those situations where you have to become an expert in something that you might do once, maybe twice, in your life.”  And this is true.  But there are some simple and not-so-simple things that most of us are going to have to do in life that we don’t learn about in school.

For example, the house that we finally found – a house that we totally love – is old.  It has some problems that will need to be fixed.  We will need to call an electrician, and a mason, and a contractor.  The electrician and the mason – well, fine.  But why is it that we feel the need to pay someone to install gyproc over the exposed insulation?  Surely that’s a fairly straightforward task?  For heaven’s sake, I was even talking about paying someone to paint.  I’ll have plenty of time to paint – I’ll be on summer vacation – but I wasn’t confident I could do a proper job.  I’ve come around on that one, but not because I’m sure I can do it right.  I’ve come around because I should know how to paint walls, and woodwork, and bannisters, and so I should practice.

Why don’t we learn things like home repair in school?  I know, there’s woodshop or industrial arts or whatever it’s called these days, but it’s not the same.  Beyond that, why don’t we learn the principles of designing a kitchen or tending a garden?  Most people will own homes at some point.  Most people would be better off if they could install a faucet or properly deal with a musty dryer (a task we found ourselves faced with this weekend, as though the universe is prepping us for the days ahead, when we won’t be able to call the landlord about ANYTHING.)

What else should be taught in school, but isn’t, at least in the schools you’ve attended?  Things that immediately come to my mind: meditation, cell phone etiquette (etiquette in general, for that matter) and how to counsel a troubled friend.  What do you wish you knew that no one ever taught you?

Image by Sanja Gjenero

Bad Teacher

Is it possible for a bad person to be a good teacher?

The Husband and I have been on an adventure.  We have been looking for a condo for the last couple of months – mortgage pre-approvals! Real estate agents! Notaries and house inspectors! We feel like grownups – and two weeks ago, we found what we were looking for.  It was the upper half of a duplex, small but well divided, so The Husband and I could each have an office.  It had a nice roomy kitchen, and a pantry!  It was half a block from the metro, a five-minute bike ride from Jean-Talon Market, and in a new neighbourhood that was still very close to our old neighbourhood.  It was in our price range.

We asked the vendor’s agent about our indoor/outdoor cats.  No problem, he said.  Cats are explicitly allowed in the co-ownership agreement.  On the balconies? we asked.  In the yard, even though the yard will not be ours?  No problem, he said.  It’s in the agreement.

We made an offer.  It was accepted. We were over the moon.  We scheduled an inspection for the following weekend.  No can do, said the agent.  The downstairs co-owner, Mme X Y, is out of town, and so we can’t get access to the basement.  We’ll have to do it the following weekend, when she gets back from her spring break holiday.

Ah, we thought.  A teacher on spring break.  Well, ok.  Less than convenient that she’s away, but it gives us time to confirm our financing and look over the co-ownership agreement.

“Didn’t the agent say that our hot water tank is in the basement?” I asked The Husband.

“Why yes, I believe he did,” The Husband replied.

“And while Mme X Y is away, no one has access to the basement?  What happens if the hot water tank breaks while she’s away?”

“Good question.  Maybe we just need her permission to go into the basement, and she’s not reachable.”

“So the agent didn’t ask, before she left, that she give permission to go into the basement in the case of a sale and inspection?”

“I guess not.  Let’s look over the co-ownership agreement, shall we?”

The co-ownership agreement was all in French (not to mention legalese), so the reading of it was time-consuming.  Our agent assured us that it looked pretty standard, so we should just make a note if anything jumped out at us.  Two things did: the description of the downstairs co-owner on the first page as “Mme X Y, enseignante [teacher]” – surely a kindred spirit! – and the clauses saying that cats were permitted in the building but that animals were “not to be kept or left in common areas.”  Common areas included balconies and fire escapes, and no mention was made of animals making their way into the yard.

We called our agent.  This is a routine clause in co-ownership agreements, she assured us, and can usually be worked out between the co-owners; let’s get on it right away.  We emailed our questions to the vendor’s agent.  “Questions about the co-ownership agreement will need to be addressed with the downstairs co-owner when she returns,” he replied.  “We can discuss them with her the morning of the inspection.”

The morning of the inspection?  The Husband and I stared at one another.  The inspection was going to cost us $600.  If Mme X Y refused to allow our cats to pass through her yard, we wouldn’t need to do an inspection.  We wrote him back.  Is there any way at all to contact the co-owner and straighten this out before then?  Not likely, he said, but I’ll see what I can do.  I’ll leave her a message, but I can’t guarantee that she’ll get it.

We re-scheduled the inspection again, for a couple of days after Mme X Y’s projected return.  This would allow us to meet her on the morning we had originally allotted for the inspection, so we could discuss the co-ownership documents and iron out any problems.  Re-scheduling the inspection involved not just the inspection agency, but yet another amendment to our promise to purchase, requiring signatures from us, our agent, the other agent, and the vendor.  Calls were made.  Papers were delivered back and forth.  We sat on our hands waiting to see if Mme X Y would get back to us.

Several days before Mme X Y’s return, we got an email from the vendor’s agent saying that he had heard from Mme X Y and that she “seemed open,” but that she would not amend the co-ownership agreement (as this would involve notary fees).  We would have to discuss it all in person, but that “as long as the cats don’t make damage to her garden, she cannot be against cat.”

Fine, we thought.  There was no need to change the co-ownership document – we’d already spoken to a notary, who said that we simply needed an entente in writing.  It would not be legally binding, but would signal an  understanding.  We wrote up a brief entente stating that Mme X Y would not object to cats in the common areas and in her yard, and that if the cats did damage to the garden, we would repair and/or compensate for it.  We sent it to the vendor’s agent and asked him to forward it to Mme X Y if he could.

The night before our scheduled meeting, we received a message from the vendor’s agent.  Mme X Y did not wish to meet with us the following morning if the inspection was not taking place.  She did not wish to discuss our cats: she did not want our cats coming into her yard.  What was more, she was not available at the time of our (twice re-scheduled) inspection, so the inspection could not take place at that time.

Our agent came by the next morning and we declared the promise to purchase null and void.

Now, here’s the thing.  Obviously, the vendor’s agent bears some responsibility for all these events – for misinforming us in the beginning, and for not taking steps to ensure that things could unfold in Mme X Y’s absence.  And obviously, Mme X Y is not the sort of person one wants to live above.  But what interests me most in all these circumstances is that Mme X Y is a teacher.

What kind of a teacher is she?  Perhaps she conducts herself entirely differently in the classroom than she does in the rest of the world, but let us assume some consistency of character.  Without having once met Mme X Y, here is what we learned about her:

  • She is not available to others even when her availability is crucial (we, and the vendor, delayed everything for two weeks because she did not leave any way to contact her directly, even though she must have been aware that her co-owner might need her.)
  • She does not trust others (no one was given permission to enter her basement while she was not present, regardless of the impact it might have in these or other circumstances.)
  • She is willing to cause enormous difficulties to others on specious grounds (the vendor lost a sale, and we lost a condo, because she wants to protect herself from cats.  Is she under the impression that no cats will come into her yard if the upstairs neighbours don’t let their cats out?  Cats get into yards!),
  • She is defensive and afraid of others (she refused to walk upstairs and meet us to discuss these issues; she has no interest in being introduced to the people who could very well end up living above her for the next thirty years.)

All of these qualities make me think of some of the worst teachers I’ve ever had, people who were inflexible, defensive, terrified of their students, unreasonable, and controlling even when the benefits for them were not clear.  And it makes me interested in hearing your stories about bad teachers.

What do you remember about the worst teachers you’ve had?  What made them bad teachers?  Were they also bad people?  Is it possible for a person like Mme X Y, who seems to the sort of person you would never want as a neighbour, to be a good teacher?  I am furious about how this  all went down, but at the same time, I am feeling a clinically detached interest in the questions it raises about the teaching profession, human nature, and society.  I look forward to your observations.

Image by Kriss Szkurlatowski

How I Saved My Teaching Career: Step 7: Write a Blog

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

In the summer of 2007, my burnout reached its peak.  I’d taken some steps to deal with it (and you can check out the links below to read about some of them) but I’d also spent the summer recovering from my most stressful teaching year yet, and I was dreading returning to the classroom.  I knew I needed to do something more.

In addition, I’d been working on a novel for eight years, and it was going nowhere.  I’d once again spent the summer trying to find a structure for it, and was becoming more and more frustrated.  I was no longer sure that I wanted to continue writing fiction.  It wasn’t making me any money, and no one but me really cared if I finished this manuscript.  Why was I doing it?

One day that August, I had coffee with my friend Vila H., who writes the delightful blog The Smoking Section.  She said, not for the first time, “I’m telling you, you need to start blogging.”

As it turned out, she was right.

My blog began as a place to publish some of the work I was doing for my M.Ed. courses (the first post was an early version of my teaching philosophy statement.)  As time went on, however, the blog evolved into an online diary, including ruminations on my classroom experiences and commentary on other education blogs.  It became the place I turned to immediately when things went wrong or when I was struggling to choose a course of action with a student.  It became a hub for my discussions with teachers all over the world.

It also fulfilled a need I didn’t know I had.  My writing life and teaching life had been strictly compartmentalized – I taught during the semester and wrote fiction during my holidays.  Now, my life felt more unified.  My teaching was material for my writing, and my writing made me a more effective teacher.

I’d recommend blogging to all teachers who want to make sense of their teaching experiences.  A blog can be public or private.  Even if you write only for yourself, or allow access only to close friends, it provides perspective, much like a diary does: writing about a problem makes it more manageable.  If you make your blog public, it can also provide help: if you put some effort into reading others’ blogs and responding to their posts, they will do the same for you.

If you do decide to write a public blog, there are a couple of potential issues to keep in mind.

1.  Protecting the privacy of your students and colleagues. 

I blog under a pseudonym, I never reveal the name of my school, and I change the names of any students or teachers I mention.  Some of my colleagues know that I’m the blog author, but our college is a large one and it’s unlikely they’d recognize any of the students I write about, even if they have those students in their classes.  I take special pains not to expose my blog to my students, because I don’t want them recognizing one another in its pages.  They’re not likely to be terribly interested in a blog about education, but if they Google my real name and my blog comes up, this could lead to problems.  I avoid leaving online clues connecting my real name to the blog.

2.  Dealing with negative responses. 

For the first couple of years, comments on my blog were usually constructive and respectful.  As my blog gained more exposure, however, a couple of posts attracted a lot of attention, and some of this attention was, let us say, impolite.

One post, written in a moment of hair-tearing essay-marking frustration, was entitled “10 Reasons I Hate Grading Your Assignment.”  It went moderately viral on StumbleUpon, and the vitriol began pouring in.  About a year later, I wrote a guest post for the education blog at Change.org.  This post, about how to control the use of cell phones in the classroom, made some people very, very angry, and their comments were pretty aggressive.

In both these cases, I came away from the discussions with new things to think about (for example, I no longer ban the use of cellphones in my classes, given some interesting arguments that were raised in response to the latter post.)  Nevertheless, both posts gave me a string of sleepless nights, and I now find myself hesitating to hit “Publish” whenever a post veers into provocative territory.

Password-protecting your blog, so that you choose your readers, is one solution.  The cost is that you lose out on connections you can make with educators all over the globe.  I wasn’t ready to give up those connections, so I accepted that writing for the online public requires a thick skin.  I also avoided arguing with rude commenters, while taking pains to identify anything valuable in their perspectives.  If things got really out of hand, I deleted comments or shut down the comments section altogether.

The advantages of keeping a blog about teaching far outweigh the costs.  When I feel overwhelmed by a teaching dilemma, I write about it.  This gives me some distance, and often leads to helpful feedback.  In my darkest classroom moments, I remind myself, “This is all material.”  And it’s not just material for writing.  Through the blog, I both document and create my own learning.  And when I need to be reminded of what I’ve learned, the blog is always there, like a good set of classroom notes.

If you’re interested in keeping a blog, you might want to visit a host site like WordPress.com or Blogger.com to check out how it all works.

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Do you keep a blog?  If so, how does it help you?  If not, would you consider doing so?

Thanks so much for following this series!  Please tell me what you’ve thought.  Has anything in these posts been helpful?  Would you take issue with any of my actions or conclusions?  I’d love to know your reactions.

 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 Marja Flick-Buijs

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