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 6: Meditate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I began to meditate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Previous posts in this series:

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

Image by Penny Matthews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My fears were threefold:

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

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

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

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

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Previous posts in this series:

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

Image by Scott Liddell

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

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

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

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

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

I began shaping and nurturing that community in three forms.

1. Family and friends.

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

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

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

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

2.  Colleagues.

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

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

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

3.  Online connections.

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

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

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

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

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

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Previous posts in this series:

Next post: facing my fears.

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

Image by Sanja Gjenero

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

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

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

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

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

 1.  Are these feelings new?

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

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

2. Do I (still) love what I teach? 

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

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

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

 3.  How much do I hate grading?

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

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

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

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

 4.  How do I feel about my work environment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by Michal Zacharzewski

Top 10 Posts of 2011

It’s that time of year again.

(Actually, it’s a little past that time of year – it was that time of year, oh, two weeks ago, when it was still last year.)

Nevertheless: a roundup!

Here are the posts from Classroom as Microcosm that received the most hits this year.  The reasons for their popularity are varied and, in some cases, mysterious.  No matter.  If you’re new to the blog, or haven’t been able to keep up, they give some indication of what’s been going on around here.  If you like what you discover, please subscribe!  (Look to your right.  See the button that says “Sign Me Up!”?  Click it, and away you go.)

1. Fail Better

This post was chosen as a “Freshly Pressed” cover story by WordPress, which guaranteed that it would get tonnes of hits (over 11 000) and comments (245 at last count – about 15 of them are my replies, but I soon ran out of steam.)  In this little anecdote, I explore a problem – my students are so afraid to fail that they won’t even try – through the lens of some recent research – Paul Tough’s NYT Magazine article on “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?”  The results are inconclusive but gratifying.  All in all, it was a good week.

2. Should We Bid Farewell to the Academic Paper?

Another “Freshly Pressed” pick.  This one received almost 9 000 hits and 177 extremely interesting and thoughtful comments.  It’s a response to an article by Virginia Heffernan on Cathy N. Davidson’s book Now You See It.  Davidson’s book proposes, among other things, that the academic paper has had its day and needs to make way for more current tech-friendly forms.  I, and the commenters, are not so sure.

3. When in Doubt, Make a Plan

This post is a response to a reader’s plea for advice.  Nick’s not sure college is the place for him, but he can’t see his parents agreeing to any other path.  I can’t solve his problem for him, but I have some suggestions, as do readers.  His original query, and a lot of interesting reader responses, appear here.

4. The Five Best Podcasts in the World

In May, these were my top five, and I still love them all, although “The Age of Persuasion” is now defunct (but was replaced on Saturday by Terry O’Reilly’s highly anticipated followup, “Under the Influence.”)  If I wrote this post now, I might rearrange these and introduce a couple of new favourites, including “On the Media” and “Planet Money.”  If you have a favourite podcast, please visit the post and leave a link in the comments.

5. What Do Students Think Should Change About School?

I got so many responses to this open call that I followed it with a full week of guest spots: five posts from students explaining how school could be better.  You will find most of those responses in the comments section of this post, along with lots of other interesting ideas on how to improve the education system.

6. “Either You Can Be a Teacher or You Can Be the Plagiarism Police”

Ah, plagiarism: the inexhaustible inspiration for teacher rants everywhere.  Here, I discuss an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education, in which Rob Jenkins explains that we need to just chill out.

7. Character = Behaviour: A Lesson Plan

This extremely successful lesson, in which students write reference letters for fictional characters and, at the same time, learn a bit about how their own behaviours reflect on their characters, is just now coming home to roost.  This winter, I am receiving an unprecedented (i.e. crushing) number of reference letter requests from students who clearly took this lesson to heart.

8. Life and Death and Anthologies

The stats for this post took a couple of random spikes, and I’m not sure why.  I like it a lot, but it’s just a quiet little meditation on the joys of anthologies and of travel, and on the links between the two.  In particular, it describes my experience of reading an anthology of Irish short fiction while travelling through Ireland.  It seems to have resonated with some people.  Perhaps it will for you.

9. Why Do I Have to Learn This?

We don’t always take this question seriously.  Louis Menand says we should.  I agree.

10. What Young Adults Should Read

After a Wall Street Journal essay made some indignant pronouncements about the trash that young people are reading these days, and after everyone got all upset about it, I threw in my two cents.  This post makes special reference to the thoughts and writings of Linda Holmes, blogger at NPR’s “Monkey See” pop culture blog, host of NPR’s “Pop Culture Happy Hour,” and person I most want to be when I grow up (granted, she’s probably younger than me, but I still have a long way to go.)

And, just because I loved it:

Bonus Post: Rolling In the Girls’ Room

I walked into the women’s washroom outside my office.  I discovered three students, two of  them male, sitting on the counter, rolling joints.   This post transcribes a Facebook conversation with my friends and colleagues, in which my response to this event is analyzed, critiqued, and mostly (but not entirely) supported.

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Resolutions for 2012:

  • Continue to post on Mondays and Thursdays.  Posts will, if all goes well, appear around 9 a.m., although dissemination to Facebook, OpenSalon etc. may be slightly delayed, as I am teaching early classes.  If you want to be sure to know about posts the moment they go up, please make use of the “Sign Me Up!” button at the top of the right-hand margin to receive email notifications for every post.
  • Tweet more!  I am lazy Twitterer.  However, I find all sorts of cool stuff that I don’t have time to blog about but should really share with you all.  So now I will.  Again, there is a button to the right that will allow you to follow me at @siobhancurious.  Follow me!
  • Be present, be present, be present.

Do you have a favourite post that you read here this year, and that I haven’t mentioned above?  Do you have blogging or teaching resolutions that you’d like to share?  Please leave a comment.  I always love hearing from you.

Thursday’s post: my favourite reading experiences of 2011.

And finally: Happy New Year, everyone!

Image by Maxime Perron Caissy

Education From the Ground Up

I have once again received a very interesting query from a reader.  The blog will be on hiatus until January 9, so you’ll have lots of time to think about it and respond!  Jan Simpson would like to know: if you had to design an education system from scratch, how would you do it?

Here, in more detail, is his question.

It’s the present day, the year 2011. Everything is the way it is. However, there is no existing educational system whatsoever anywhere in the world. It is up to you to create a form of education for at least 500 teenagers between the ages of 15 and 20.

Here is my request: How would you go about creating a new educational system for those “students?” In other words, if you are the first person to create and establish the first educational system in the world, what would that look like?

Keep in mind, there isn’t any sort of education that had been created beforehand; you are the first person to wrap your mind around the basic principles of education and create a system or model where those principles can be taught and learned.

Feel free to post a brief response or a lengthy treatise in the comments section below.  If you’d prefer to contact Jan directly with a long reply, you can click on his name at the beginning of this post to go to his Gravatar profile and find his contact details.  However, I’m sure we’d all be interested to read your thoughts here, no matter how long or short they may be!

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Have a great winter holiday.  Eat lots of food!  Go for long walks!  Spend at least two days not thinking about teaching!  And when you ARE thinking about teaching … well, if you’ve gotten behind on your Classroom as Microcosm reading and commenting, now would be a great time to get caught up.

See you in January, when I will will start the year with a recap of the top posts of 2011 and with a list of my favourite books of the year.

Formatting Blues

The following conversation took place earlier this week on my personal Facebook page.

Siobhan: Open memo to a student who shall remain nameless: Going into your final paper, you had an overall average of 59.7%. Did you not feel the stakes were high enough to invest half an hour in formatting your paper properly? Because if you’d done so, you would have passed the course.

And now I find myself in one of those infuriating ethical dilemmas. To pass or not to pass?

Colleague A: Does it benefit the student to take it again? That’s what I always ask myself. Sometimes the answer is a clear yes or no, but sometimes even this does not make it an easy question to answer.

Siobhan: It might or might not. I think it WOULD benefit him to stop goofing around, and failing might impress this upon him.

Colleague B: At a 59.7% final average? PASS.

Siobhan: 59.7 before the final paper. Now, 57.5. To give him a pass, I’d have to raise his grade on the final paper from a 53 to 61.  Note: formatting is worth 10%. He got 0.8/10.

Colleague B: Oooooh I see – now I can feel the ethical dilemma. If 53 is what he deserves on the paper, and if your marking criteria are clear and known to the students, I do not believe you should increase his mark to 61.

Outside Observer C: Yersh. Do you have to make the grades add up to 60? Could you just round up the final mark?

Siobhan: You mean just round it up when I submit the final grades, without changing the details of the grade breakdown? I expect that’s possible, but difficult to justify.  I am considering sending the paper back to him and telling him that if he formats it perfectly before Friday, I will give him a 60% on the paper.

Colleague B: Yes – that is a very good, even better than what I was thinking.

Colleague D: I have high pass rates in my classes because I do stuff like asking for additional work to justify bumping up a mark to a 60. It is futile when the student is riding on a 47 but if it’s mid-50’s or more, I often do it, as (for example) the optional make-up or bonus work I lay out on the last day of class. But hear me out. I, too, ask if it isn’t simply more helpful for a particular student to sit five English classes instead of four. And indeed, sometimes the answer is clearly yes.  So I would support you if you decide to have the boy reformat his work. If he doesn’t learn his lesson, then he will pay for it sooner or later in ways that we will not be around to watch.

Colleague E: I wouldn’t let him fail the course for formatting issues. I vote for “give him till Friday to reformat.” It’s not making you do any extra reading.

Siobhan: Just to be clear: he’s not failing the course for formatting issues, although that hasn’t helped. He’s failing for a whole pile of reasons, but if he’d just bothered to format the damn paper, he would have scraped through. If he’d done a host of other things, then his formatting on this paper wouldn’t have made much of a difference.  I have written a friend at the Learning Centre to see if he’ll work on it with him (to prevent the paper from being passed to a classmate for reformatting.) I’ll see what he says and write the kid in the morning. So. Tiring.

Outside Observer F: Was formatting an outcome of the course?

Siobhan: Yes.  In all my courses, 10% of each of their take-home assignment grades is given for formatting.  We review formatting in detail and they are given links to appropriate formatting guides.

Colleague G: Sometimes my only thought is whether I am willing to impose this student on one of my colleagues (or potentially back onto myself!) teaching a later course… Mind you, the alternative is to impose him/her on me or one of my colleagues as he repeats the current course… Oh, this was not a useful reply for you at all…

Colleague H: This may be dangerous to admit, but I tell my students that I don’t give out final grades that end in 7, 8 or 9. I always round up. My justification for this is that language (and analysis) is not an exact science, and my marking therefore perhaps has a standard deviation of about 3 (hence the 7, 8 and 9 possibilities). This means that anyone with a 57 gets a 60 or an 88 gets a 90. However, if someone has a 56 (or 66 or 76 or 86) they KNOW that they didn’t do that wee bit of extra work (like formatting in MLA style gosh darn it!) to give them the little bump. So that’s my justification…if you think this is horribly wrong, I’m willing to change. It’s just been terrifically helpful in dealing with students and having them understand the less-than-exact science that is grading….and by “you”, I don’t mean Siobhan particularly, just the whole general world of education and pedagogy 🙂

Siobhan: I remember you talking about that policy awhile ago, and I even considered whether I should implement it. However, over the years I have developed very detailed rubrics with precise criteria, and I assign point values to each criterion, and then I simply add up the points. This is not really less subjective, of course, but it does give both me and the student the feeling that the grade is a fairly accurate reflection of their abilities. In order for the grade to be rounded up, I would have to decide that I hadn’t graded fairly for a particular criterion, and change that. If students want to argue their grade, they have to convince me that they did better in one or more specific areas than I gave them credit for, and why. I have still been known to fudge grades one way or the other a bit if I feel a student is borderline, but it always comes down to their mastery of particular criteria. (I say always. Let’s say: almost always.)

Colleague J: If students like this put even a fraction of the time and effort into doing their work that their teachers put into evaluating it and wrestling with the ethical dilemmas it creates, we wouldn’t find ourselves in these situations so frequently.

Colleague G: Yes!  Why on earth do we agonize so much over work that, clearly, has not been agonized over by the student him/herself??

Colleague J: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve marked an essay and been convinced that it took me longer to mark it than it did for the student to write it. For me, such a lack of care prevents these issues from having an ethical dimension; if I pass the student, it is not because I am concerned about doing the wrong thing by letting him/her fail.

Siobhan: To be fair to this guy, I think he really did make some kind of effort (such as he was capable of) on this paper, out of desperation if nothing else. It looks like he made an attempt at some sort of formatting, but without looking at any of his guidelines or using any common sense. (Triple-spaced? Half the paper left-justified and the other right-justified? Identification info in the header? What?) It’s more than he’s ever done before, even if it’s all wrong. His last paper was single-spaced and entirely in italics, with no name or other identification on it anywhere.

That said: I sent him a detailed message yesterday with instructions including “go online and make an appt. with the Learning Centre NOW and email me when you’ve done it.” I included the link. According to the message system, he read the message yesterday. He has not emailed me. Looks like this guy’s toast.

Colleague J: I was going to say let him re-format it and stop spending any more energy thinking about it, but I agree with your latest comment. From your perspective, he’s got to show at least some effort at this stage.

Siobhan: The situation itself is frustrating, but I’m actually finding the conversation about it quite stimulating!

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What would you do with such a student?  Give us your thoughts.

Image by Billy Alexander

When In Doubt, Make a Plan

On Monday, I posted a letter I received from a reader, asking advice about whether he should stay in college.  I promised you I would post my reply today, and here it is.  I sent this response before posting his letter here, and before reading your thoughts on his situation, but some commenters will notice that my advice jibes very well with theirs; others, not so much!  I welcome your comments.  Did I do right by N?

Dear N:

I’m very sorry to hear that you’re in such an unhappy position.  I am not a therapist or a guidance counsellor (and I think it might be a good idea for you to see one of each; your college services might still be available to you, or they might be able to tell you where to go.)  That said, it doesn’t sound like your situation is hopeless at all, although you are definitely in an uncomfortable spot.

One thing that encourages me is that you say your father sometimes tells you to come home and figure things out.  Next time he says that, would you consider taking him up on it?  I think you will have to demonstrate to both him and your mother that you are not just dropping out of life, but are actively trying to figure your life out, maybe by taking a temporary job, exploring some activities you’re interested in, continuing to pursue your writing etc.  It may be that college really is the best option for you, but not now.  It sounds to me like you are the kind of person who likes learning and would enjoy college (maybe a different college or a different program?) if you were feeling less pressured and confused.

Let me tell you a story.  When I was 21, I returned to school to study education.  I was at a very unhappy time in my life, and was living in a city I didn’t like and studying in a program that wasn’t for me.  I could have completed my program in a year, but I was paralyzed and depressed.  So, less than 3 months before graduation, I dropped out.  I moved to another city, got myself a job in a clothing boutique, and spent some time just figuring stuff out.  Two years later, I went back to school – a different school, and still in education but in an entirely different program – and was very happy there.  I just needed time, experience and reflection to work out my next moves.

Now, I had the support of my parents, although they were worried.  But it sounds like you have the worried support of your mother, and that your father might come around if you presented him with a plan.  What if you said, “Dad, I need to take a year.  I’ll get a job, pay you some rent, and a year from now, I will give you some definite answers about what I’m going to do next.”  How do you think that he would react?

I don’t know your parents, but in my experience, parents are able to be a bit more flexible if they know their children have a plan.

Life without college is definitely a tougher row to hoe in the long term, (especially in the U.S., from what I understand.)  Our society is not constructed in a way, right now, to support people who take the road less travelled. However, I don’t think you need to put yourself on that road for good, at least not yet.  What if you took a year, kept busy, and explored what is out there?  You never know what opportunities might fall in your lap.

Meanwhile, some time with therapists and career counsellors might be a good idea…

I hope that is helpful in some way; I wish I could offer you a pat solution.  I feel sure, though, that you will work this out if you give yourself some space in which to do it.

Best,
Siobhan