Friday, May 28, 2004

A Jumble of Late-Night Thoughts about Good Teachers and Associated Things

It's almost three years since I retired from the classroom. I had a good, thirty-year ride: hard but worthwhile, draining but satisfying. Teaching has it's rewards, but it's a tough job: a fact that is generally appreciated only by teachers themselves and by their sometimes lonely, significant others: the poor neglected ones -- heroes in their own right who patiently and stoically endure countless solitary hours while the spousal-teacher is locked in his or her work room, preparing lessons or grading papers or preparing progress reports or ...

I don't think that either many teachers or their marriages would survive the almost nightly separations if it weren't for the generous summer holidays when we can breathe long and deep and reconnect with ourselves and with each other. It really requires an extended withdrawal to ready oneself for another campaign in good spirits and good health. Don't begrudge that.

In North America, we all work too hard and too long, but that's fodder for another blog. I make a point about one group, one profession here. I do not speak for others except to acknowledge that we in North America enjoy fewer statutory holidays than any other civilized region. We lead good lives but over-worked ones. The standard, but miserly, two-week holiday is insufficient and inhumane: an almost meatless bone.

What I tell people now that I am retired is that I miss the act of teaching but not the job of teaching. It can be uplifting to teach a class and teach it well. You are the first to know when it has gone well. Mostly, to use a baseball analogy, it's a job of bunting, hitting singles and drawing walks. Triples and home runs are pretty darn scarce. We try to advance the runners and eventually get as many as we can across the plate. The score mounts; we squeak out another victory.

But the job of teaching is a long, hard, difficult slog. Having held one or two other jobs in my life, albeit briefly, I have some point of comparison. I can say that no one has life easy; every worker everywhere gets tired. We're all tired at the end of the day and more so at the end of the week. There's just more of an accumulation of tiredness for the teacher. We don't come back as fresh and as rejuvenated on Monday as many of our working brethren and sisterhood: perhaps because we either worked and/or worried about lessons and marking all day Sunday. Every week makes one a little more tired than the week before; it's a cumulative thing. By June you are among the walking dead. TG for summer.

TG for fall to when we can all come back and do it all again because we love to teach; we just don't always love the job of teaching: the continual grind of the job, the lack of appreciation, the pressure to do better ... as if we weren't already doing better. Programs and their delivery may need modification from time to time, but most teachers don't. A little appreciation will motivate them to continue to fight the good fight -- and to finish the course!

There is an observational phrase, often used about teachers, that irritates me greatly: "He (or she) is a good teacher!" Damn faint praise that! What are all of the others? Incompetent fops?

I don't think, heck I know, that most people have no idea just how good the average teacher is: the guy or gal who is probably teaching thirty kids for four to five hours per day. Most of us keep most of them moderately entertained, moderately on track, do a pretty fine job of babysitting; and we teach them a heck of a lot of important stuff while we're at it. Through it all, students accumulate skills and knowledge, develop their intellects, learn of their strengths and weaknesses. They learn despite shortcomings: theirs and/or ours. The average teacher is quite proactive in challenging and developing up to or more than thirty young minds at a time for those four or five hours a day. Calculate how long it takes for you to prepare a ten minute speech, and think upon that. Let that inform you about the strength of the average teacher who does yeoman service for many hours each day: the one whom we don't bother to call good.

This causes me to wonder if we could all reflect greater respect and appreciation in our choice of language? The teacher whom you call good is actually very good: so good that he or she stands out above the crowd of good teachers. Can you say very good? How about excellent, commendable, outstanding?

I know that no one intends harm or slight by offering the faint praise: "You're a good teacher." I know that we use it for other jobs and professions too. We call our above-average doctor good, and speak the same of our very good minister; the list goes on. Maybe we all need to be more careful with our language and more appreciative of the jobs done by others. Maybe that's where I'm headed with this jumble of thoughts that is hitting the keys somewhat tenuously at this late hour.

These thoughts have been recently re-awakened as I volunteer to teach only one class per day for a week or so, and I feel that as a non-paid, volunteer teacher, I have the right to express these views that JQP generally doesn't want to hear. How much work does it take me to prepare a few good lessons this week? A lot, and even then they fell well short of perfection -- to the point where I am considering a total revamp if I volunteer to guest-teach this set of lessons again. Yet, it is expected that teachers are able to do this kind of thing all day, five days a week, for the best part of forty weeks a years. It's asking a lot. But we sign up for the job anyway: mostly because we have a sort of calling. And every now and then we hit a double ... or better, and it warms us, and we congratulate ourselves. We have to; few others will bother.

Appreciation: that's all it takes. Small, kind words go a long way. I'm sure that you are very good at your job too. I will try to be aware enough appreciate a good plumber, never mind a very good one. How about the super salesperson: not the slick one who can sell fridges to polar bears, but the knowledgeable one who takes the time to explain the product and makes you feel good about your purchase? So, I will thank the good ones ... and the very good ones ... and the excellent one too. Will you join me? Maybe a wave of appreciation and thankfulness will engulf us.

Naw, my writing isn't that good, and I feel that it's going into the abyss anyway. Out of the millions of blogs, what would cause someone to stumble on this one? And would you come back if you did?


Anonymous said...

Appreciation wave? Sounds like a good idea!
In our zeal for improving this or that, we often forget to express our appreciation for what we have, what works , what's good etc. and by ignoring regular appreciative reinforcement of the positive status quo...we run the risk of someone getting the idea that maybe they need to be alter, replace or delete.

karla said...

How interesting that I have indeed stumbled on this blog and enjoy coming back to read more of what you have to say.

Teachers should be paid like politicians. After all, it is they who are shaping the youth of today that will be the decision makers of tomorrow. I don’t know what, if any, job comes with more importance or responsibility!

DB Stewart said...

Loved this. Felt validating. Thank you. Plus, I retired last year and I too miss the act of teaching yet not the job. (Subbing helps but it is not as satisfying.) Your comment about constructing a 10 minute speech is spot on.

Regarding Karla's comment above: teachers should be paid like baseball players, imo.