Sunday, August 21, 2016

Back to High School

I'm teaching my first high school class in six years.

In 2010 I left Reno and my one-year contract, and spent six months sleeping on my dad's floor in the Bay Area. To pay my student loans I got a job tutoring a middle school girl. While commuting up and down the peninsula I filled out paperwork, got accepted to, and prepared to teach abroad in Singapore.

The students in Singapore were admittedly high school age. But over there those four years are 12-16. My students were past that - young adults who were doing two years of junior college prior to entering University. They were, by the test scores, the best in the world - second in math, fourth in science, fifth in reading. The reality was more complex, but it was college - my classes had hundreds of kids. I never really learned all their names. I stood in front of a crowd and talked into a mic in a lecture hall. In my seminars we just went over more PowerPoints - because that's what I was required to do. I left for Southeast Asia in December and came back one year later, to the day.

Then I spent six months travelling America, sleeping on couches of indulgent friends from college.

I landed on my mom's couch, in Boston. For a few months I searched for jobs. I'd never intended to return to the East Coast. In the under-croft of Trinity Church (where it was quiet) I landed a job at a boarding school in Connecticut.

Again, the students were high school age, but when I looked at the art on the wall...when I started teaching... The deficits were so noticeable. I told my AP students to save their money and not take the test - they always bombed my quizzes, and couldn't be bothered to turn in their work. My Art History elective had a single student to start - by the end of the semester we had three. 

The reason I'd gotten the job was I'd worked this population before - severe emotional and behavioral disorders. 

They were good kids, and I'm so proud of some of them for making it. I hope the others get there someday. The classes I taught, though, weren't really real. I had a special niche at the school for teaching the tough stuff - AP, Philosophy, Art History. I taught World History for a semester and the students flipped out because they weren't get As for participation. Parents flipped too. Remarkably, the administration had my back - most of the time it felt like an us v. them, both regarding the admin and the students.

After giving notice at the two-year mark, with nothing lined up, I lucked out and got a position back in the Bay. But for two years I've been stuck teaching middle school - which I have no background in, and the content has been technology - which I assiduously avoided when I was a history teacher.

I was told I'd be given a social studies position after a bit, but I'm entering year three, and all I've secured is a high school elective of Film Studies.

This past week was the first week back at school. And for the first time since 2010, I'm teaching high schoolers something in the social sciences department.

*     *     *

Back in Reno I'd taught Sociology (which I largely made up based on my college Social and Developmental Psych courses, peppered with whatever Anthro I could remember), World and US History. US was the hardest, since I'd not really studied it since high school myself - it was already clear World would be my specialty.

Most of the time, looking back on those classes, I'm not too proud.

My biggest difficulty has always been grading. I was never the A student - so it's hard for me to know what that looks like. I was always a C student, when my headmaster, a relic from an earlier era, used to remind parents there's no shame in "gentlemen's Cs". C was average - fine. Not bad. Nothing special, but not bad.

Now everyone wants As. And for my entire academic career I never got those. One time, from fifth grade to graduate school, I got an A+. It was Fall semester of my Junior year of college. The class was Teaching and Learning. It helped me feel like I was doing the right thing by going into teaching.

Back in Reno I had a lot of students ask for letters of recommendation. Some Singaporean students asked as well. Even a couple of kids in Connecticut - but that was the gig that changed me. I'd always been Mr. Professor - suit jacket, briefcase, all that jazz. The right sort of teacher to ask for a letter. When my boarding school students were so vulnerable I had to shed some of that. On top of my teacher role I was also in loco parentis.

Coming to teach at a normal school, working with young kids has actually helped. The age gap steadied me these past two years with redeveloping the Mr. Professor persona superficially. But the change hasn't gone away. Since Connecticut, I no longer act. Teaching isn't a performance anymore. These days I talk to students as I talk to anyone else - just watching my cursing.

So when this week kicked off the 2016-17 school year, it was a jolt to be teaching high school kids again. Many things struck me. They're less talkative. They're less likely to act out - but more willing to be rude to your face. And after two years of eleven year-olds, they were harder to read than I remembered.

I was always ill at ease at my first teaching job - I assumed the students could smell I was a phony. Every single day was an indulgence by them. They sat quietly and didn't push back too much, because they needed me to pass them so they could move on with their lives. They knew the score. So they didn't give me a hard time, not out of respect, but because I was like an edgy dog - if you moved the wrong way I'd start barking, and it was easier to tread carefully under my stare and persistent growl.

Back in Reno... Been thinking a lot about that job lately, and that part of my life. It was the only time, really, I did what I'd trained for - taught social studies to high schoolers in a typical school. (I mean, it was a low-income serving charter, but that population describes most of America's students it seems, these days.) This Film Studies elective, which has three sections, is my new chance to do it better. 

But despite all that's happened since I was twenty-three - any questionable growth - I've still not become an A+ student. And sometimes I wonder if that's why I'm still doing this teaching. Every year it's an embarrassment when, for staff morale, we share why we got into the gig. Everyone else comes off the exercise feeling the rejuvenation of renewed focus on their life's purpose. I feel shitty for having lied again.

One of my good professors, Greg, asked me once. I told him the truth:

"Teaching is seen as noble."

And when someone says they admire the work I'm doing - having never seen me in the classroom, it kind of sucks. I've no real faith I'm one of the good ones, because my answer is not everyone else's. Nor are my answers to the other questions we get asked. This year it was "What's something you learned from a student?" I couldn't come up with anything. For five minutes I sat, and glanced at others writing. A week later and I'm still blank. After an hour of listening to how relationships are so important I feel awkward, not glowing. I don't want to get to know my students. It's hard enough to put names to faces. Their successes and failures are not why I get up in the morning. The great teachers I had in my life aren't like me. They cared.

I know I've made a huge difference in the lives of a few, and that's nice, if not motivating. At my first job, only, I mentioned the other reasons I'd gone into teaching. Besides society's noble view, which could maybe help me down the line, it was also out of a concern for civilization. The teacher I was sharing with was fascinated. Her response had been the standard - to make a difference in children's lives. Entering the field that reason, that motivation,  hadn't even really occurred to me. Teaching was bigger than helping needy kids - it was to be a vanguard of civilization. Teachers make sure society doesn't end up batshit crazy and stupid. We fight to preserve reason. That excited me - and doing it through the lens of history, sharing the fascinating stories I was so passionate about.

Returning to high school social studies, even just Film Studies, brought a bit of that back.

For two years I've been hitting snooze on my alarm - because I have no desire to go to work in the morning. (Except Wednesdays, when I hang out with my fabulous Tech department coworkers. Only fun part of the week.) Halfway through the first year of Tech I redid the curriculum to incorporate more history, just so I wouldn't want to jump out a window from boredom. But when I taught history in the past, I never had to hit snooze, because I was going to spend the day doing something fun and important - teaching history to the rising generation, that they might learn the crucial lesson that reasons we're here are arbitrary, and therefore we have the power to change our world and make it in the image we see fit. That's the attitude I'm trying to bring to this elective, even though I've no idea whether or not I can do my job, and still feel like I'm faking it after all these years.

On Friday, after I provided manically excited context for the rise of German expressionism in the 20s, a girl in Film Studies said "You should be a history teacher."

And, honest to god, I don't know if she meant it sarcastically or sincere.

No comments: