I don’t know who wrote that last post. She was gutsy and tough and ready for anything. I liked her.
Today, I’m not feeling so gutsy. I’m feeling anxious. Although there’s been quite a bit of soul searching and epiphany having over the last few months, I realized yesterday that, ultimately, nothing is different.
Going back to school still fills me with dread.
For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a teacher. When I was in first grade, I wanted to teach first grade. In middle school, I wanted to teach middle school. You get the picture. It wasn’t until my PhD that I stopped wanting to teach the level at which I was studying. There isn’t enough money or cushy tenure perks in the world to get me in front of a bunch of bloodthirsty first year PhDs all trying to prove they’re smarter than each other — and me. Nope, not a chance.
But it’s more than not wanting to teach in a PhD program. My interest in teaching college students is dissipating, too. I’m pretty burned out if I’m being honest. And sometimes I think how great it would be to teach little kids how to read and help them with their homework. Or how rewarding it would be to help teens figure out what they want to be when they grow up, or to teach them about poetry. Some days, I want to help high school kids get into good colleges and win scholarships and stuff. I even consider academic advising or student services as a possible career path. I think longingly about my past life as a corporate trainer, and would love to teach job skills to transitioning adults. But I don’t look forward to getting back in the college classroom at the end of the month.
I’ve been teaching for most of my adult life, and I’ve been at my current job (let’s just call my TAship a job) for five years–which is two years longer than I’d ever been at any other job. I’ve got a total of 8 years in higher education doing basically the same thing: teaching 18-year-olds how to write sentences and put them together in an order that makes sense and proves a point. Occasionally, I teach 18-to-22-year-olds how to write poems, or how to read and talk about poems. Now, obviously, there are thousands upon thousands of comp instructors and English professors who have been doing this for as long as I’ve been breathing, so I’m not saying I’m special. I’m just saying that, to me, it seems like I’ve been doing this forever. And I kind of have, relatively speaking.
The bottom line is that it no longer excites me. When I was starting out, teaching was difficult and scary. I wanted so badly to be a good teacher–and I was (I still am)–but it took all of my energy to get there. What I love about teaching, what I’ve always loved about teaching, is the problem solving that happens outside of the classroom. How do I structure the time? How do I teach this skill? What activity can I do to re-energize a class that’s given up? How do I measure my success as a teacher and my students’ mastery of the material? How much do they coincide? I totally geek out about this stuff (especially when technology is involved)…but when I think beyond the syllabus, beyond the lesson plans, my mind lands in the classrooms: classrooms that smell like clogged toilets or piss-soaked subway cars, classrooms with inadequate heating and cooling, classrooms with no windows, classrooms made completely of windows so it’s impossible to see what’s on the projector screen. I think about dead dry erase markers and the instructor who used the room before me writing on the board with a marker that doesn’t erase. And I think about students who don’t want to be there, who make up terrible excuses for why they’re not showing up and then want me to bend over backwards to help them, who are overeager and talk too much, who are smart and shy and don’t talk enough, who are fucking brilliant and don’t need to be in my classroom… I get so angry at colleagues who bitch and moan about their students because WHY ARE WE TEACHING IF WE DON’T LIKE OUR STUDENTS? but I find myself bitching and moaning about my students. I don’t want to be that person.
I want to be the person who stays after office hours because students are still waiting in the hall. I want to be the person who answers student emails quickly and pleasantly and in a way that encourages dialog. I want to be the person who takes 30 minutes grading every paper because each student deserves at least that much time and energy to help them along. I want to be Mr. Keating or whatever Michelle Pfieffer’s name was in Dangerous Minds, changing people’s lives and inspiring them to do the same.
It seems too much to ask/expect. But maybe it isn’t. Maybe I’ve just become complacent. Maybe, since this is theoretically my last year in a college classroom, I ought to put as much energy into my teaching as I did the first time around, back when walking into the classroom filled me with nervous energy and hope. Maybe for this one year, I can be the kind of teacher people make movies about.