You know, one of those things that you just don’t get unless you’re doing it yourself. Before I was a mom, I had all these thoughts and beliefs and worst of all, judgments, about parenthood, and I really had no clue. Now I know that I just didn’t get it, and I couldn’t really get it until I was waist-deep in dirty diapers.
The same idea holds true for teaching: unless you’re in the thick of it, you really don’t get it. And dare I say that this is especially true for those of us who teach in the city. It’s amazing that I haven’t hurt someone or at the very least, alienated more people, because I’ve heard more than one person say, “teaching’s easy” in such a way that I think they believe we should do it for free.
Thus I was gratified to see this article by David Herszenhorn in a recent New York Times. It’s always gratifying to see someone, especially someone in the media, who “gets it”. It’s gratifying to see a piece that doesn’t begrudge us our “fat” salaries, summers off, and pensions. “Working with children looks easy. It is not,” Herszenhorn writes.
Many of us will happily verify that. The trick, of course, is to make it look easy. For me, executing a great lesson is incredibly satisfying. It can make or break a day. But unless you’re a teacher (or the significant other of one) you really don’t know how much time goes into planning, from a pedagogical perspective and a logistical one. Herszenhorn illustrates this with an example about his field, and how some say that 90% of the job is logistical. While I personally don’t know if I’d put my logistical issues at 90%, they are still substantial.
For example, getting photocopies is the stuff of legends in NYC schools. When I first started, I was told I was entitled to 200 sheets of paper a month. I saw over a hundred kids a week at that point, and my 200 sheets were often gone with the wind anyway. My current school has better accommodations, but I find that I still need to be ready for any glitch- no toner, the mother of all paper jams, etc. And while I love teaching with technology, that too creates headaches at the most inopportune times. Is the Internet up? Did the teacher who had the laptop cart before me remember to charge it? Of course, these are the minor annoyances, but having to always plan around these things eats into time that can be better spent.
Herszenhorn uses another, more poignant example to illustrate the challenges we face, that of a young boy, fast asleep amid the hustle of a busy auditorium. To me, this is at the heart of what we are up against: the personal struggles of our kids, the sometimes-murky details of their home situations. It would be easy for many people to think that the child had been up too late playing video games. As a new teacher, I’d find myself perpetually frustrated by kids who slept in class, until a more experienced colleague gently pointed out that the student had a history of depression, which I wasn’t aware of.
Too many of our students have responsibilities beyond their years; one chronically late former student finally confessed to me that she had to get her younger brother and nephew ready for school in the morning, while getting herself ready, then she had to drop them at their elementary schools and trek several blocks from there to our school. Every year it seems that I have a handful of kids who have family troubles that I could never fathom, and yet they’re expected to put all their outside challenges aside and let themselves be captivated by the workshop model. We are fortunate in my school to have excellent counselors and social workers, but they are swamped, and it’s just not enough.
to be continued...