How To Be a Better Teacher, or, I Suck

I thought I was getting comfortable. Competent. If not great, at least better than last year. Slipping a little more gracefully into my role as Benevolent Dictator of the ELA fiefdom in Room 200. My school is a training ground for overlords: I don’t like how Striver High does authority, discipline, pedagogy, collaboration, or community, but it’s a million times better than many city schools. Even if teachers here rely on worksheets, textbooks, and threats more than I would like, it is a relatively peaceful, supportive, dedicated place to work. Henry was suspended today for saying “faggot” in my class. Where else does a kid catch such swift retribution for that ugly but commonplace act?

Then I started reading book for class today on the subway: “The Differentiated Classroom.” I was being  responsible and doing my reading for class BEFORE the  paper was due, eschewing the New York Times Book Review (my standard Monday morning fare) for insight into how to teach diverse learners.

“In Mrs. Wilkerson’s 8th grade English class,” the author writes, “students often read novels around a common theme, such as courage or conflict resolution…Mrs. Wilkerson also varies journal prompts, sometimes assigning different prompts to different students. Often, she encourages students to select a prompt that interests them.”

Here we go.

“In Mr. O’Reilly’s 8th grade English class,” she admonishes, “students read the same novels and have whole-class discussions on them. Students complete journal entries on their readings.”

AND WE’RE OFF!  Bring on the guilt:

Us: (Deep breath) We’re reading “Ethan Frome.”
Them: Noooooo!
Us: Yes.
Them: This is wack! I hate this book! I don’t get it! This is borin’! I hate ELA!
Us: Read it anyway, young punks, or you’ll fail the quiz/marking period/semester/Regents/high school/life. See you in tutoring. I’m calling your mother.

Cue self-flagellation…

I could tick off the dozen or so reasons WHY I suck without blaming myself, chief among them the utter lack of coordination or planning in our department, confirmed, for example, by the list of novels we were handed to teach that was cobbled together by our new chair the week before school started, with no input from us; there is also the Ferris Bueller-style lecturing at the front of the room, followed by rote note-copying and multiple-choice exams, that Striver High seems to favor. When I try anything more “student-centered,” that seems to empower the kids and ask for their input, I’m suspiciously regarded as “lowering the standard.” Like, What, you don’t think our kids can handle the real stuff? (The “real stuff” being the longstanding pillars of old school-style education: book reports, five-paragraph essays, books by dead white guys.)

Recently, I suggested designing an independent writing project for a student who’d been removed from my room for discipline reasons; he hadn’t done a single assignment all semester. I wanted to design material with him in mind; how could I unlock this kid’s potential? “No, he’s fully capable of doing the regular work, like everyone else,” snapped the department chair. I know he’s capable, but he probably thinks it’s boring and irrelevant. And I sort of agree.

Anyway, back to sucking. I am in a pedagogical rut without the breathing room or the time to design something better. Forget planning it with my colleagues; I’d be developing it on my own, and there’s no way. For all the mediocre curriculum I plan, it takes an awful lot of maintenance. And I’m not the worst teacher in the world: I tutor five or eight hours a week, have everyone’s parents’ numbers on speed dial, manage 35 kids for 80 minute-stretches like a champ, enliven our by-the-book lessons with theatrical panache, make connections with students…my old kids from last year (the year I REALLY didn’t know what I was doing) wander in and tell me how much they miss my class, God bless them.

But I know it, I KNOW my class sucks more than it has to, I can see it in their faces when we do ANOTHER quiz just to prove they read the book they hate that we’re all reading that I didn’t choose. I need a vision, man. ‘Cause I could be awesome. But for now, I’m not. For real.

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