When I first decided to pursue the career of being a high school English teacher, I wasn’t doing it for my love of teaching or my love of reading and writing. I chose the career for practical reasons. I wanted to become a mentor for teenagers, to help them when and where they needed it. But in talking to one of my own mentors, I knew I’d need some kind of job to pay the bills. Since then, I’ve spent over 4 years learning about education in college, and I’ve supplemented that education with podcasts, certifications, memberships, blog posts, and reading. I cultivated a love for the art of teaching, the science of education, and the humanity of students.
I remember hearing along the way that new teachers are naive when they first enter the classroom. Their idealism is displaced by the realities of the classroom. They were never ready for teaching because they never knew what teaching entails. They were seduced by the heart-warming movies about teachers like Dead Poets Society and Freedom Writers. After unsuccessfully replicating the famous scenes in these movies during their first year of teaching, they either move on or stay, embittered.
I’ve also recently heard the exact opposite. In a book released in December of 2017, an English teacher offers advice about how to “become the kind of teacher they make movies about.” I listened to the Hack Learning podcast episode that featured the author, and the theory behind the movie teacher argument seems to be that striving to be the best teacher you can be will probably result in becoming a better teacher.
Personally, I tend to agree with the latter argument. I honestly believe that schools need a constant influx of idealistic teachers that care about their students and know fresh ways of reaching students. But these teachers must also be equipped with the knowledge that the reality of the teaching profession is worlds away from those depicted in the movies. I’ve pursued the knowledge of this reality, but it hasn’t been until my current student teaching placement that I’ve been able to put real faces to the struggles that exist in high schools. This experience has caused me to rethink, to mature my vision of myself as an idealistic teacher.
If I’m being honest, I am writing this post to try to save myself from discarding teacher idealism altogether.
The reality of a typical day at my school is a whirlwind of events that produce an incredible mental strain on both the teachers and the students. There are only a handful of students that have an overt intrinsic desire to learn, and these students are derailed by the race towards extrinsic rewards. Other students are expected to perform in basically the same conditions as these academic students, resulting in anything from defiance, complacency, compliance or a healthy mixture of the three. It’s nice to think schools are places where students can thrive, but it’s probably more common for students to just try to survive. Teachers are expected to handle daily attendance, signing passes, unwanted behaviors, student mental health, parental concerns, phone calls, curriculum demands, colleague questions, make-up work, grading, lesson planning, lesson preparation, extra-curricular involvement obligations, and personal events all while teaching a full schedule of bell-to-bell 40-some minute lessons.
Not one college professor, textbook, required observation experience, or award-winning film told me about this.
It would probably be a huge warning sign if I wasn’t having qualms about my idealized version of being a teacher. That would mean I wasn’t paying attention. So this trembling in my typing fingers is (in reality) a good thing.
To put it more comically, the student teacher I carpool with and I have been compiling a list of job qualifications for teachers: a ginormous bladder, next-level organizational skills, the ability to do more than two things at once, a high-functioning immune system, etc. We joke that listing these as our qualifications in a job interview would show that we have a more realistic idea of what it is to be a teacher and would thus immediately land us the position.
I know that the system of education is broken, or rather, stifling the people within it. If that teacher wanted to make those small victories with a few students like in the movies, the teacher must pay less attention to the other students in the class. There isn’t enough time in a class period to “win” with every student. Teachers that attempt to do fully personalized learning with a class of 30 students might be able to afford just over a minute to each student during a class period, that is, if the teacher wasn’t handling a dozen other obligations at the same time. No wonder students are disengaged and school cultures can deteriorate so quickly.
One high school English teacher – the lone wolf ideal-fulfilling teacher – cannot change the system alone. Battling the system alone isn’t sustainable. I had a professor who told us that teachers are superheroes, echoing the litany of articles and social media pictures that became popular in the past few years. It’s a nice thought, and maybe even an inspiring one. But, as the many recent superhero movies and TV shows depict, there are far more beat-downs and missteps than victories. Victories can easily be corrupted or reversed. And a single person is not capable of affecting too much change alone.
Here is where I get another glimpse of the ideal. Maybe being the best teacher isn’t defined by being the one who is always positive, tackles every issue within their classroom, and meets every students’ needs. I realize now that it would take a concerted effort of every member of the school and local community to move towards a more humane system of education. I don’t know exactly what that looks like or what steps need to be taken to get there, but it is something. Realizing that I am not alone, that it is detrimental to be alone is powerful.
I realize that in the future – and probably within the next month – I will again be forced to revise my thoughts. I smile as I think that maybe holding onto idealism is what makes it possible to continue revising instead of giving up or giving in.
For now, these words are the truest expression of my current thought process, and they detail my journey to become (ideally) a better teacher.