Teaching

Thoughts on “Far From the Tree” #1: On Love

“It is not true that ‘love is not love which alters when it alteration finds’. Love alters all the time; it is fluid, in perpetual flux, an evolving business across a lifetime. We commit to love our children without knowing them, and knowing them changes how we love them”. Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree (388)

Being a teacher is a little like being a parent sometimes because each child (or adolescent) in your care has to feel safe and loved. Students (especially boys according to some studies, and all students according to others) will not listen to the content being taught unless you engage them directly and personally with what they find interesting.

I found this particularly difficult in the beginning of my teaching because at the boys’ school where I teach, team sport is compulsory, and teachers are encouraged to go and watch on weekends. After an exhausting week of teaching, the last thing I wanted to do was to go and sit next to a field and watch something in which I have no interest, and make small talk with parents when I never know what to say. Plus, there is always marking to be done, lessons to be planned, meals to be cooked for the coming week, the house needs cleaning (you get the idea).

In addition, I am not a sports’ fan. At best, I find watching sport a bit of a waste of time. I would rather be reading and learning something or going out and getting some exercise myself. At worst, I find the national obsession with sport a kind of bread-and-circuses conspiracy. How can you care about finding ways to stop global warming or being an active citizen when you spend all your time obsessing about (mainly male) teams of people who earn exorbitant sums of money to be modern versions of gladiators?

Finally, it made me angry that all boys have to play sport (particularly team sport). It felt like we, as a school, were forcing them into one version of masculinity, and into the kind of thinking I have criticised above. If you keep boys busy enough, the busyness and physical activity has the double effect of pacifying and also of lessening the number of opportunities for reflection and questioning. I was a swimmer and an actress at school, and the hours alone swimming laps provided some mindless boredom (singing the same song over and over in your head to the rhythm of your strokes) but also valuable solitary reflection time. Acting in a play (as anyone can attest) is one of the most challenging and rewarding exercises in team work, to the same extent if not more so (in my opinion) than sports.

Needless to say, I seldom made the time to go and watch until I was, by circumstance, forced to do so.

We were in Bloemfontein and we had had an inter-school debate the night before (which was the reason that I was there). On Saturday, there were back-to-back rugby and hockey games (which were at a different venue) so I was stuck watching rugby games all morning. The other teachers who were there were all male and huge sports’ fans themselves, so they were really involved in the games. I moved from group to group, making small talk until, patient though they were, they changed topics to the game we were watching or to talk about national and international teams. It was a frustrating and alienating experience, but it did afford me a lot of time to watch and I noticed something unexpected.

The boys (I was watching the U15s in particular) who mess around and who seem to need endless encouragement to be proactive about their learning and to concentrate were transformed into self-sufficient mini-men on the sports’ field. The A team cheered on the B team and vice-versa, and they spoke seriously to one another about each other’s potential and about how they could improve. I have already written about how John Green helped me to remember teenagers’ agency, but seeing these guys in their element made that realisation more than cerebral. These boys were not trying to be gladiators, they making full use of an activity in which they had agency and power to learn and mature.

It also changed how I interacted with these boys in class. When I looked at them, I was unable to forget that other side of them, the “real” side, not the side they manufacture to show their teacher as they sit passively behind their desks. They were also unable to forget (especially as I started to make a more regular habit of supporting) that I had been there to witness them being their best selves, the ones that they had chosen.

Reading further along in Solomon’s book (in the chapter on Transgender children), I discovered that research shows that some people do conform to gender “stereotypes” quite naturally. Some boys do find more fulfilment being active, particularly together and particularly on sports’ fields where they can take part in a kind of simulated war. I still think that my criticism of the assumption that all boys and men are this way is valid because not all boys are wired like this, but my sneering at all sportsmen and sport as a national (and school) pastime denied a fundamental part of some of the people in my care, and may have made them feel less welcome in my class. Even if, wrongly so, the dominant drive of schools is a sporting one to the exclusion of other skills and talents, my own classroom atmosphere should not exclude those for whom it is fundamental to their well-being because then I would be enacting the prejudice that I abhor. It also closes the door to the more important conversations one can have about sport and the way that it is run and undertaken.

My first “teaching” job was as a tutor at Rhodes University. I had fifteen students and I saw them once a week for forty minutes. Feeling anxious, I chatted to one of the best lecturers I had (Dr Deborah Seddon) while in an Honours lecture. She smiled and said, off-handedly, that students just want to feel safe. In retrospect, her detailed commentary and ability to listen carefully and closely to all my ideas made me feel just that. My mother (a teacher with almost forty years of experience) said something similar the day before I started this full-time teaching job as she said that as long as students felt safe and cared for, I would be able to teach them.

I started teaching with those pieces of advice in mind, and a burning desire to help shape the lives of the people I taught for the better. I think, though, that some of my students only really started feeling safe and cared for (and open to change and guidance) when I changed as a result of having cared for them.

Note: Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree is one of the most fascinating books I have read in years. It does all the things a great book should do: it illuminated parts of the world I had never before noticed, articulated feelings I had held but never expressed (sometimes even to myself), and it was so beautifully written that reading every sentence was a joy. This is the first in a series.

Image source: London French Rugby Club.

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Hello. My name is Clea and I am an English teacher (the mostly bad news version)

So it’s been a while since I posted anything online.  It has been over two years, in fact. There are many reasons for this, including ideas for other blogs that I have been working on and the fact that my computer gave up on me.  Most importantly, however, my life has changed radically since 2012. I have not had a child or moved countries or even cities. No one close to me has died, and Zwe and I are still more than happy together. I have savings in the bank that don’t need to be spent immediately and I am still friends with all the marvelous people I am fortunate enough to count as friends.

What changed was that I became a high school teacher.

To be honest, I thought that teaching would give me more time to write about what I am really interested in.  Writing a Masters thesis hangs overs your brain like a fine mist and affects all your other activities. You feel like every waking moment should be spent bettering your ideas to produce this thesis.

I thought that teaching was more like a real job, one that could end when school ends at the end of the day. I thought that I would have more head space for my own interests as the work would be delivered at school. Both my parents are teachers, so I knew it would be hard work but I figured that while that the after hours work is fairly consuming, it is not the itching, nudging feeling of a thesis that WILL NOT let you alone and wrestles with every word you want to put on the page.

What I did not realise is that in teaching, you work with young human capital in a field that is constantly shifting the parameters of what is considered “good work”. This means several things:

1. All of a sudden, I have become partly responsible for the English education (and moral fibre, critical thinking skills, engagement in current affairs, general knowledge and my pupils’ understanding of male-female relations as I teach in an all-boys’ school) of over one-hundred growing boys.  This is a heavy burden to bear and I constantly question (inexperienced as I am) whether I am doing enough or doing the right thing for them.

2. Education is changing (and so it should!) Teachers should not get their pupils to sit, listen and learn reams of facts off by heart. Instead, teachers should be encouraging pupils to make connections, to stay curious and to become involved not only in the array of school activities, but also in their communities to make positive changes. This is awesome (in the good, old-fashioned sense of the word: inspiring awe).  But I have been struggling all year to wonder how I can fulfil my responsibilities as a teacher by getting these kids through exams and tests, and yet by challenging them to take responsibility for their own learning which means, necessarily, letting them fail if they don’t change on their own. Quite a few of the days, I feel I do not get the balance right.  After two years of feeling like I was fairly good at what I did at Wits, many of the days I teach, I feel a horrendous failure.

3. In order to get better at the above skill, it is important to develop and read up on stuff in my spare time. By the time I get to my “spare time”, however, I feel emotionally drained and physically exhausted. Most days, I teach my first lesson at 7.30am (with preparation and sometimes even meetings beforehand) and usually work almost continuously until I put away my work at 9.30pm with work still left unfinished. I teach extra lessons in the afternoons, as well as run two clubs.  This is still far less than many of the other teachers at the school contribute. They also seem pretty normal, able to talk about things that might be happening outside of the school, or make conversation that doesn’t revert back to, “One of my grade …s said … in class the other day”.  This makes me feel like I am not only failing at the content of my job, but as a friend or half-way interesting conversationalist.

I thought that when I started teaching, I would gain fascinating insights into the nature of humanity and human development, and find some magic formula for making teenagers excited about Shakespeare. Many days, however, I concentrate on not going crazy so that the pupils and hard-working, selfless teachers who rely on my contribution will not have to pick up the pieces.

And after all my angst, a woman I was studying with at Wits asked, when I saw her many months ago, if I was finding teaching challenging enough.

There’s a really good line I read in John Green’s The Abundance of Katherines, where the protagonist says that if his parents didn’t stop talking he “would blow up. Literally. Guts on the walls; his prodigious brain emptied out onto his bedspread”. John Green seems to have a knack for describing certain responses to situations perfectly, and the frustration I feel when people ask if my job is challenging is pretty well encapsulated by a guts-all-over-the-walls frustration (while I would not describe my brain as feeble, I would’t go so far as to call it prodigious).

Teaching is so all-encompassing that it is, in many ways, a kind of sacrificial profession. What I have promised myself is that if I am to sacrifice some of my life for others, I will keep striving to make the time worth something to these other minds I profess to know. As mired in contradictions and compromises as teaching is, I hope I can distil something useful from the experience in these (ephemeral and digital) pages, and contribute some words to the chatter.

 

 

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