Earlier this month, I had the privilege of attending a reading by poet-teacher Taylor Mali. His poem “What Teachers Make” inspires me every time I hear it. Please take a moment to check it out. I’ll wait.
Pretty awesome, right?
As I sat there, listening to him, I was struck by the thought that I am not that kind of teacher. Not anymore.
I’ve been teaching for 5 years. I quit my well-paying job in health insurance as soon as I was able to teach part-time in grad school. I went from making $45K/year (with no degree in that area, just experience, and a knack for customer service) to making $10K/year…a good year at that, with no benefits. But I was happy to do it because I was meant to teach. I spent over 10 years getting my AA degree, BA, then MA, all with the intention to teach at the college level. When I finally achieved that goal, I felt like I was making a difference every time I stepped into the classroom.
When I was hired as an adjunct at my community college alma mater, I felt like I’d won the lottery. I loved my colleagues in the English Department, who treated me as their equal, and not just a lowly adjunct. Let’s face it — adjuncts are treated like second-class citizens at most colleges. But that’s a whole other post.
I signed up to teach developmental classes because it paid more, but found that I loved it. I loved helping students who had challenges with skill, or just a simple lack of confidence. I loved being the teacher who finally believed in these students, and who helped them finally understand what a thesis statement is. When I found myself getting frustrated or disappointed, I reminded myself of why I wanted to teach in the first place.
I became a teacher because of my father. My father feels more at home in a garage than in a classroom. Growing up, he struggled in school, and everyone wrote him off. After his brother, the only person who believed in him, was killed in Vietnam, Dad gave up. He met with his high school guidance counselor when he was a sophomore, and his counselor told him that he was stupid and that he should just quit school. So, he did. He didn’t get his GED until I was a sophomore, and he did that to encourage me to stay in school (not that I needed that). I wanted to teach so that folks like my father would have a great teacher to help them.
Honestly, after my first year, I fell into my groove, and became a great teacher. Not perfect by any means, but I was always looking for ways I could improve. Students came into my classroom afraid and defeated, and left confident and ready (for the most part) for college level writing. Now, I know that I can’t claim all of the credit for their success, but I’ll take a part. I found that what many students needed was someone to tell them that they could do it (whatever IT was) and to believe in them. I could do those things. I could give them the tools that they needed to be successful writers (or, at least, competent writers) in college.
For the past year, though, I’ve struggled. I find that more and more students don’t care, don’t do their work, and have no desire to succeed at anything. They don’t care about deadlines, are fine with handing in shitty work, and just try to cruise through their classes with little effort. And no amount of support or cheerleading will help that. The teacher that I used to be, the kind of teacher Taylor Mali writes about, isn’t effective anymore. And I don’t know what to do.
I used to have an infinite amount of patience for students, but lately I find myself wanting to shake them and tell them to grow up and taking responsibility. I spend way more time commenting on their work than they put into writing them, and it pisses me off. I try to challenge them, hold them accountable, and I try to make them respect themselves enough to care about their work. Nothing is working.
Maybe I don’t have the patience anymore because any ounce of patience I have is taken up by my son. Maybe the stress of having to bring work home and somehow find time to grade papers and prep is getting to me. Maybe the students aren’t getting worse; maybe it’s that I’ve changed now that I’m an overtired mom.
I don’t know what the answer is. But I do know that hating my work isn’t good. I’m just not sure what to do about it.
Bonus: “Miracle Worker”