teaching

Scar Tissue

One of the sentiments I see very often when people write about establishing relationships with students is that teachers need to show that they make mistakes and are vulnerable, and a lot of times that comes through sharing personal stories.  While I understand the ideas behind that, I am not sure that I completely agree because sentiments like that sound like they’re coming from a pretty, popular girl who is telling a less-popular, self-conscious girl that she shouldn’t be so self-conscious about her looks.  “Be vulnerable and tell stories” is the sentiment of someone who never had his vulnerabilities used against him or thrown back in his face.

One of my favorite essays of all time and hence, one of my favorite essays to use in my advanced English class is Alice Walker’s “Beauty: When The Other Dancer is the Self.”  I’ve mentioned it more than once and written about it more than once and that’s because it’s so well-written and generates some great discussions about how people judge one another based on physical traits or characteristics as well as the cruelty of children toward one another.  We discuss this essay in my classes via student-run seminars, so I don’t do very much talking except to either clear up factual questions the group can’t answer (although I have been known to jump in when things go completely off the rails).  But when it comes to this essay, it’s very hard for me to not say anything because of how the subject matter affects me on a personal level.

You can’t notice it unless you look very closely or meet me in person, but I have a scar under my right nostril.  It’s the result of a bicycle accident I had a few days after my thirteenth birthday–my face hit the handlebars of my ten-speed and one of my front teeth went through my lip.  For the first three years after the accident, the scar was very noticeable because the tissue had keloided, meaning that it had puffed up and instead of looking like most scars, it looked like an extremely large pimple.  Combine this with the fact that I had two false teeth, which I was wearing until my orthodontist completed the task of moving my other teeth over so my dentist could cap them with veneers, the school year following the accident (eighth grade) was a nightmare.  I wasn’t really popular to begin with and the comments I heard ranged from “Can you take your teeth out?” to “Why don’t you pop that thing?”  I even had one person offer to perform home surgery with an ice cube and an Exact-o knife.

I am hesitant to compare my experience to Alice Walker’s because that would be an exercise in ego and I would surely be taken to task for my ignorance as well (and rightfully so), but whenever I read and discuss the essay, I can’t help but make that text-to-self connection and notice at least some similarities.  We both had noticeable scars (hers was in the eye, the result of a BB gun), and both had corrective surgery sometime later (I went to a plastic surgeon and had a skin graft done between my sophomore and junior years of high school) that on some level fixed the problem.  Walker writes about how her grades improved and she excelled beyond that; I heard, “Oh, you popped it!” a few times before not having to hear much of anything else about my facial irregularities.

Still, the damage was done and it took being around people who didn’t know about the scar on my face (read: people not from my high school) to realize that everything would be fine. As a result, I came to terms with my scar and the insecurities that came with it, and the scar on my face stopped being the first thing about me that people saw, thought about, or commented on.

I should tell this story when we discuss the essay in class specifically because it dovetails so well with it and as I mentioned, it’s a good text-to-self connection moment.  And yet my experience with being pushed around and both aggressively and passive-aggressively ridiculed during my formative years makes me very hesitant to do so.  I still reflexively act as if anything I say can and will be used against me.  Plus, even though my students are intelligent, they are also teenagers and not all of them have the maturity to absorb or handle that amount of honesty, especially from a teacher.  Sometimes they do, and I have told a version of my scar story and related it to the essay and that seems to be a positive contribution to the discussion.  Other times, I’ve started to talk but held back when side conversations and chatter that weren’t going on began the moment I opened my mouth.  After all, why should I open up like that to people who can’t give me the respect of a single word?

I have no problem making and owning mistakes as a teacher (I think I’ve said “I’m an idiot” out loud more times than anything in class), but the vulnerability and soul bearing that I read about doesn’t come as easy.  There is a line between humility and humiliation, and controlling who you are as well as how much people see of you is just a demonstration of your own humanity as baring your own soul.  Scars are what they are for a reason–they remind us of damage and of pain.  And yes, they can remind them of resilience and strength, but it takes a while for some of us with the scars to discover that, and until we own those scars we shouldn’t be told that we have to reveal them to and share them with everyone else.

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Don’t Break the Ice

I hate the first day of school.

That’s not a sentence you expect to hear from a teacher. In fact, if I said this sentence out loud in the confines of edutwitter, I’d probably get a ton of responses that wondered why I am a teacher, some platitudes that people would retweet, a few quotes in pictures, or be edusplained to by someone who hasn’t seen the inside of a classroom for more than five minutes since the 1990s (yet is a “Thought Leader” in education). So, for clarity’s sake, I’ll say it again.

I hate the first day of school.

Some teachers walk into the first day with the energy of those really chipper people who were your freshmen orientation staff at college. They want to do cheers and play games and willingly embarrass themselves by acting silly. In the lead-up to the first day of school, they burst with enthusaism about all of the money they spent on school supplies for the kids and how they’re so excited to meet all of them. And on that first day? Well, I guess you call it “teaching like a pirate” or something? I don’t know. What I do know is that they bring to their classrooms the enthusiasm equivalent of the pyrotechnics at a KISS concert.

I am not like that. It’s the second day of school and I was just in my advanced English class and we were doing some of our initial discussions of the summer reading (Into the Wild) and I was not a bundle of enthusiasm and rah rah this is exciting and teaching like a pirate but instead was just a bundle of nervous energy. In fact, the only thing that I will ever have in common with Lloyd Dobler is that when I get nervous, I have that talking thing … I just ramble on and try to fill quiet space/awkward silences with something so that the silence isn’t there. I know that I’ll settle down in a few days or maybe a week and will feel more relaxed in front of the students, especially as I get to know them more, but these first few days take so much out of me because I have to make a real effort to seem outgoing and wanting to get to know the students when my instinct is to put my head down and work quietly.

It’s not because I hate students or anything like that–I actually like spending my days surrounded by sophomores (most of the time, anyway). It’s that I’m way more of an introvert than I let on, and those people who know me well see a little more of my personality than those who are getting to know me. Not only that, I also tend to overanalyze my interactions with people I don’t know well or encounter in social settings. For instance, if I go to a party, I will spend the entire drive home replaying the entire evening and searching for moments where I may have done something stupid or embarrassed myself. And that’s pretty much how yesterday went as well. I spent my entire drive home replaying the day to see if I said anything or did anything that might have left a bad impression on my students and wondered if I handled every classroom management situation well. You know, on a day where we did introductions, went over the course guidelines and did a small activity.

Other people don’t have this issue. They will come home on the first day a little tired because they’re not reacclimated to the routine of the school day, but they will be so enthusiastic about the kids they’re teaching and feeling even more excited for the next day. I come home exhausted, with my voice shot, and wondering whether or not I have already ruined their lives because the first day was too teacher-centered or something. And yes, I realize that this isn’t all about me and it’s about my students and all of the other supposedly selfless things that teachers say, but I’m not afraid to admit that I constantly worry about what I’m doing and if what I’m doing is the right way to do it. And the time when that’s the worst? The first day of school. When we hit the middle of September and I’ve got my rhythm down and I know the students and their traits and quirks very well, I won’t have as much anxiety about all of this and I won’t feel so exhausted when I get home because I feel like I have to pretend that I’m that constantly psyched all the time.

I also won’t have to constantly remind myself that I can do this.

I have a lectern in the front of my classroom and taped to the top of the lectern are notes students have left me over the years as well as a Post-It with the phrase “You’ve got this.” Now, I wrote that and put it there, but I did it because it was one of the best things any colleague has ever said to me in my nearly twelve years of teaching. It was about two years ago and I was getting ready for our school’s Poetry Out Loud assembly; I was running around the stage area like a complete nutcase, stressing out over every little detail because I had about 600 students who were about to come in to watch eight of their peers recite poems for a contest. My partner in the assembly and someone who was one of my best friends here, saw that I was basically about to pop a blood vessel, put her hand on my shoulder, and calmly said, “Hey. You’ve got this.” And I know that it was probably just her way of trying to calm me down because I was probably driving her nuts, but it worked and any time that I am super stressed out or wondering if I’m screwing everything up, I take a moment and remember that.

Because she’s right. I’ve got this. And even though I may not be completely on point with my enthusiasm, cheerleading, or teaching like a pirate-ness from minute one of day one, I know that when it comes to the long game, I’m going to have no problems. And I guess it’s kind of my hope that someone is reading this post (not likely, I barely get any traffic here) and can completely identify with my nervous energy and the exhaustion that comes from being introverted and forcing yourself to extrovert until you are comfortable. I don’t see many discussions about that when I read about making an impression on the first day, which maybe is one we should have so that we’re not all nervous wrecks and feeling guilty about hating the first day of school.

What I tell myself and what I am afraid to say

So the other day I got a message on Facebook from a former student.  She had just finished a placement test in writing at her new college and wanted to message me to tell me that she got a perfect score.  I congratulated her and wished her luck this year while also telling her that it’s going to be weird to not have her stopping by my room on a regular basis.  At some point during our quick chat, she said, “It’s because of you.”

I share this anecdote not to brag or hoist myself onto a pedestal, but because while I sent a message thanking her, my internal reaction was, “Really?”  I mean, I run into students all the time and am even friends with some on Facebook, but our conversations often have to do with catching up on how they are doing since I last saw them or heard from them or maybe something a little more random.  Most of the time, I walk away from the conversation feeling glad that I ran into him or her, and there are even times when I’m genuinely impressed by what they’ve been able to accomplish beyond their time in my class.

But over the years I have had a hard time believing that I really had a hand in that person’s success.  Their talent and their ability all comes from within and I just get the feeling that if their teacher had been someone different, the results would have been similar.  They still would have succeeded and still would have gone on to lead good lives no matter whose classrooms they passed through.

It’s the teacher’s constant existential dilemma–do I really make a difference?  Does it really matter if I’m here?

And then there’s the other dilemma–am I allowed to admit that I’m a good teacher?

Now, my internal monologue (as it was) probably just comes from my own feelings of anxiety and oft-bruised self-esteem, and I certainly am not indicative of most teachers out there.  And while I usually am proud of what I’ve accomplished, I learned at an early age not to express that pride too much lest I be called an egomaniac.  In short, this is my own hang-up that I’m expressing here.

But.

Whenever I read the comments on an article about teachers or teaching, I see people who want to set me on fire or run me out of town.  I’m their tax burden.  I’m a lazy waste.  I’m the source of the problem.  Whenever I go on edutwitter, it’s either platitudes in pretty boxes or statements about what I “should” be doing or what I “don’t” do.  I’ve even see Very Important Education Thought Leaders get in on the act and advocate all sorts of alternatives to what I do for a living, then claim to be supportive of teachers.  Everywhere I turn, it’s a reminder of what I’m doing wrong, and honestly, that gets to me.  I think it will get to anyone.

I realize that part of this profession is being humble and that students succeeding on their own is an indicator that they have received an excellent education, but I wonder when that translated into not being allowed to admit that you’re a good teacher.  I’m serious here–I’ve never actually said that to myself or out loud because I’ve more or less convinced myself that I’m not.  And I’m not writing this to fish for compliments or anything like that, just to say that I wonder if I’m the only person who goes through phases like this, where despite all evidence to the contrary, they think they’re not doing enough or not doing enough the right way.

I don’t wish to take credit for any of my students’ accomplishments. I’ve been fortunate and grateful to teach some amazing young people during my eleven years as a high school English teacher.  I’ve also had the misfortune of teaching some young people who were very much the opposite.  But I want to be allowed to take the opportunity to look at what I have done or how far I’ve come since I started teaching and say, if only to myself, “You’re a good teacher” and not feel that I’m being arrogant or putting myself before my students.  Maybe I’ll earn that one day.