Teaching — I Wish I Could Turn Back Time

Funny, after I saw today’s prompt, the word “educate,” I began to feel kind of sick. I (of course) flashed back to 38 years in the classroom and saw, again, how much I don’t want to go back there.

I read an article today by a woman who is teaching university geology. It ends with the same panacea we have all offered ourselves (usually successfully) “If I reach one student…”

By the time I left teaching, 2014, it was not the same profession I entered in the 70s. Students were different. They expected nothing from school. It was something they had to endure before they could enter “real life” (which they would be great at because their parents had always told them there was nothing they could not do). The teacher had gone from being a person who was there to help them learn to someone (a comparatively stupid someone who could be cowed by helicopter parents) in conspiracy against them. I can only imagine how it is in giant lecture classes where a teacher can’t get the students actively doing something for the 50 minutes or so. But the problems with teaching were not just students who weren’t prepared, not even those who were physically aggressive, or the parents who were demanding and nasty — administration was yet one more egregious layer on what had become a nightmare.

One of the last (good) classes I taught was a writing class. It was semi-remedial at a community college. Students got college credit for it but it was not a transfer-level class. We met twice a week for four hours. Writing is not something you can teach top down; it’s not an information based subject. It’s a subject students have to practice to learn. My many, many, many, many years of teaching writing at this level had shown me that students at that point needed to learn to write in a very basic way; sentence to paragraph, paragraph to essay. Fine. I didn’t mind teaching that. Tangled up with that were words. Good. I like words.

That particular class was a hodgepodge of nationalities, ages, backgrounds. The oldest student was in her mid-fifties; her native language Spanish; she had a Masters Degree from a university in Mexico City — typical community college group. I decided the best way to approach them was to regard the four hours as a writing lab. I introduced, I lectured, they tried, they revised, I helped, they revised, they went home and finished and the next day we met they handed me a finished essay. 98% of the work was done in class. Why?

Anyone who is in that level is afraid to write for one reason or another — they’ve tried and failed. They have a learning disability. English is not their first language. Having the teacher there during MOST of the work was a huge help to them morally and actually. And they read each others work as they went along.

I left them to themselves to sort out their use of the 4 hours. Some had to go pick up a kid or two at day care and take them to grandma’s in the middle. No problem for me. Some were restless thinkers who got up and left and came back. Some needed a cigarette. Some liked to talk things over with a classmate. My rule was no phones — except for the moms. The class worked great, but it looked chaotic.

I was observed by the dean. She said she’d never seen such a poorly managed classroom in her life.

I sat back in my chair and listened to her litany of criticisms. I didn’t even think she was a bitch. I just thought she was clueless.

For some reason I decided to fight back. I asked her, “Have you ever taught writing? Have you ever taught a class that people did not want to take? Have you ever taught a four hour class?” No, no, no. I told the dean the whys and wherefores of the class and why I had managed it as I had. I explained the difference between what she taught — lecture classes in dental hygiene — and what I taught. I told her about the individual students who’d come in with mechanical problems related to their lives (daycare, etc.), those who had learning disabilities, those for whom English was FAR from a first language, the one who had serious PTSD. I said to her, “These are people, individuals, and some how I have to take them from where they entered my classroom in January to a place where they can join more mainstream students and succeed. Learning to write is nothing but a tool for doing that.”

I, on the other hand, had seen incredible progress with those students. They were going into the next class — Freshman Comp — MORE than ready. They could bang out the ever necessary 5 paragraph essay like nobody’s business. They understood the perils of the thesaurus. They eschewed cliches. They knew how to cite sources and integrate quotations. They understood the rhetorical terms like “compare/contrast,” “descriptive,” “first person,” “thesis statement,” “argument,” “persuasion.” And they had learned how to go to college — some of them entering that classroom had NO idea. The chaos the dean observed at the END of the semester was NOTHING compared to the chaos at the beginning.

She ended up giving me a good eval, a fantastic eval, actually.

But…when I was to meet with the dean of the college over my evals, the guy forgot our appointment at 5 pm. I was left in a dark little room waiting for an hour and a half after I’d already taught six classes, beginning at 7 am. The secretary called him and then asked if I’d like him to come down or if I’d like to come back. Since getting there was a 50 mile drive from my house and 30 miles from everywhere else I ever was, I said I’d wait.

I was angry. I held inside more than 30 years of anger at all the bullshit a lecturer must go through to work in higher education. I don’t want to enumerate the bullshit. You can probably extrapolate from these two examples.

So he arrived. He met with me for 10 minutes. Said I was qualified to come back and work for them again (ever mind that I had already worked for that college for 10 years — and had taken a hiatus of five while I taught at geographically more convenient colleges).

So the word “educate” for me, this morning, was like a waving flag in front of the face of a bull. (BTW, it doesn’t have to be red; red just plays better for the crowd.)

Teaching is a joke. Teachers are tools. The pay is awful. The lack of respect is worse. The last 20 years of government interference and the emphasis on testing has caused serious harm. The fact that students believe (and maybe they’re right) they can learn more from Google than from a teacher is awful. I was conned over and over by the “I’ve learned more from you than anyone in my life” “This is the only good class I’ve taken at this college” — if I’d been paying attention I would have thought, “Wait, that’s just ONE kid.”

But the ultimate con, “If you reach one student, you’ve succeeded” is tattooed on the inside of every teachers’ eyelids. Mine too.

I wish I had my life back. I’d have taken that job with Boojum Adventures and led guided horseback tours of Mongolia instead. Yeah. I was offered that back in 1985. 😦



43 thoughts on “Teaching — I Wish I Could Turn Back Time

  1. I’d have gone with the horse tour too. But then again, I never wanted to teach. I did, for a couple of years and I was reasonably good at it, or so I’m told, but I didn’t love it and was glad when I felt I could quit. I never envied a teacher’s job. It’s hard, thankless, poorly paying and ingratitude is the usual reward. Writing manuals for computer applications paid better and sometimes, I got a “thank you” for the effort.

    • Yeah — Boojum Tours was just starting up; I was invested in my marriage and though I had a future at the school where I was working. If I’d known mySELF better I’d have gone. OH well if wishes were horses…literally

  2. I always wanted to teach and regretted not pursuing it when I was younger. I agree that teaching has changed because of government interference and testing. And expectations have changed. And the parent teacher relationship has changed. I am thankful for the teachers who dedicated themselves to their profession, in sure if the obstacles. I’ve many great teachers (and a few that shouldn’t have been in a classroom). ☀️

  3. There are days when I’m right there with you. It’s a thankless job much of the time. But, I’m lucky to have a good principal and some students who inspire me to stick around a little bit longer.

    • I loved it most of the time when I was in it. I think having good administration makes almost all the difference. During the times I had good bosses it was like being in another world. ❤

  4. I loved and respected my teachers, I still do. The day I started teaching in a public school I discovered respect towards my each teacher even more..probably because of the critical challenges that I faced as a teacher, an employee and a subject to government curriculum! It took me time process the challenges and simplify them just the way I use to do as an artist with forms, simplifying critical forms. Then went against the norm of exauhsting marks greed production to a breathable learning eagerness by allowing them to discover what and why they want to learn. When they ask me what is the highest mark of the class, i keep reminding them to discover their own best potentials and to strive to reach their higest height,not of others. I don’t know how long can I go this way. But I no longer worry about how long, I just discovered it’s pretty rewarding to use the opportunities of today.. Sadly, ur Dean is not one of a kind:p but I have got two awesome supportive Coordinators and it really really makes BIG difference.

  5. When I look at our overall education system I see a BIG GRAVEyard where there are many bodies but no Soul to activate the bodies.
    Because the door of the body is shut on face of soul.
    Schools tell us there is this world of discovery out there and allows us to discover only what they see or like! It tells us about society and humanity, and allows us only to be American, Asian or European (etc) but not humans :p it tells us about morals, ethics and values but when we get into work life we are told morals, ethics and values are not going to feed u :p such contradicted education in one life!
    When education becomes slave to unjust administration and crazy parents, education itself no longer trusts in itself.. True education starts to look like an unrealizable fairy tale!!!

    • I keep finding myself discovering new things since I retired, things I never had the chance to even think about when I was teaching 2 college and 5 university writing classes every semester. It’s probably for the best. I had to support myself. I went into teaching for the love of teaching. I had a very romantic and idealistic perception of my work pretty much the whole 30+ years. I’m glad I did or I don’t know how I would have fed, housed, clothed myself and my dogs, actually. I don’t know what else I could have done, but I no longer believe in it. I’m just grateful I had a job I liked because, finally, that’s what it was. I no longer care about what a “difference” I might have made. I realized after I wrote this that I probably became a teacher so I could meet ONE particular student and through that ONE student I sent to Switzerland and in Switzerland I found the novel I was born to write. Life is a labyrinth.

      As teachers we live a lot of our lives for other people. I stayed up many nights worrying about my students. I don’t think they were worrying about me 😀

      • 🙂 “I probably became a teacher so I could meet ONE particular student… … I found the novel I was born to write.” ❤
        Call of soul, hmmm… that was worth it 🙂 we have you, a good author, who can speak both human and animal language. Honestly, at least i do not know many such authors 🙂

  6. This was interesting, an insight into the regrets, but truly a view into your way of working with the students you had versus the students you might have imagined. I like the idea that there are classes that can adapt to the needs of real people and help bring them closer to being capable of studying higher education. Especially someone who lets a mom get her kid mid class. I’m just sorry that the profession has so deteriorated that these triumphs don’t measure the respect they deserve.

    • For the majority of years, the students were never the problem with teaching. The system was a problem. That changed toward the end of my time as a teacher. It got darker and darker and after being threatened physically by three students, I lost heart. As a teacher, I felt that my job was to meet each student at his/her point of need and help him/her get where he/she needed or wanted to go. If that meant letting a mom go get her kid fine as long as that mom was doing her work. If that mom got an education and a good job, that kid had a better future. Really, really, simple.

        • It seems an epidemic among humans to miss the obvious. “I like Trump. He’s not one of the Hollywood elite.”

          “Yeah, but he gets $100,000 month pension from the Screen Actor’s Guild and he’s on TV and has been for years.”

          “Haters gonna’ hate. MAGA!!!!”

  7. Preach on, Sister, I hear you! I began teaching in the late 80s and ended my career in 2007. I taught no where near as long as you, but I certainly saw an enormous change in parents, students, and administration around the mid-90s. The era of brats, helicopter parents, and standardized testing burned me out. I knew if I didn’t get out, I would no longer be an effective teacher.

    • I was not an effective teacher at the end. In fact, I believe it would have been impossible for someone with my background to be an effective teacher. I could see that the young teachers coming into the field with the same educational experiences and background as the students had a better chance. At the end, I did not respect my students any more. That’s when I knew. A teacher who doesn’t respect the students shouldn’t be in the classroom.

      • I think had I taught one more year I would have been to the point of not respecting some of my students. I know I was already at the point of not respecting some of their parents!

        • The dad of one of my university students went into the kid’s web portal and dropped the kid from my class. Then this stupid man had to email me and beg that his kid be added to the class. My classes were always packed WAY before registration closed. We had a (sinister) procedure for adding students. I couldn’t add his kid. The shit hit the fan because the dad (and I didn’t know it) was a department head in another department at the same university. NONE of this was my fault but who took the flack? Yeah. My only hope is that some people truly want to learn and school won’t stop them ….

          • Wow! That’s amazing when parents still have their helicopter blades whirling at a university level! I had a parent of a third grade student come in to serve his chid’s detention because he’d used it as a bargaining tool to get the child to finish homework. This man was an attorney.

            • What’s amazing is that my helicopter parent was a professor. Did he like HIS students’ parents behaving like that?

              That attorney’s kid is one reason I couldn’t teach any more. That’s exactly what I dealt with in 18 and 19 year olds. They did not expect that they would pay the consequences for anything. They took little or no responsibility for anything they did. One student told me to fuck off when he got a B on a project. Another (250 pounds, 6′ 3″ to my 5’1″ 140) was in my face over an A-. That led to a fist fight in the parking lot between him and two students who thought he was out of line. I was not allowed to ask that kid to leave my class, either. Crazy.

                • Did you do anything else or stay retired? I’ve been teaching 23 years and I’ve been ready to retire over the last 5 years. I feel burned out too because of all you mentioned above.

                  • I stayed retired — and plan to keep going in that direction. I have found a couple opportunities that looked good but then I thought, “Kids coming up need these chances. I don’t. I’m fine.” I didn’t pursue them. I taught 3 years after I was finished (burned out, dead inside, disillusioned, unable to respect my students) because I had to. The process of retiring was very strange. It was as if I were going through the motions behind my own back. When the defining moment arrived, I jumped.

  8. I stopped subbing for high school when they keyed my car in the lot. Tried to flatten my tire but must have gotten interrupted.

    • Yep. I knew I was done when a giant kid threatened me physically over an A- and my admins did not have my back when I wanted him out of my class. Fortunately there were kids IN my class who were willing (and did) beat him up. THEY got suspended. I loved teaching most of the time, but strangely all I remember now are the bad things. I suppose it’s because I disciplined myself not to think about them because I needed a job. Grrrrr….

  9. This speaks to me so much. I teach English in a Title I school in rural South Carolina where education doesn’t quite look the same as in schools that don’t serve primarily high needs kids. It’s thankless, and the standardized tests many of my students are in no way prepared to pass are the primary focus of our district. The kids are tested to death and have been conditioned to hate school because it is so difficult for them to achieve any measure of success when “grade level content” is so far over their heads. Teachers spend hours poring over lesson plans and kids tell those teachers to fuck themselves. Sometimes, I truly regret not sticking with my original plan and becoming a lawyer. It would be just as soul sucking but with three times the pay.

    • I’m very sorry. I don’t think a day passes that I don’t think about this again. I’ve almost made peace with it, accepting that, at the time, I was mostly happy teaching. I don’t honestly know if anyone does better than that at 65. It is a kind of achievement. These days, I don’t think real teachers get much chance to teach. I read some of your blog and you’re the real thing, a true living, breathing, feeling, caring, sensitive, passionate human being who sees her students as people. ❤ I also love your writing.

      • Aaahh you’re the sweetest! Thank you so much for the kind words, and I appreciate the follow! ❤ I think "mostly happy" really is an achievement. You evidently cared for your students and felt empathy for their situations and various backgrounds. That's so important, and even if the administration will never truly understand, you did right by those students and you know it.

      • I’m glad to hear that you have almost got your head straight over this. I know teaching is a job that can suck the fire out of your soul.

  10. […] positive. Maybe. – kindergartenknowledge.com 97. Ghosts of a Hit-and-Run – Wandering Worlds 98. Teaching — I Wish I Could Turn Back Time – I’m a Writer, Yes, I Am! 99. Light & life – Fully Caffeinated 100. What does it mean to educate? – CD-W, Author […]

  11. I’m not sure why or how I stumbled into your story, but I’m supposed to sign up for my credential program next month and I’m not 100% that I want to teach. I’ve been substitute teaching since October in all grades PreK through 12 and I know I would rather do upper grade level, but I just don’t see myself doing it. Any advice?

    • Teaching is absolutely wonderful. I fell in love with it by accident when I taught a man (older than I was at the time) to read. That story is somewhere in my blog posts, I’m sure. As long as I could focus on the classroom and the students, build that relationship and help them learn, I got up every morning absolutely ecstatic about going to work. I could not have done it for so long without loving it.

      Ultimately, it soured for a lot of reasons some of which had nothing to do with me — but some of them DID have something to do with me. I lost respect for my students, hassles with administration were soul-sucking and there was (it was university level) a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes that made my job insecure at the end.

      My advice to anyone contemplating teaching is that if there is ANYTHING else you can do to earn a living, do it. Teaching becomes an almost all-consuming life; there’s NOTHING else. It has to be that way if you’re any good at it. You don’t leave your work at the office. If you can’t see yourself teaching, don’t teach. Seriously.

      The pay is not great. You get a lot of flack from administration. Parents can be meddling, uncomprehending and not helpful — even at the university level! You have tons of non-teaching related busy work. You have colleagues who are as competitive as colleagues anywhere else. And you have the students who are easily distracted, not very motivated and may not (because of the world we live in) regard you with the kind of a respect a teacher deserves. You have to really want to teach to find happiness in the field.

      HOWEVER, there is $$ and a future in educational administration if you could alter your direction a little bit.

      I’m sorry. I would like to be encouraging but if you don’t have a passion for teaching, with things as they are now, it could be a detour you regret. Good luck!!!! ❤

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