Teaching in America: Exhausting or Exhilarating?
This has been a particularly difficult year for teachers. Election years usually are, with the sitting President pushing through education reforms he had been perfecting over the last four years. Education is usually a hot-button topic among Presidential candidates; everyone in our great nation has the right to an education, and that means that everyone cares about education. Add to that the teachers’ strikes in and around Chicago — very near to where I live and work — causing everyone I know to have an opinion about teachers and about how I should or shouldn’t do my job.
My school is like most others this year. We have designed a new curriculum to align with Obama’s Common Core initiative and to reflect the new technology we are working tirelessly to put into the hands of our students and incorporate into our classrooms. We have adopted a new evaluation tool for teachers and administrators in accordance with our state’s legislature. We have new grading scales and larger class sizes. If something could have been changed this year, it was. It’s all enough to make me feel like a first-year teacher all over again, even though I’ve been teaching high school English for nearly a decade.
In short, this year has been exhilarating. However, along with exhilaration often comes exhaustion. In his heartfelt article for The Education Room, John Kuhn sums up what so many teachers are feeling as this year progresses:
With the 2012-2013 American school year still in its infancy, itís worthwhile to note that the people doing the actual educating are down in the dumps. Many feel more beaten down this year than last. Some are walking into their classrooms unsure if this is still the job for them. Their hearts ache with a quiet anguish thatís peculiarly theirs. Theyíve accumulated invisible scars from years of trying to educate the increasingly hobbled American child effectively enough that his international test scores will rival those of children flourishing in wealthy, socially-advanced Scandinavian nations and even wealthier Asian city-states where tiger moms value education like American parents value fast food and reality TV.
In truth, I didn’t even realize how exhausted I was until I read this article. I knew something was different this year, and it wasn’t just the new initiatives at school. Something had changed in my attitude; no longer did I feel prepared with lively and perfected lessons I had the chance to test out years before and tweak for each group of students, and that made me feel insecure and nervous in my classroom. In years past, my classroom was really the only place I felt secure at all.
It is because of this shift in my attitude that I found myself reading Kuhn’s article for the first time and nodding emphatically. Yes, I thought. I’m exhausted. I can’t keep up, and I’m not sure if I will ever catch a break.
A funny thing happened the other day, though. We were given the option to teach several novels this quarter and, instead of choosing one I had already taught, I chose “Brave New World”†by Aldous Huxley. My students had shown a great deal of interest in Banned Books Week, and “Brave New World” happens to be the number one most banned book of all time, so I thought it would be a good choice. I designed a pre-reading activity that required students to mark how much they agree or disagree with different statements pertaining to the book, such as, “It is safer to try to fit in than to be yourself,” or, “Ignorance is bliss.” The students then had to stand on either side of the room, depending on if they agreed or disagreed with a particular statement. With each statement, heated debate ensued. The students were thinking about these issues in ways I had never even imagined and, in turn, they were teaching me as much as I was teaching them.
I was exhausted at the end of that lesson, but more than anything, it was exhilarating.
I left school that day reminded about why I do what I do. I want students to read and critically analyze literature but, more than that, I want students to use literature to critically analyze issues they will encounter in their lives. I want students to know what it’s like to get lost in a good book, and have that book create a new understanding of the world. Most of all, I teach because, when it’s good, it’s fun.
I reread Kuhn’s article after I taught this lesson and while I can still see his point, I think he is admitting defeat. Sure, teachers are being asked to do and be more, but if we are asking our students the same thing, shouldn’t we also rise to the occasion?
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