A Lesson All Teachers Need To Learn


ivory tower, scheiss weeklyMamacita says:  I know that there are some teachers out there who feel that they are, in some lofty intellectual way, somehow superior to the students they teach, and to most of their students’ parents, for that matter..
When I first started teaching, some (insert large number here) years ago, I admit that I had thoughts like that, sometimes. I was going to change the world, you see. I was going to inspire all of my students to greatness. I was going to make them all WANT to learn. In my classroom, they would all ENJOY learning. LOVE it. Want more, every day. All of them.
Well, things don’t always turn out as you think they will. Sometimes, things are far worse. And sometimes, in, among, and around the horrors, there are bright shining lights that catch your attention, like fireflies are caught by the porch light.
I have seen many horrors in our schools, but truth be told, the horrors were seldom the students. Oh, occasionally there would be a genuine monster sitting at one of school bus, scheiss weeklymy desks, but most of the time, the monsters were elsewhere in the building. Or in the administration building.  Or the bus.  Or sitting in a home within busing distance of the building, feeling discriminated against or put-upon in some way.
I think many teachers frankly do not understand the logistics of any other kind of job. In the beginning, I can remember being honestly upset that a parent simply could not come to school for a conference at 10:00 a.m. when I had my prep, because his/her boss wouldn’t let them, or they couldn’t afford to lose an hour’s pay. What was wrong with these people? Didn’t they love their child enough to take a little time off for an important conference? The problem is, many teachers have never experienced life outside of the classroom, and a few summer jobs. Some teachers, while they might not live in an ivory tower (I really don’t think that’s possible if you deal with the public at all, and especially with their children) certainly spend a lot of time in one. Many teachers have no concept of someone’s factory job, or office job, or retail job, or food service job, or hospital job, or engineering job, etc. We spend our lives trying to help students comprehend that in this huge, fascinating world there are wonders they’ve never known of, but we, ourselves, are actually isolated within our own little universe, and we have no comprehension of the work-a-day world many of our students’ parents live in.
As a teacher gains experience, ideally he/she will learn these things. The good teachers will, anyway. Unfortunately, we’ve all known older, highly experienced mean teacher, unreasonable teacher, bad teacherteachers who still show no empathy towards a parent’s work schedule, or a family’s limited budget. Those teachers, however much they might know about grammar or calculus or WW2 or computer technology or kineseology or the standardized testing policies of Outer Mongolian yak breeders, are not good teachers.
On paper, I teach Introduction to College Writing and Introduction to College Reading.  Once I am in my classroom, however, I teach people.
Yes, I often find humor in their essays or their comments. I have always found humor in people and their writing and their conversations. Unless it’s really inexcusably awful, and I do get a lot of that, I might still laugh, but I also try to be helpful. (Just don’t light a cigarette in my class, you ignorant cow.)
I am now teaching the parents of students I had in class several years ago. These parents are, most of them, back in school because the only job they’ve ever had in all their lives is gone, and will never return. Factories are closing down right and left here, and WorkForce is encouraging these former employed-full-time-with-benefits employees to go back to school while they’re waiting to find another job somewhere, somehow. When I read their essays, and listen to their class participation, I am finding even more understanding about their lives, and many of the snotty, snobby comments I made all those years ago are coming back to haunt me. I am ashamed of the teacher I once was.
I am hoping that these are lessons I learned a long time ago, and much of it is. But it was always from the point of view of teenagers. Now, I am learning these same lessons from the point of view of their parents, and I am even more humbled. Any more humbling and I’ll be crawling on all fours, in fact.
A few years ago, one of my students, a really interesting and nice older lady, told me, as she was gathering her things to leave, that she’d gone back to school for her daughter.
“Oh,” I said. “Is your daughter in school, too?”
“No.  My daughter was killed by a drunk driver eleven years ago.” she told me. “She college bound packed car girlhad just graduated from high school with a full four-year scholarship. All her things were packed for college. All I had ever known was factory work, but after she died, I went back and got my GED for her. And now that the factory’s closed down, I’ve got the time to go to college for her.”
Any lofty intellectual ideas or ideals I may once have had about my profession and those with whom I deal have changed, and changed considerably, over the years. I will always hold with academic excellence, but I have since learned that there are many different kinds of academic excellence. I have also learned that no amount or category of academic excellence can hold a candle to ethical excellence, or a good work ethic, or simple kindness. Many of my students have known each other for many years, and they are genuinely concerned and worried about each other right now. The caring words and little acts of kindness I see from them every day are teaching me more than I am teaching them.
In closing, I have learned that ivory towers are meant to keep the people OUT, and that is, for a teacher, inexcusable. Our profession is the people, and that means we must learn as much about them as possible, not cloister ourselves away from them lest ‘something’ rub off. Good things can rub off, too.
Teachers are professionals, yes, but we are also service people. We are caregivers. We are examples, be they good or bad.  And we deserve respect only when we earn it.
Let’s all get off the ivory tower and meet our people. How can we best teach them if we don’t even know them?
Word to your principal, yo.

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