This excerpt comes from a series of letters I wrote to a new teacher named Joy with whom I shared a room several years ago. She was a wonderful colleague but, divided between two schools, given large classes of kids no one else seemed to want–and all at the rip young age of 20!–she was in trouble. I told her to jot down any questions she had on index cards and pass them to me on her way in (and my way out). I promised her a response by the next day. Though never intended to be for the public, they have proven helpful to new and young teachers and thus we made them available as a book. I hope you enjoy this excerpt and find it useful.
Question 7: My students seem to be bored out of their minds. How can I possible compete with lunch, the weekend, and all their other interests. I feel like I am inflicting them with Chinese water torture or something. What can I do?
Good work, that is, work that means something, that makes a difference, that earns the respect of others, is inevitably hard work. Its complexity takes time to master, even to realize sometimes, for the true master too often makes the work appear much easier than it really is. Inherent in such important work is struggle, humiliation, and inevitable pain, which is why we feel such pride and satisfaction when our work goes well. We alone know the price we paid for that one minute of seamless learning, those five minutes of flawless teaching, that 30 minutes of engaged discussion, which we know we must earn again the next day, returning each day as if we were a beginner all over again.
This might not be what you want to hear right now. I’m sure you’d rather I list out a few nickels of knowledge you can plug-and-play so that you can feel like the professional, the master you want to become. But that is not what I have to tell you, nor is it what you need to hear. You need to know that every great––and I mean great––teacher I know tried to quit at some point, felt they were a fraud or a failure. I have the resignation letter from one woman who told her principal she had no business being a teacher, then she went on––after he refused to accept her resignation––to be not only a master teacher, but the head of her department, mentor to decades of excellent teachers (all of whom remember her with the greatest respect) and the leader of a national educational organization that shaped policy and curriculum for millions of kids across the country. When she retired last year, hundreds celebrated her, people from all areas of her work, all of them having learned from her, from a woman so much like yourself in spirit and potential, a woman who at about the same point in her career as you said she had no business being a teacher.
I recently watched Comedian, a documentary about Jerry Seinfeld and his return to stand up comedy. (Bear with me: it’s related, I promise.) After Seinfeld stopped doing his television show, he decided to return to his roots: stand up comedy. What’s more, he “retired” all his old stand up material, and he decided to create a whole new act. The film documents his efforts––and serious struggles––to create a new act from scratch. Throughout the documentary they interview other comedians, the masters of American comedy, all of whom say the same thing: He’s crazy to get rid of his material, to start over. The documentary is brutal and honest about the difficulty of the comedian’s craft. You see Jerry Seinfeld standing on stage staring into the lights as some joke fades from his memory––or just doesn’t work––half way through telling it; then you see him reach into his back pocket, a look of despair crossing his face as he stands there reading over his notes for the joke, looking like me when my lesson plan stalls, consulting the map of my lesson as I try to find my way back. You see Seinfeld just stalling, and finally giving up and going home, shaking his head, wondering how he ever made it as a comedian in the first place. In one of the scenes, Seinfeld and Chris Rock talk about how much material Jerry has assembled for the new act. “I have fifteen minutes of good material after four months,” he tells Rock, who immediately responds with evident respect and even surprise, saying how remarkable that is. All I could think was: Fifteen minutes!? In four months?! All I could think was: Teachers have to go in five days a week and do five shows a day for fifty-five minutes! If Barry Bonds goes up to bat five times in a game, he will likely strike out twice, get walked, maybe single, and probably homer once. And they consider him “one of the greats.” There are no performance enhancing drugs for teachers; there is only the steady work of the master, carefully attaching what might to what does work, then shaving off what does not fit, to eventually produce what is worthy of their name…
(This is an excerpt from a letter that appeared in Letters to a New Teacher). It seemed a good passage to include as many of us, new teachers in particular, find this a challenging time of the year.