When We Feel We Have No Business Being a Teacher

Aletterscover

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?

Dear Joy:

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…

Your colleague,

Jim

(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.

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8 Responses to “When We Feel We Have No Business Being a Teacher”

  1. Thank you for posting this-you aren’t kidding about this time of year being hard for new teachers! That new teacher was very lucky to have someone like you looking out for her.
    I find that all my new teacher ideas have been spent and I’m down to the material I intended to get to “later” while I was making reasonably solid plans all year. Now I’m starting from scratch on new units that I have little to no raw material collected for and the kids and I are so spent, anyway.
    I may not have the feeling that I should be giving up, but I do have the feeling that this year has been a failure in so many ways. On the bright side, I’m still very hopeful for the future. Having blogs like this and others to read, the EC Ning, as well as everyone on twitter has been such a tremendous resource for me. I hope other new teachers take advantage of these assets!! Thanks!
    Candace

  2. Thanks for writing, Candace. I cannot even imagine what it is like to have all the resources you mention. I had some good colleagues but generally we felt we were on our own when I began…then I discovered NCTE and other professional organizations.
    Glad you found today’s blog helpful. You’ll make it and this will all just be a story you tell…
    Jim

  3. Very well written and thought provoking. I’ve posted a link to it in our school division Yammer network.

  4. Jim —
    You must have been reading my mind this weekend! After twenty years of teaching, I was handed English IV and AP English Lit & Comp this year with little time to prepare. I thought no year could be “worse” than my very first year of teaching, but I was wrong. Being a “first-time teacher” with twenty years of experience has been beyond discouraging.
    I’ve taught English II for years, so I know — and am continually tweaking — my material. I have confidence and excitement each day, knowing where we’re going together as a class (although each year’s journey is unique!) I can finesse any objections the kids throw my way, as I’ve heard ’em all.
    The reading for English IV and AP Lit & Comp, alone, has consumed all my “prep” time and then some. Let alone detailed lesson planning. Let alone interesting, relevant class openings. Let alone thorough reading of their essays and other writing projects.
    And every “why do we have to . . . ?” has thrown me — an ENFJ — for a loop. Intuitively, I know that what we’re doing is valuable, even purposeful. But selling to seniors is a whole different game than selling to sophomores. (Especially book-hating seniors who are in AP because their parents forced them to register or who “need” an A for their GPA.)
    I can’t tell you how encouraging it is to know that it took THE Jerry Seinfeld four months to come up with 15 minutes of good material. There’s hope for me!

  5. Steve Schultz April 12, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    Wow! Simply wonderful. I just bought this book from Amazon and I am more excited than ever before to receive it and open it up. I hope the rest of the work is as inspiring and eloquently flowing as this piece.

  6. Kathryn L. Keene, M.Ed. April 12, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    Thanks from me, as well, Jim. The last couple of weeks, I feel like a fish swimming upstream. So much to do; so little time…and what exactly is the effect I am having on the world? I simply happy to hear that I’m not alone in my frustration. One day you’re certain that you’re amazing…and the next day you’re far from secure…

  7. As Kathryn Keene said in her comment, no matter how amazing we feel we are one day, we’re like Seinfeld sheepishly reaching into the back pocket the next! You baseball analogy reminds me of something the late and great John Holt used to write, urging us as teachers to remember that we don’t hit home runs often but that doesn’t mean we aren’t good players.

  8. I like Steve’s comment about the Holt comment very much! Thanks to all for the great responses.
    Jim

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