It would be ideal if I could say that I’ve had a fresh start to the new year–that 2011, like every new year, somehow ushers in a revitalized phase of teaching and learning. But the reality is that my first week back (after break, and after my 5-week jury duty term) has been hellish.
But this week has been instructive in two ways:
(1) It has taught me that, though breaks are a time to relax, it is important to spend some time in a transition phase before returning to teaching. I made the foolish error of returning to DC Sunday night. After 24 hours of plane flights (thanks to the chaos that is JFK), I arrived home, only to realize that in 10 short hours, I’d be back in the classroom. I panicked.
I realize I didn’t give myself enough time to shift mental gears from vacation mode to teaching mode. I had my lesson plans ready, but I somehow needed that extra time to prime my mind for the very different mode of thinking that teaching requires. Even a day of basic reflection on my teaching practice–what I’d done wrong and how I could improve upon it; modification of classroom goals–would have better prepared me for the week. I didn’t give myself time to do this.
To make matters worse, my physical gears were not in order. I was prepared to deal with the 13-hour jet lag throughout the week, but was utterly unprepared to battle the cold that I caught early in the new year. Add to this the biggest physical stress of all–teaching–and I had a recipe for disaster. And disaster ensued. My voice was raspy, my head was throbbing and my body wanted to shut down for the better part of the week. I was in a hazy daze. I’m glad it’s over (clearly, I’m still jet lagged since it is 6am on a Saturday morning and I’m wide awake).
(2) I’ve learned that teaching is just as much about motivation as it is about teaching. If I were to assign students grades based on what my gradebook looks like now, only 2 students in my first period would be passing. Essentially, students completed very little of the work that I had assigned to them while I was on jury duty. Their grades showed this, plain and simple.
Yet the students complained that it was unfair that my 5-week absence from the class could be “counted” as part of their classroom performance this advisory. I countered that they had signed contracts, which clearly stated that “EXPECTATIONS ARE THE SAME EVEN WHILE MR. K IS GONE!”; that we had discussed procedures thoroughly; that I would be available by email or phone 24/7. They still insisted I was being unfair.
It was hard for me not to get angry at this collective attitude. It seemed to me like students were looking for the easy way out, the old “you-weren’t-here” excuse. But I took some time to think about the situation. Weren’t they in some sense justified? As their teacher of record, wasn’t I the one responsible for pushing their learning, even if it’s ultimately they who need to take charge? Didn’t I poke and prod students each and every day, to push harder, to stay alert, to write and read more?
In an ideal setting, students would need no external motivation. The thirst for knowledge would intrinsically activate them. Yet given how disenchanted many of my students are about school and academics, it’s completely reasonable to see why teachers need to act equally as motivators.
I spoke with my principal and he offered his perspective: “at the end of the day, no matter how you cut it, you were out of the classroom for 5 weeks. And, nothing–nothing–can replace you as the general ed teacher in your classroom.” A big part of the reasons students do things, he seemed to be implying, is “you.” And if “you” is gone, some of that motivation is gone.
Thinking back, I’m realizing that, indeed, so much of what I do on a daily basis is motivating. Of the many metaphors that we can use to describe teaching, I’d have to say that the “teacher-as-coach” one is one of the most accurate. The responsibility of a coach is to push his charges beyond their comfort zones. This applies for the few highly self-motivated athletes as it does for those who aren’t independently energized. One can always give more, if pushed in the right direction by someone else.