23 February 2014

"Those Who Can Teach" Part 12 of My Month Long Autobiographical Series - Countdown to 60

If you don't know where you are going, you will probably end up somewhere else. - Laurence J. Peter

Well that was weird.

I mean that 20 years of teaching in an urban middle school. I mean seriously what was that all about?

In retrospect I was terribly ill suited for the profession being someone who suffers fools badly. An ill tempered impatient person. Add to that the various medications that were essentially being experimented on me and more of that I-know-better attitude and my natural desire to rebel against authority (bit awkward when you are an authority) and trying to stay clean and sober and....

But you know it all worked out surprisingly well. I’ve got scores of lovely notes and letters and cards from appreciative students and parents and still encounter former students and parents who gush about my positive impact. (Then again if I ever encountered a former administrator he/she/it would likely make the sign of the cross and hightail it in the other direction).

Upon completing my student teaching gig I toiled as a substitute teacher for one year. The next year I was a stay-at-home dad with oldest daughter. It was one of the happiest years of my life but when it was over I needed to practice my new craft. I was determined to get a job at the Berkeley junior high (it would only later become known as a middle school) where I had student taught. This was somewhat quixotic as competition was then quite stiff for history jobs especially in Berkeley. But lo and behold after a half year more as a sub a position opened up and I had my dream job.

It was a dream and a nightmare and my fantasy reality for the next 18 years. I had loved being there as a student teacher and a regular sub because it was such a damn fun place to work featuring a faculty and staff that had created a family atmosphere. These people knew their jobs and they knew how to enjoy life and have parties and support one another. I was quickly welcomed owing to my enthusiastic and witty personality. The veterans were less welcoming as I soon became aloof and conceited and assumed I knew better. My brashness became prickly and unpleasant and I managed to rub people the wrong way. But at the same time I made strong allies and friends. It was -- I soon found out -- a house divided.

While I wasn’t the ideal co-worker I took to my new found profession with zeal. I was a natural in front of a room full of people especially given my infectious love of history. I provided innovative lesson plans and combined  a boredom fighting sense of humor with strong assignments tests and projects. I was in short a pretty good teacher.

Meanwhile another daughter came along and I found that I loved being a dad. Still do. I honestly don’t know what all the fuss about. Parenthood is complicated far more than it needs to be by mean well-meaning souls. If you love your children wholly and completely most of it comes quite naturally. I’ve always adored my daughters and despite being a general grump around the house much of the time have served them well (they are welcome to correct me on this score if I am in error).

The teacher’s life fits quite well with parenthood as one is usually home early and has Summers off along with a couple of other weeks here and there. The kiddies got a good dose of their dad and never seemed to mind.

Teaching is rigorous work. The hours are agreeable even if one has after school duties of some sort and a pile of papers to grade the work day is never too long. However the mind never stops working. At the back of your brain -- if not right there up front -- are all the incidents that took place in the course of day. Pondering what went wrong with a lesson what can be done about this child or that or those and missteps taken. There is further the non stop planning and tinkering and wondering and second guessing. Also if one is involved with the school in general -- as we all were -- there’s even more on the proverbial plate.

No wonder I would often sleep for over 12 hours on the first day of Summer break. The mind was finally clear of all that clutter.

Teaching at a middle school is at once totally enervating and totally energizing. It is certainly never dull. No two days are alike. It takes tremendous patience understanding and tolerance and a ceaseless desire to one up oneself. Staff meetings were difficult when it came to making decisions as you had a room full of people who were forever trying to build a better mouse trap. There are umpteen ways to teach anything and teachers are often sifting through the options.

One thing I loved about where I worked was the incredible diversity of the student population. I could never have taught at a school that did not have the kind of mix of black white asian hispanic rich poor talented struggling students that we did. I have had former students go on to all eight Ivy league schools not to mention Cal and Stanfurd and other prominent universities. I have former students who are doctors professors and engineers and a TV star. I have also had students who died violently or went to prison (one for a double homicide) or became drug addicts.

Most students were largely formed as the human being they were to go on to be by the time they entered my classroom but occasionally there would be a student who could be influenced positively. Certainly many found comfort support and positive human interaction in the classroom. Just being someone who cared could mean a lot.

Like all teachers I complained ceaselessly about my little charges but like most teachers I never failed to give 100% when they showed up in my room. I loved my work and I was proud of it. I loved being a dad and I was proud of that too. I had settled down.

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