By Samuel Durr
Teaching is like being attacked by hornets. If you just laughed at that little gem, you’re probably a teacher. You might be nodding your head in acknowledgment or cringing at the memory of a difficult student. If you didn’t laugh or you’re confused, this article is for you. If you are a first-year teacher, please read carefully. The following are tactics to survive the lions’ nest you could be strolling into. If you’re not an educator, these pearls of wisdom will help you understand the harsh realities of the job.
They happen to everyone. You will spend your first few months on the job realizing that you’ve made a terrible mistake and experiencing a shock to your serotonin levels. Bad dreams and difficulty sleeping are only some of the symptoms you might feel. I’m no doctor but many teachers, even experienced ones, report what is commonly called ‘teacher dreams.’ I’m still haunted by a nightmare where my whole homeroom of seventh graders mutinied by maniacally laughing. Wait…scratch that, that actually happened. Point is, you’re not losing your mind, it’s normal.
It’s important to note that I mean a teacher who puts a healthy scare into the students. There might be a truly scary, how-do-they-have-a-job-involving-kids, educator within your school. Stay away. I’m talking about that tough lady who doesn’t take shit. You know the type. Her kids are always in line, she transforms little defiant assholes into agreeable angels, other teachers send difficult students to her. Her methods may seem harsh, but she knows what she’s doing. Get her to spill her secrets.
It almost goes without saying that preparedness is essential so if you’re currently sitting in your own filth teaching is going to be difficult. Students with any downtime will start to entertain themselves and trust me, you don’t want that. If you have an hour class to prepare for make sure you have an hour and a half worth of work. There’s a saying in education, ‘if you don’t have work the kids will make some for you’, and it’s true. Lesson plans are a great start but what’s always helped me is to design the performance task first. It’s that thing the inmates do after they’ve learned whatever you’ve taught, and after you’ve figured it out, plan backward from there. For example, if you’re teaching students beginning knife fighting skills, it would be best to prepare this week’s lessons with the final showdown in mind.
If you’re new to education, a half a dozen co-workers will remind you not to smile until Christmas or don’t be friends with the students. I used to wince every time I heard this, but it’s accurate. You have to bolster a healthy relationship with boundaries because your students won’t. That being said, it is also true that if you degrade your relationship with your students, especially those that are difficult, they will go to battle with you. There is a sweet spot there. Find it. Don’t yell or argue but don’t be Facebook friends with your students either. Set up consequences and rewards and be as consistent as possible, all much easier said than done.
If you’re in a relationship this bit is for you. Leave all the frustration and drama of the workplace at school. Depending on your personality this can be very difficult. Don’t come home and compete with your spouse on who’s job is worse or more stressful and don’t try to make them understand how horrible your day was. They won’t understand, and your job is probably more stressful. Leave it be. You’ll both be better for it and avoid alcohol on school nights. I still cringe at the memory of the first and last time I ever tried to teach hungover.
I know you’re thinking these tactics are hyperbole designed to be slightly humorous and grab your attention. What about the countless movies, books, and television portraying the nobility of the profession? What about tweed coats with leather patches, cups of steaming coffee held with cozy laced fingers, and a fresh red apple on the desk? How could the media get it so wrong? My answer is they don’t, teaching is often noble, but narratives only show what fits the narrative, so we see a single version of a complex profession.
It’s time to dispel the myth of teaching being a cooperative experience filled with well-meaning students who experience teary-eyed epiphanies when someone helped them p-p-p-p-pronounce an unknown word. If you still don’t believe me ask any of the countless individuals who waste years and money preparing for a profession they left faster than it took to earn their degree. Not to mention the mental wear and tear educators experience from this line of work. Brains take abuse like muscle and bone. So be tactful and take care of yourself and you might be one of the few lunatics who come to enjoy it.
*Samuel Durr has taught writing for over a decade in the Chicago public school system. He’s the author of two books, The Yard and Trial by Stone and has several short stories in Over the Edge: The Edgy Writers Anthology. Samuel takes a humorous approach to surviving the first year of teaching.
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