Monday, December 23, 2013

That one time when I was a science teacher for a minute...

 There are a lot of reasons why I quit my teaching job.  It was a lot of work… for not a whole lot of pay. I knew that would be the case going in. The pay itself wasn’t an issue, but it did start to feel insulting when I began to understand the work load. At one point I divided my salary by the number of hours I was putting in and my hourly and found out that if I had continued at the pace I was going, I definitely would have been getting paid below minimum wage for my time.

My students didn’t respect me. They didn’t value education and so they were learning nothing from me. Questions like the one a student asked during a lesson about Geologic time, “who are you even talking to right now?”, stung. But to be perfectly honest, any question, even a condescending one, was welcome because it showed on a certain level, a student cared that I was there. Usually I felt completely obsolete. I was failing.

I tried to make lessons more engaging. Incorporating games, video clips and hands on activities into my lessons. I even wrote a rap about genetics for my 8th grade class. None of it made a difference. I know, it would have made a difference if I had been able to build relationships with my students. That is what everyone said was prime to being a master teacher: relationships. I wanted so badly to connect with my students. Its hard to build a relationship with any one when you are in charge of a classroom full of other ones. I tried to bond with them outside of the classroom. I was so swamped with things I had to do though: lesson plans, grading, disciplinary actions, paperwork, meetings, online classes, setting up lab equipment, taking down lab equipment etc. I felt overwhelmed. I needed every second of the time I had at school (and at home) to just tread water enough to be ready to deliver my lessons and return assignments. Finding time to go out on the playground and chat with kids even for a few minutes was difficult. There was no passing period to talk to students after class either.

At first, I would bond with students while they were in detention.  That worked well for a while. All of my students seemed to be good people… as individuals. However, when I started to get a lot of kids in detention, bonding time was over. Even with two students, they would start team up against me. I don’t exude authority. I also don’t seem cool, so that didn’t leave me much angle to make headway with my middle school students. Fear and fitting in are the only languages they speak. It quickly was decided that the way to fit in in my classroom was to ignore me. Those who paid attention in class could be targets for ridicule and rejection.

I knew I was not cutting it. I wasn’t connecting with my students. I could lead these students to the pool of knowledge I had, but all they wanted to do was splash around in the water and scuttle along the surface of it. I had no idea how to make them drink! I wasn’t efficient.  It took me too long to grade things and too long to plan lessons. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that I dedicated every minute of every waking hour to teaching. I even graded papers and read my teaching manual while I drove.  I was up at 4:50 AM and I went to bed sometime between 11:00PM and midnight.  I knew my efficiency would increase over time and I knew I could reuse lesson plans in coming years, but even if I got better there was one thing about the job that I knew would never sit well with me… the isolation.

Being a teacher was a kind of isolation I’d never experienced before.

Outside of the classroom I bonded with other teachers with no effort (because we’d been through a shared traumatic experience), but inside the classroom I was alone. There were thirty to forty students surrounding me at any moment, but those were students. Not friends. Not allies… not even enemies. I, alone, was responsible for them- for their safety and their education and their journey to become good functional members of society. I’d never had kids- hadn’t even baby sat that much growing up. I had no idea what to do when I was suddenly solely responsible for raising dozens kids at once in ninety minute increments  every day.

For some teachers being an authority is no big deal because that’s who they are anyway. Some people are natural leaders and they don’t have to act when they are teaching. I am not such a person. I couldn’t be myself in the classroom. I had to assume a persona. I was not Jillian, the happy go lucky person who loves and trusts everyone; I was an authority figure... Well I tried to be anyway. They saw through my facade immediately though. I knew they didn’t respect me, but I continued to (poorly) put on the act of being a cold hard educator. Thus I was isolated in the classroom not only from peers, but also from myself. I shoved my feelings and natural personality so far down inside of me that when I got home, I couldn’t pull myself back out again. The real me was smashed down against the pit of my stomach somewhere.

My students would hurl insults and weird perverted things at me, but I wouldn’t even flinch. When they called me “ a retarded fucking bitch”, “a cunt”, or “a bad teacher”, I let it roll off and calmly assigned them detention for defiance. When they asked me if I smoked weed, liked it in the butt or knew what a donkey punch was, I pretended that I didn’t hear them (When they asked about camel toes though, I told them “a camel toe is like a hoof. It’s what a camel walks on in the desert- a structural adaptation that helps them survive the arid climate in which they live”).

Their words broke against me, but they didn’t break me. If students knew they could affect me, I figured they would amp up their attacks and destroy me, so I was stoic. In retrospect, showing some emotion probably would have been better… I was worried if I opened up at all, every bit of repressed emotion would suddenly come pouring out.

One good thing about teaching was that I lost weight. There were two reasons for that. The most immediate was that I didn’t have time to eat or buy food. I was always rushed when I left for work every morning, so instead of having a chew and swallow breakfast, I mixed weigh protein into soy milk, (which I guess is kind of ironic) and drank it from my thermos as I drove to school. I didn’t take a lunch break because I gave lunch detention every day. In the five minutes I allowed myself to eat at midday, I would voraciously consume a granny smith apple (for some reason I always crave granny smith apples when I’m emotionally distressed) and a high protein granola bar (usually Kashi… because I have an inexplicable reverence for that brand). Dinner was either cereal (Kashi) and carrots or a frozen (Kashi) pizza and salad. Except for one time when I bought ice cream, there was no other food in my house besides what I’ve mentioned in this paragraph… so in a certain way, teaching was actually good for my health.

If you believe self esteem is related to your overall health, I’d say teaching was bad for me though. I would often think to myself: “I feel worthless; I am a failure as a teacher;  My students are learning nothing; I am hurting their chances at being successful in life by taking the spot of  a teacher who could do a better job; and I, myself, feel miserable.” It would occur to me that I should want to cry, but I only cried twice. Both times my mentor teacher was there. She was saying out loud things that I already knew, like: “To be a successful teacher, you have to want it more than anything, but I just don’t know if you do.”

 I didn’t. I felt guilty and defeated. I was wasting everyone’s time- including my own. I didn’t want teaching to be my entire existence. I wanted time for myself- to be myself, so I resigned.

I am glad I had the experience of being a teacher. Though most of my students cannot boast as much, I learned a great deal about science. I learned a lot about kids and about group psychology. Despite the bad experiences, I had a lot of good experiences with my students. I came to genuinely care about most of them (which made me feel all the worse for failing them). I also came to fully appreciate the dedication and hard work career teachers put in.  Now I just have to figure out what I want to do with my life, so as not to waste the hard work that many teachers, my parents and I put into making me who I am. 

No comments: