And they ask me, “what are you so afraid of?”
February 16, 2011 § 17 Comments
This woman is braver than I am:
“Pa. teacher strikes nerve with ‘lazy whiners’ blog”
And so is this woman, who first shared the above article:
Dr. Amanda Morris of “American Puzzle”
I have about five minutes to blog today because I have quite a lot of work on my plate, but I know this topic is worth weighing in on.
When I was younger, teaching to me was something out of a movie. I wanted to be Mr. Keating from Dead Poets Society. So desperately. I wanted to inspire my students to read poetry from the tops of their lungs while they traipsed through the quad, completely oblivious to the (envious) open-mouthed stares they received from other students. I wanted to turn them into proud, beautiful, Bard-quoting, theater-loving, free-thinking nerds. I wanted to be that reference point they would always recall when reminiscing on the most influential forces of their lifetimes.
That was silly. It ignores the entire ending of the movie where Mr. Keating is canned for his creative methods. It truly was a fantasy; it was not reality.
Reality is much, much darker. Much, much scarier. To me anyway.
Some people are made of the stuff it takes to play the teaching game. Some people are not. Teachers are not the people who simply “can’t do.” No no. Never kid yourself into believing that teaching is easy-peasy, carefree glorified babysitting. Sure, sometimes it does feel like babysitting. But teaching is increasingly less about the time in the classroom and more about time outside of the classroom, particularly in terms of higher education. Teachers are researchers. They are writers. They are published authors. (Hopefully.) They are book reviewers. They are conference speakers. They are guest lecturers. They are committee bitches. (All of you know it’s true.) These qualifications that I’ve mentioned are just a smattering of the most common requirements for tenure-track faculty members…anywhere in the United States. This, not the classroom experience, but this is the life for which I’ve been trained these past six years.
The teacher featured in this article, Natalie Munroe, is thirty years old. I’ll be thirty years old in a matter of months. To me, this is topical, folks, in more ways than one. Munroe has been suspended (with pay, the lucky scamp) from her job teaching English at Central Bucks East High School in Feasterville, Pennsylvania. Although the only way I would teach a group of high schoolers would be if I were forcibly dragged there and held at gunpoint to educate, I can still relate to Munroe’s problem here.
You see, Munroe has on her hands a bunch of disengaged, disinterested, entitled, lazy students. And she is getting in trouble for calling them those things anonymously in public…on her blog. Apparently her students located her blog, identified the writer as their teacher, and presented the most scandalous entry (which has since been taken down) as evidence to their principal. (Although, let’s be honest here–it was probably the parents who encouraged their kids to raise a big stink.) I can relate to Munroe in ways that I wish I couldn’t–I have had the college version of her students. And they are horrible. They truly are. You want to know what is a nightmare to teach? A student who actually says to your face, “I am paying your salary, and you need to give me an A.” This is a direct quote from an angry student meeting in my office in Spring 2007. How do you teach that? If you have the magical answer, I beg you to tell me because after six years, I got nothing.
Do you know what it feels like to be scared of your employers and your clients every single day? Do you know what it means to wake up in the morning with a pit in your stomach so heavy that you can’t bring yourself to eat breakfast? Do you know how it destroys self-confidence to have to whisper to yourself before walking into work, “Take a deep breath. It’s okay”? Every day. I’m not talking about on those occasions when you have to talk to an irate client or make a presentation or beg for a raise. I’m talking about the daily grind. You’re just going about your normal routine, and you’re utterly petrified.
That’s my reality.
Why don’t I want to teach? Because I am afraid. My friends, these women, Munroe and Dr. Morris, are brave because they know they do no wrong when they exercise their freedom of speech, protect specific identities, and call attention to glaring problems in their work. I am a coward because I am shaking just writing this blog post. Have I been known to blast a student on my blog before? Absolutely. It’s happened more than once. Do I ever use names? Absolutely not. But my first inclination after reading Munroe’s story was to go through my entire blog history and delete every post (or at least password protect them) that even mentions displeasure in the classroom. I won’t do that. I’m more foolhardy than that.
But I am afraid.
For me, this raises a complicated question. One of her former students says that Munroe’s blog was within her rights to put up, but that she behaved in a way that was inappropriate for a teacher.
Here’s my question: if Munroe had broken a law, fine. Punish her. String her up. But just because she has behaved in a way that is out-of-line with the fantasy image people have of their educators? Is that a fireable offense? Really? (Granted, she hasn’t been fired yet…and her lawyer is prepared to help her fight back if she is fired.) At the very least, is it a punishable offense? She never directly alluded to her full name, her school, or her students. According to FERPA, that’s okay. As Dr. Morris points out, as long as there is no clause in her contract stating that she cannot talk about work on-line, then it seems Munroe has not broken any laws.
And believe me, friends, other professionals behave “inappropriately” too. You think your medical staff doesn’t laugh over crazy stories from work? Of course they do. Would it insult you to know that your favorite nurse told her friends about your hilarious diatribe when you awoke from surgery? Probably. But if she doesn’t say your name or give any details about the procedure, then would you recommend she be fired? (If you answered “yes,” then the reality is that you are over-sensitive. Professionals are also people who require a release valve, too. Just as customer service reps share horror stories of terrible complaints, those in the professional world also need to release a little steam.)
These people are not saints. And it’s sweet of the general public to imagine they are. Sweet…but delusional.
But nevertheless, I’m scared. When I know I have an angry student, for instance, I actually will sit in my office, visibly shivering (at least in my extremities) every time I hear the elevator bell ding outside my door. Just how angry is this student? Is this a student who will come to my office and sit and listen patiently while I explain, yet again, the difference between a B paper and a C paper? Will they come in and scream at me for an hour? Will they stand over me, using their height, musculature, and tonal inflection as threats until I relent and give them the grade they want? (These have all happened…more than once. The second one is the most common, or at least a mixture of the first and second.) Ding! the elevator cheerily announces another arrival. Or…is this the last straw? Have I angered the wrong student? Will this student come into my office with something else in mind? Will I go home tonight? (I was particularly frightened last semester when I held evening office hours that extended past the close of the main English department office…and subsequently past when most people were around to bear witness.)
“Grade complaint,” an e-mail subject line announces from one of my higher-ups; this time it’s the one in charge of world literature studies. Immediately, my blood pressure spikes…and then plummets. I am filled with dread. I want to curl up and fake death. Maybe it’ll go away if I don’t acknowledge it? Is my coordinator angry with me? Am I in trouble? What did this student claim about me? Will I lose my assistantship? I open the e-mail…and I read a simple message, “Please handle this.” Below my coordinator has pasted an angry student’s initial communication. I want to cry. I want to hit things. I want to run away. I am not the things this student claims I am. I am not stereotyping him based on his religion. I am not grading him based on a difference of opinion. I never refused to meet with him. I never even knew he wanted to meet in the first place. But I have to handle it because my coordinator has asked me to. So, I do. And I meet with the angry student. And he proceeds to scream at me for an hour…until I finally have a chance to calmly respond to him and in fifteen minutes he’s gone, muttering obscenities under his breath. Will he come back? Will he go over my head again? When will this fight be over?
I e-mail the Provost to gain some understanding in regards to the university’s attendance policy, after an e-mail has gone out to the entire student body seemingly giving them permission to skip classes. In polite, professional terms, I ask the Provost as much. He responds, CC’ing my dissertation director (who also happens to be one of the deans in my department’s college), my department head, and his secretary. His response is curt, “encouraging me” to take into account special circumstances when I consider my attendance policy. My blood runs cold. I feel like a child who’s in trouble with her parents. How did he know who my dissertation director was? (It doesn’t occur to me until two hours later that he’s CC’d her because she’s one of the deans, not because she’s associated with me in any particular way.) But am I in trouble for bothering the Provost with an apparently stupid question? What happens if I stick to my initial attendance policy and don’t make special allowances? Will I face consequences? Could this become a bigger issue if I fight this thing? Or should I just lay down, against my ethics, and go with it? I go with it. Because I’m scared.
Yesterday, I taught Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. As a white female teacher in the South, I do struggle to teach slave narratives. Not only do I have a great deal of white guilt (something that these days seems silly and just as inappropriate as racism), but I also never know what would cross lines and get me in trouble. As I rode the bus in to campus at 7 in the morning, it dawned on me: the institution of slavery and the subsequent slave revolts (both on the docket for discussion) were really just governed within the culture of fear. I introduced this concept to my students, explaining what it means to govern one’s subordinates by threatening them, wanting to maintain power over them because one is fearsome. We imagined what a “culture of fear” classroom would look like–what my “culture of fear” classroom would look like. And we laughed at how ridiculous a notion it was.
I do not want to imply that I feel as though I have been governed by a culture of fear. That is not it at all. I have never actually been threatened or verbally abused or anything similar to those lines. But I behave as though I have been. My fear comes from within…and it’s not going anywhere. Not even when I get e-mails like this one from yesterday evening: “Thank you for your input, I really appreciate that you are helping us out with our papers.” It’s sweet. It warmed my heart. I even smiled. But it did nothing to ease my fearfulness.
To any and all educators who are brave enough to be honest about the problem with students today: I support you and applaud you…from behind the screen. Please don’t tell anyone that I’m there.
(I categorized this post under “bullying” for a very specific reason. In many ways, educators are subtly bullied by their administration, their students’ parents, as well as their students. I don’t believe this should go unnoticed, but I don’t know what to do about it.)