Confessions

Frustrated Teacher

This is not a year I’ve been proud of. 

I’ve had a few over the past sixteen years that have sucked for reasons largely outside my control, but this is the first time since those first few semesters that I’ve felt almost entirely responsible – not as a cause, but as someone who knew better in terms of MY responses, and didn’t do it. 

For… *sniff* - the children.

In years past I’ve been a pretty consistent hard-ass – quality of work, organization, due dates, etc. Like most teachers, exceptions abounded with circumstances. I’ve lost count of the number of individual deals I’ve made with students in difficulty, whether weird personal lives or academic struggles. If they’re trying, we’ll work something out. 

I’ve had to stifle overt hostility every time we’re told from the golden podium to give 50% to students who haven’t shown up or done anything yet because some kid in an anecdote had a tough October and we’re too jaded and dillweedish to let them ever recover.

"Damn – they’re on to us! We got into this profession so we could cackle maniacally at the unjust failings of children! We especially like to crush the ones living in their cars, working three jobs, and taking care of eleven siblings even though they don’t have fingers or eardrums. Fail, Enrique! Fail!"

Apparently I don’t always stifle it. 

But over time, reading enough tweets, enough blogs, enough articles, I softened. I weakened. I caved. Some of it was genuine doubt whether I could possibly be right and so many people smarter than me be wrong. Much of it, though – and this is where the self-loathing begins – much of it was laziness. The time and effort necessary to keep pushing every kid, to remember who was absent when and what that means for their make-up work and who had surgery and who was on a cruise, and the stories from other teachers about the parent calls, and emails, and meetings, and administrators, and… 

Most headaches can be easily avoided if you pretty much accept anything a kid gives you, whenever they give it. I lost a battle drawing some lines with a parent years ago (by following district policies, no less), and haven’t wanted to do that again. Every time I’d watch what other teachers were going through simply for holding to basic expectations, I’d pat myself on the back for knowing better than to go down THAT road again. 

I knew I was condemning my kids to much harder lessons down the road because I wasn’t willing to fight for their academic souls here, this year – when we all still basically love them and want to help them. This is the safest place in the world to struggle, or even fail a little. Not later, not somewhere else

But I wouldn’t see it – their eventual awakening. I wouldn’t know how much harder it would be later. But I do. 

That’s the wound; here’s the salt: 

This ‘flexibility’, this over-generalized ‘compassion’, didn’t work. Not for behavior, not for grades, not for anything. The more flexible I became, the more students were mired in a swampy mixture of all the stress one would expect from academic and personal overload but the actual productivity one would find in a 19th century San Francisco opium den. They were doing less and less, but freaking out about it more and more. 

What they eventually produced wasn’t usually very good, and often lacked context or use. Despite my most vehement exhortations, I couldn’t convince the majority of those so mired to keep up with what we were doing right now, in class, rather than dragging through that content review from last month’s quiz that they never seem to finish before they lose it and start over. 

“What does it matter WHEN they learn it?” Turns out it matters a whole damn lot.

True student collaboration became impossible because only a slim majority of students were prepared to contribute in any useful way. Class discussions or even direct instruction became less and less effective because it’s hard to build on something a third of them haven’t learned yet, and might never. 

History may never be easy, but it’s much less onerous when it’s experienced in order, and learned actively, together. Those opportunities vanished as I gradually ended up with 140 students in 40-50 different places, some analyzing and writing with great sophistication and others who’d pretty much ignored weeks of foundational work but suddenly wanted to get their ‘Skills Grades’ up and who had to be taught from scratch. 

It wasn’t just academics. I let too many little stupid things slide early in the year because I was trying to be more understanding of their individual quirks and needs and such. When I did assign something punitive, like lunch detention or some sort of service work, I’d quickly lose track of the paperwork as some would attend, some wouldn’t, half were absent that day anyway, and others were in detention already from another class, and… and… 

Eventually I just returned my energies to lesson planning and teaching. I now have a dozen kids throughout the day who aren’t “bad kids,” but who are 15 years old and still behave like a special needs group of 3rd graders when the spirit moves. I can’t skip the paperwork trail of consequences and just throw them all out in frustration (nor would I wish to), and there are four weeks left.  

So I’m making do.

The worst part of it is, I’ve failed my best kids. Their grades are fine, but they learned early on that most of my energy, most of our curriculum, most of their headaches would be dictated by the bottom 20% of the class. I suppose this in many ways is preparing them for the ‘real world,’ but I hate creating so many cynical little Republicans before they can even drive. 

I’ve failed my ‘challenging’ students because they’ve learned nothing, other than that they can pretty much do what they want and still move right along – thus reinforcing the very thing we complain about from our middle schools, who have about as much power to change that system as we do. 

I’ve failed my ‘average’ kids because they weren’t pushed beyond quiet mediocrity, staying below the radar and not causing trouble. Not exactly the motivational poster I signed up for. 

This freshmen class came to us as one of the least motivated, most pampered, quick-to-collapse, easily distracted, helpless, hopeless, shallow little nurslings I’ve ever encountered en masse, and I’ve accomplished absolutely nothing in challenging or changing any of that. There are some diamonds, believe me – and I love them all, somehow. But I fear for the rest if reality ever catches up. 

Maybe it won’t. Maybe our society has evolved enough that the consequence for irresponsibility, ignorance, and apathy, is food, clothing, shelter, and days spent drifting aimlessly and checking their phones obsessively. Maybe it’s not a teenager problem, but imminent national collapse. And maybe I can’t change any of it. 

But here’s what I CAN do. I can resolve next year to risk seeming merciless in my expectations, rigid in all things responsibility-ish, and demanding in my demeanor. I’ll fight the fights over standards and behavior, with or without official backing. I’ll lose some of them, but I’ll go down kicking and screaming - not because I’m an asshole who wants kids to fail, but because I love them. I want better for them. I want hope for them. And because I know from long, painful experience that the only true fulfillment or growth comes from actually accomplishing things. Actually learning stuff and doing things. 

I’m sure we have about a dozen motivation posters to that effect in this hallway alone. Maybe they’ll be my defense. 

I may not succeed. I doubt my humble efforts will prove to be some kind of miraculous solution. But I hope by May 2016, I’ll at least have offset some of the scalding awareness that I’ve become part of the problem. 

Neville Longbottom

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Comments

One of your best posts yet.

You know what Mr. Koehn, I think you're a pretty good teacher! Yeah I know that this year has been tough because let's be real here. The class of 2018 isn't the best, but you've done your absolute best. You've worked way harder than other teachers who have just not cared about what we do anymore. It really shows how hard this has hit you lately and I just hope you know how amazing you are. In conclusion, we are thankful that you care for us and we appreciate how hard you have worked for us this year.

Everything you've ever done in class has been to our best interest. You are one of the best teachers that I've ever had. Could you have been more strict? Maybe. That would have kept me under control. But our classes could have done better too in listening and trying harder in class. As ongoing sophomores we needed to be able to push ourselves in the real world because no one can do it for us. Thank you for teaching me that I can't do anything less than my best in school and in life. History isn't hard to learn, we as students are just to lazy to try to learn it. Personally I learned a lot about history and life itself. I guess what I'm trying to say is that when you become more strict, please don't forget to inspire your students and teach them more than history.

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