Saturday, November 9, 2013

Teachers Are Real People

When I was in nursery school, I believed my teachers lived and slept at school (well technically I do, but I'm an exception to the norm). What i mean to say is that I couldn't conceive of my teachers having a life or a role outside of teaching - such as mother, wife, artist, athlete, friend, etc. Even during high school, it was hard (and weird) to imagine my teachers in a context other than school. living in Evanston during college, I would often bump into my former teachers - at the grocery store, the gym, or even the spa - and the first few times it happened it freaked me out a little. It freaked me out simply because there are boundaries between students and teachers (including teaching assistants) and those boundaries are not to be muddled with. 

In France, those boundaries are even more defined than they are in the United States. What do I mean by that? There is a strong sense of hierarchy that pervades French schools (as well as French society). Students use formal language to address their "professors", whom they call Monsieur and Madame. Before entering the classroom, students must line up outside the door single file and wait until the teacher invites them to enter. They must stand until the teacher invites them to sit down. If a student is a minute late and does not have a pass, he/she must stay after class and do extra homework. Even the unmotivated students strictly adhere to these standards. 

Although these types of standards are generally more lax in the US, the teachers and the students still belong to two different camps. Since starting this job, I now belong to the teacher camp. After nearly 20 years of being in school, you can imagine how strange it feels (and those of you who are already teaching, you know what I'm talking about!). What's even stranger is that while some of my students are 8 years younger than me, some of my students (in the associates degree program) are only 2-3 years younger than me. Many of them still call me Madame even though I keep telling them to call me Aria. They do what I tell them to do and they seek my approval. 

It makes no difference if there is another teacher with me in the class or not. I've already taught a handful of classes by myself and the students are the same. I've administered oral exams and watched as students tremble with anxiety despite my frequent nods of approval and smiles for reassurance. I have flashbacks of my junior year of high school - the anxiety, the desire to succeed, the exhaustion. But that's not me anymore. I'm on the other side. For better or for worse, I've crossed over.

It's funny, because with my terminal (senior) students, one of the topics we've been discussing is "Locations and Forms of Power". For example, they've learned about the British empire, and about gun violence in America (the power to decide who lives and who dies). But in a different sense, school is a location of power and being a teacher is a form of power. Teachers decide how to run their class (to an extent) and the students have no choice but to abide. Teachers decide what grades to give. Teachers decide who gets homework and how much and when. It makes sense that students can feel stressed out. In very few contexts do people have that much authority over you. 

On the other hand, being in a seat of power (as the teacher) can be quite stressful too. It's a big responsibility, trying to prepare nearly 100 teenagers for an exam that will influence their future. You do as much as you can to ensure that they will succeed, even if it means having them repeat the phrase "myths and heroes" over and over until they have the pronunciation down almost perfectly. Even if it means giving practice exams or more homework (which the students hate and it means more grading for you). You must lead the horses to water, but the drinking is up to them.

But I'm getting off track here. I was talking about boundaries and sides. Now that I'm on the teachers' side, things are a bit different. For example, I won't wear jeans - only nice skirts, slacks and dresses. There is nothing wrong with wearing jeans, but since I look young, I am trying to set myself apart from my students. Its especially tricky in the dorm. When i go out at night, or when i return, i do so discretely. When I pass a dozen shirtless rugby men on my way to my room, I have to pretend not to notice their six pack abs and bulging biceps. When I see students copying each others homework, I look away. When I hear the girls gossiping about boys - especially the rugby men that live in the dorm - I switch my brain to English so I can't understand what they're saying. Put hormonal teenagers together overnight in the same building, and things will happen. But what I don't know can't harm me...and believe me, I don't want to know. 

I've learned something else since "crossing over". This one's funny because it may seem obvious: teachers are real people. Just because they keep their personal lives concealed from our students does not mean they don't have lives outside of school. They have families, and houses, and hobbies and social lives. They go dancing and play music and do sports and lead philosophy conversation groups. And although teachers do their best to prevent their emotions and personal issues from affecting their work, they are real people with emotions and personal issues. They sometimes get frustrated with students or have clashes with other teachers and administrators. Sometimes they loose their keys. Sometimes teachers show up at the wrong place at the wrong time, or they don't show up at all (Although your wife going to labor is a pretty good reason to miss class; yesterday one of the teacher's didn't show up for our class, and I just learned that baby Noam was born a few hours later). Sometimes teachers are not quite prepared for class. Sometimes teachers are not ready for vacation to end. Sometimes teachers have relationship problems. Sometimes teachers get sick. Sometimes teachers have philosophical dilemmas and mid (or quarter or three quarter) life crises. Sometimes teachers worry about the future. Sometimes even teachers don't know all the answers. 

Speaking of questions and answers, on tuesday I attended a philosophy soirée/discussion animated by my friend Julien (a high school philosophy teacher, and the third Julien I'm friends with now). The question of the evening was: 'Is it necessary to fear death?'. Julien presented many of the possible angles using various schools of philosophy. After Julien's introduction, he opened the discourse, and everyone in attendance shared their own opinions and experiences. It was like my high school AP great books class, except that we had wine, cheese and chocolate! 

Being the nerd that I am, I even took thorough notes, although I won't bore you with every detail. Anyway, what I took away from the conversation was the idea that facing death is easier when you're content with the contributions you made during your lifetime. We are all afraid of leaving this world without leaving a trace of us behind; without having made an impression or an impact of some sort. Teachers, being real people, have this fear too. 

Last week, I went out with one of the English teachers. Frankly, I was surprised when she invited me, because we had not spoken much outside of class. Over coffee, she opened up to me about her struggles in the classroom and her fear that she wasn't doing a good job teaching. She asked for my advice, and although I'm not a teacher, I responded as honestly as I could. Being on the other side, I see that teachers aren't the superhuman beings that as a kid I thought they were. On the other hand, they are super beings. They are super beings who somehow find a way to balance their home life and work life; who are there for their students physically, mentally and emotionally, no matter what shit they may having going on. They are super beings who utilize order, discipline and respect to create a safe and supportive environment for adolescents to learn and grow. They are super beings who have the capacity to perform miracles in the classroom. Needless to say, I have a lot of respect for my colleagues and anyone who dedicates their life to teaching.

Which brings me to my final point: gratitude. I have lots of it. For all my teachers (well, the really good ones especially). I'm not going to name them here, but if you're reading this blog, you know who you are :). Thank you for all that you did; for all that you do. And to my friends that are young, new teachers, I just want to reiterate how much respect I have for you. You're in a position of real power - you have the power to inspire your students to fill their minds with knowledge, to follow their dreams, and to go out and make the world a better place. To that, I'll raise my glass of Côte du Rhône.

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