Healthy cynicism and other stuff

Cynicism can be destructive, especially in the workplace. However, with the right approach, it can also be cathartic and entertaining. The trick is figuring out where that fine line is. I intend to stay on the cathartic/entertaining side of the line, but from time to time, I will probably mess up and step over it. Forgive me in advance.

I will attempt to refrain from using profanity. Sometimes, I will have no choice but to drop the F-bomb. I apologize in advance. Rest assured that I don’t use profanity in front of children, whether they are my students or my own kids.

When I was a rookie teacher, I was on a mission to help kids. I still am. I still like kids and I like teaching. However, a few things have changed over the past twenty years. The following is only a partial list of those changes.

  • I no longer define myself as a teacher first, before anything else.
  • I have learned to say “no” to extra responsibility.
  • I refuse to sell my soul to the job.
  • I’m much less self-conscious.
  • I am much more self-deprecating and have learned to laugh at myself.
  • I take sick days when I get fed up my students. Mental-health days, I call them.
  • I don’t gossip about any coworker to any other coworker. I take that stuff home to my wife!
  • I only grade some student work, not every last little assignment.
  • When 3:15 strikes, I go home as fast as possible. There is no overtime in education.
  • I don’t buy beer anywhere near where I teach.

Perhaps most importantly… I have learned how to laugh at some of the infuriating aspects of my job.

Where did all this change come from? How about three nervous breakdowns in twenty years, all of which occurred during the months of either October or November? All of which were initiated by the stresses of my job? And no, I’m not joking about this. When you have a nervous breakdown, you’re forced to reevaluate what is truly important in life, and I discovered that my job isn’t nearly as important as my sanity is!

Why did I break down? Obviously, I’m predisposed to it, because there are plenty of teachers who never do. Still… if you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to have a lousy classroom environment, bad curriculum, no classroom budget, aggressive parents, overbearing administrators, backstabbing coworkers, and/or poorly-behaved students, you know how easy it is for stress to snowball.

Changes in my outlook are also due to more mundane things, like learning the inner workings of a complicated educational system. Figuring out who you can trust. Identifying and placating lousy administrators. Realizing that you don’t have to take the first job offered to you. Pacing yourself and taking it one-day-at-a-time. Staying calm in the face of the two or three (or ten) misbehaving mouth-breathers taking up oxygen in your room. Etcetera etcetera etcetera.

Later…

I had a fantastic 6th period today. My students were engaged: asking questions, laughing at my lame jokes, etc. There is no buzz quite like teaching a lesson like that. Knowing that you’ve just taught an informative and engaging lesson that the kids truly enjoyed is the main reason I stay in this career. At the end of the day, after all the b.s. politics and flavor-of-the-month flash-in-the-pan pedagogy have been shaken off, it’s really just about my students and me. Everything else is superfluous.

Trouble is, it’s the superfluous stuff that winds up taking away a lot of a teacher’s energy from where it is needed most: the classroom. It seems to me that the people who come up with all the latest-and-greatest stuff (yes, I’m being sarcastic) are the ones who don’t teach. They’re the ones who have time and energy to generate a whole bunch more work for those of us actually in the trenches!

I’ve always wondered just how many employees in a school district never have any meaningful contact with students. We have giant class sizes, but also employ plenty of adults who don’t work with kids. The whole thing is backwards and top-heavy. The bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and custodians have more contact on a daily basis than a lot of people at the district office!

I’m not saying that the district administrators don’t care about kids. I believe most of them do. I simply mean that if you aren’t interacting with kids on a frequent basis, you quickly lose touch with the realities of education. Ivory-tower pedagogical “innovations” look great on paper, but in reality, many of them WILL NOT WORK in the average classroom. Drop class size by half and provide two more para-educators, and maybe a teacher could accomplish some of what they fantasize about.

The takeaway is that at the end of the day, it’s all about you and your students. That is what matters. I’ve learned to nod my head and later laugh at much of the other fluff that I used to take WAY too seriously.

 

How did I get here?

I write this as I sit at my desk during 3rd period, on a wet, rainy day at the end of November. My students are working on a multimedia activity using my classroom set of Chromebooks. I love days when I use the Chromebooks. I don’t have to stand and talk all period. Five hours of standing and talking fries my mind and makes my sciatic nerve throb. I’m not so young no more. Twenty years of standing did this to me. And no, the squishy insoles don’t work.

I keep getting up to help kids who didn’t bother to listen to the directions. At times, I am reminded of a line from a poem by Steven Jesse Bernstein:

“These men look confused, like fish being clubbed on the pier.”

As an aside, Bernstein killed himself. Anyway, replace the word “men” with “students” and you’ll understand what the inattentive kids look like. Mouth-breathers.

My teaching situation is actually quite fantastic. I work at a upper-socioeconomic school where many students and parents value education. I have all the latest classroom gear: projector, sound system, microphone, etc. I teach science, which interests me. I have only one prep. I like and respect both the principal and assistant principal, and they take good care of me. And the kids… many of them actually say “thank you” as they leave the classroom! Most of them are sweet and earnest. It’s a good gig. I like my job and want to do a good, solid job of educating these little 12- and 13-year olds. So why am I so cynical?

To be continued…