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Sunday, April 4, 2010

23. This Teaching Life (1) After the Mayor's carriage ... meditation on the end of first term

Whenever you find yourself thinking that everything is going just SO very well ... look behind you.

Ancient Chinese proverb

As I enter that ancient piece of wisdom into my laptop, two related thoughts appear simultaneously on my mind-screen. One is the moral of one of Aesop’s fables – the one about the Crow who had found a piece of very tasty cheese. The cunning Fox tells the Crow what a beautiful singer she is, and how he cannot wait to once again hear her melodic tones. The Crow, overcome with pride, begins to warble, and the cheese falls to the ground, and the fox make sit his own. “Pride” – Aesop reminded us - “rideth before a fall.”
My adoptive father, Herbert Garrie, loved playing cards. His favourite games were Euchre and Five Hundred. Cards brought out the best in him - linguistically, at least. When the dealer gave him an ordinary hand, he would say, “You ought to deal in bottles.” My favourite, though, was the expression he used on those occasions when good luck turned to bad. He might have won the previous round of the game; but if on the next hand he was dealt ‘poor’ cards, he would always say ... “Ahh – wouldn’t you know it! After the Mayor’s carriage comes the garbage cart!”

My dad knew that good luck came in short bursts, and that you shouldn’t get carried away with it. You’ve got to take the bad with the good; after the mayor’s carriage comes the garbage cart; pride rideth before a fall; whenever you find yourself thinking that everything is going just very SO well ... look behind you.

Thursday, March 4, 2010. We were well into sixth week of term. I was driving to school feeling ‘on top of the world’. It was my second year at the school, and so different from the first. For the whole of 2009 I felt like I was involved in a constant battle. No matter that it was my 45th year of teaching; no matter that I brought a wealth of experience and an impressive array of achievements with me. I was a new teacher. I was fair game to the chaos mongers in each class. [Chaos mongers’ is a term coined by an old friend, Peta Heywood; she used it in reference to those kids who use the classroom as a place to cause mayhem. They are not simply resistant learners, they are belligerently negative. It was his experience with ‘chaos mongers’ that led another fine educationist – Garth Boomer – to observe that ‘sometimes teaching is a bit like being pecked to death by ducks’.]

During 2009 I suffered battle fatigue for much of the year. At times I felt like I’d made a terrible mistake returning to the classroom. My two year 10 classes were surly, distrustful, resistant. My year 12s took a long time to trust this ‘new teacher’. And toward the end of first term my year 8 class – the one group I’d felt at ease with – became impossible.

I had been warned. ‘The kids here don’t like change. They don’t take well to strangers.’ They hadn’t had much need to. The school was full of teachers who had been there for 10 – 15 – 20 – some 25 years. There were 3 teachers on the staff who had attended the school as students! The students saw me as an outsider – I also sensed that many of the staff did too.

In my second week in the school I had stepped into a group of surly, loud, misbehaving boys in the school yard. I’d seen boys pushing and shoving each other; there was aggression in the air – I could smell it; I tried to calm things down. One of the boys totally lost his cool and threw a full can of coke at the wall of the school.
‘Come with me,’ I’d said.
‘No way. I haven’t done nothing wrong.’
‘Then settle down,’ I said. I was trying to find a way out of what was becoming a heated situation.
‘Settle down.’
He seemed to. ‘Okay ... now just stay calm – alright.’
He nodded. I walked away.
As i neared the door to the school building, a voice screamed at my back: “GET OUT OF OUR SCHOOL!!!”
So, 2009 had been tough. I’d managed to get through it, but I had felt fatigued on and off all year. It was not a satisfying year; it was bloody hard work. At times I thought: ‘I’m 66. Maybe I’m just too old for this. Maybe I’m passed my “Used By” date.’ Perhaps this is no country for old men.

But that was 2009. As I drove toward school on that Thursday – March 4, 2010 – I reflected on what a difference it is to return to a school for your second year. By that stage I’d taught something like 125 classes, and I hadn’t had a single ‘downer’.

I sometimes make a mental rating of my classes on a 1 -10 scale. A score of 1 means that the class was ‘the pits’ – an experience full of chaos, aggression, venom, hatred – the full catastrophe. A ‘1’ occurred when the class set out to ‘destroy’ you, to bring you down.

One of the most moving film scenes about teaching that I’ve ever watched was in the 1950s classic Blackboard Jungle. One of the teachers tries to win over the students by sharing something of himself with them; he brings his record collection to the class. He’s a jazz freak and has an amazing collection of jazz classics on vinyl. The chaos mongers in the class seem to ‘go along’ with him; they feign interest and he drops his guard. Then they begin snatching his precious records from their box, and throwing them to each other. By the end of the class, his precious vinyl records, collected over a lifetime, lie smashed on the floor. And he is destroyed.

I’d had some 2s and 3s during 2009, and now and then classes that felt like 1.5!
At the other end of the scale was a score of 10. Ten is ‘bliss’ – a classroom where magic happens, where the students are engaged – every single one. It’s a classroom where the learning is passionate and important, where students and teacher work together. They are the lessons that keep us teaching – those moments of transcendence. I’d had a few 7s and 8s in ’09, but the average was around 3 or 4.
As I said, by March 4 I’d taught around 125 classes – and virtually every single one had been a 7 – maybe even an 8. The worst was a 6 – or 6.5. [Woody Allen once quipped: ‘I suppose I’ve had a few thousand orgasms in my life, and the worst one was ... sensational!’]

You know that experience where, the moment you think something, you KNOW you shouldn’t have.

As I drove along that morning I found myself thinking, ‘I am REALLY enjoying my teaching. I feel like I’m teaching as well or better than I have ever taught before. I reckon I could keep teaching for another TEN YEARS at this rate.’ And there’s a long weekend coming up, too. What a bonus! Could life get any better.’
Ah, hubris! You are the most devious of enemies, for we embrace you so readily as our dearest friend!

That uplifted feeling, that I was invincible, indestructible, that I could teach for another ten years, lasted for maybe two hours. The headache began to insinuate its way into my brain around 11; by one o’clock I was really struggling. I began wondering if I could last out the day – let alone 10 years.

Friday was no better; my head felt thick, I had no energy. ‘I’ll be right,’ I told myself. ‘We have a long weekend coming up to recoup our energies. I’ll be right.’
That night, munching on a thick chunk of rich dark chocolate, I felt a large part of one of my molars break away. I spent the weekend with my tongue seeking out the sharp and ragged new cavern in one of my back teeth, and with my mind contemplating the end of all things, the twin certainties of decay and death.

I had a temporary filling put in on the Tuesday, and went in for the real work 9 days later. It’s irrational, I know, but I dread dental work more than I dread death.

It may have been that the headache and the broken tooth were kryptonite to my hubristic sense of invincibility; it may have been that those harbingers of death and decay, those reminders of my inescapable mortality were what tipped the balance. Or maybe there was simply a turning of the tide; maybe our moods are cyclic. I had experienced a long-lasting king tide, but now my spirits were beginning to ebb.

That’s how it is with teaching, I guess. Getting along with your self is hard enough; living in a relationship with one other person for any length of time is clearly much harder; working closely in a group – at work, in a family – is exponentially harder. Relating to people is exhausting. And relating to groups of 20 or 25 people day in, day out is very complex. That’s why teaching is such hard work.
And so I went from the mayoral carriage – feeling on top of my teaching load, feeling that I was teaching as well or better than at any earlier stage in my career – to the garbage cart. The wheels didn’t actually fall off, but they were wobbling terribly. Like a marathon runner I pretty much collapsed over the finish line.

Term 1 is gone now, and I’m on my break. I’m collecting my thoughts, my wits, my energy, along with physical resources for my next term’s teaching. It will be a long term, so I’ll need to pace myself. I'll especially need to remember the important lesson of term 1:

Whenever you find yourself thinking that everything is going just very SO well ... look behind you.

You would have thought that, having been in the teaching game long, that I would remember the importance of pacing myself, of being wary of that exalted feeling that comes when things are going well. Maybe that's what keeps me teaching - maybe it's addictive, that feeling that 'it would be hard to imagine things going any better...'

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