Becoming a teacher is like becoming a new person. You have no idea what you are in for. You think you know what to expect, but I assure you, you do not. It’s hard work. It’s pretty much thankless. It’s constant and it changes. Teachers are scapegoats to society’s ills, but society really needs us, too. There’s a lot of bloodletting. Not literally, of course, but you are a giver, you have to give, your job is to give.
Sorry, I hope you weren’t expecting a pep talk.
When I decided to be a Waldorf teacher, I remember the exact moment, the out loud declaration at the wheel of my Nissan Sentra. And do you know what I did? I cried. Sitting in traffic, I sobbed, wiped my eyes, looked around and plodded home wondering why I cried. I suppose it was my future-self crying and that’s why my self-at-the-moment was so surprised. Little did I know what becoming a Waldorf teacher was going to really be like for me, but after I completed two years of teacher training, I did.
Waldorf education is based on the esoteric philosophies of Rudolf Steiner and claims to be the fastest growing private school in the world. It’s also very controversial. Its critics claim it’s a cult, that Steiner was a racist and that the schools do more harm than good. Its advocates believe Steiner was a genius and the school’s focus is on the imagination and working together. My experience involved me writing a whole book over it.
Currently, I’m teaching English overseas. I’ve been an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teacher for about 5 years. Most of my teaching has been in Thailand, although for 6 months I was in Ecuador. In many ways, teaching abroad is different than teaching in your passport country. At the same time, teaching is teaching anywhere in the world. Respect for the profession is dwindling and it seems all the students want to do is play on their phones.
Of course, there are wonderful students, too. Unfortuantely, they are not enough to balance out the bureaucracy and politics and negativity that have unhappily made its way into the classrooms. So, why do I still do it? Well, you could say, I feel a little stuck. That is, I don’t feel I have much of a choice, but I still like it, despite its problems. I don’t suppose that makes much sense to you, does it?
A colleague told me the other day that he feels like he’s acting in front of the classroom. I disagreed with him. I said I never felt like I was acting. But I do perform. Acting feels less authentic. Performing, on the other hand, is what teachers have to do to keep the students engaged. In many ways, teachers must weave spells and create magic.
When I first started teaching, I was attracted to the idea of working with children because I had such an fun experience working with them at a summer camp. This doesn’t mean that I was a natural though. I was surprised that I even liked them. Originally, I was hired to be the office manager, but I found myself wanting to spend more time with the campers and so I did.
There are natural teachers, but they are rare. Most of us have to really sweat and toil if we want to be any good at it. I’m rather matter-of-fact which can be a good or bad thing depending on how you like your teachers. Trust me, the profession is filled with the kind of criticism that cuts down to the marrow in the bone and you have to decide what to discard and what you can use. Not an easy task when you are fresh out of training and wide-eyed and dewy, but as the dewiness wears off and the eyes become tired, you learn to survive.
Becoming a teacher should make you a better person. But being a teacher can make you an angrier person.
I remember in high school I had a science teacher who wore sensible sandals with the panty hose toes cut off. And even though I was an extremely average student, I felt bad for her because the class was insane. The boys sat on the chair desks surrounding Debbie, the resident tart who wore spandex tight dresses to accentuate every bit of her Playboy bunny body. Someone threw a cherry bomb in our class so we didn’t have to attend. There was a lot of talking for talking’s sake and our teacher would sometimes slam her books on the table and scream, “Shut up!”
Now that I’ve been teaching for years, I get it. I would have loved to have done that, many, many times over. These days though a lot of the disrespect comes in the form of students endlessly playing on their phones. I’m an entertaining teacher, too. But perhaps all teachers think that way about themselves. You learn to care, less. You have to. You accept that you cannot control every moment. You learn that you have no real authority over the students. After all, learning is a relationship.
Bad teaching days and good teaching days, ideally, need to be swallowed with equanimity. If you end the week on a bad teaching day, my colleague believes that you won’t recover until you’ve had a good teaching day. There is a lot of truth in that, but it’s also one hellva way to live. Good teaching days help you remember why you got into this damn profession in the first place. Bad days make you feel like the stupidest person and an utter failure.
Teachers, by default, try their best and use up way too much personal time to get their job done. So, it is incredibly crushing to be blamed for not doing more. Yes, yes. There are lazy and bad teachers and they are the ones that make headline news, but I can assure you the better ones have great big hearts for your children.
I can’t tell you if becoming a teacher has made me a better person. Sometimes I feel like it’s making me bitter and crazy. Sometimes I wonder how much longer I can do this. Other times, I love making my students laugh and helping them along the way. If I could do it all over again, I don’t think I would have run down this road. It’s a thankless task with many problems with one too many 1%-ers telling us how to do our jobs. Although, if I hadn’t, perhaps I would have never realized that we’re all teachers.
Ultimately, becoming a teacher, getting fired, and becoming a teacher again made me understand that the task of teaching was something I always had within me. Because we are all teachers. Teaching through our words and actions. Teaching every day. Teaching is more than a profession: it’s our life’s journey, our heart’s work, and a job that everyone carries from the inside out.