Teaching is like Extreme Parenting
In the bathroom of the teacher’s lounge at my school, someone put a calendar with daily quotations for teachers. There are worthy sayings from philosophers, the Bible, Anne Frank and Helen Keller, and the calendar is placed in a spot that’s impossible to ignore.
I hate that thing.
Who wants every second of the day to be an enriching experience?
I’m a teacher.
My day is full of enriching experiences. I’d like three minutes off now and then.
Teaching is extreme parenting: I look out at my class and I see nine sets of fraternal twins.
Because all the kids in an elementary classroom are about the same age, they all go through similar stages en masse.
They lose teeth and open their mouths without warning to show you bloody holes. They are fascinated by the same gross facts found in well-worn pages of certain encyclopedia volumes and issues of National Geographic.
They squabble like siblings; they leave their snow pants lying around and walk all over everyone else’s. When they misplace a pencil, they just know it’s been stolen.
Just as brothers and sisters do, they compete. There’s always the one who will insist on having his or her say even if not called on directly. And they tattle. I recently heard a tattler referred to as a “frequent reporter.” Could that also be future writer?
And like any parent, you have high hopes for them. You see glimpses of the kind of adults they may become way off in the distance. You remember the things they say years after they have moved on. You experience empty nest syndrome when your secret favorites leave. You behave like a lunatic groupie when they are seniors in high school and you are hollering hello and waving wildly at them in public and they are trying hard to look cool.
I did this recently at a middle school hoop game; my son and my former fourth-graders withered in embarrassment.
You say incredibly stupid things like, “You got so tall!” or “Look at you, you’ve lost all that baby fat!” or “Do you still want to be an astronaut?”
Your former students do come around later, and if they see you see out shopping in, they stop to chat. Most of them do, that is… most of the time.
But back in the classroom, every day you’re mediating between Israel and the PLO, handling some aftermath of recess or of lunchtime drama. This one calls that one a name, these ones won’t play with those ones, chase games lead to love confessions, someone has not been invited to a party.
Tears, sulking, tantrums … and all you wanted to do was talk about improper fractions.
Teaching is arbitration at its most sophisticated and complex. It calls for flexibility and quick thinking.
Confiscated a note during quiet time? Correct the grammatical errors as a class or a have a private talk in the hall — the choice is yours. The well-timed “How would you feel if that happened to you?” is deemed successful if the listener begins to tear up. Then come the apologies and the regrouping and, “Look! It’s time for science.”
If your mom wanted you to be a doctor and you chose education, tell her, ‘I am not a doctor, but I play one at school.’ You check temperatures, dispense Band-Aids, look for cooties (real ones), pass around boxes of tissues and hand sanitizer. You have discovered cures for twenty-seven ailments using just a moist paper towel. You solemnly inspect phantom bruises. You occasionally see real bruises and have to contact the authorities.
You spend so much time in the boy and girl bathrooms that you will wonder if you should moonlight as a plumber. You break up long discussions of outfits for the dance, you unplug the sink from the paper towels stuck down the drain, you monitor the dispensing of soap, you wade through the fog of male spray deodorants, and you have discussions on the importance of aim, wiping and flushing.
It does not occur to you that most adults don’t do this sort of thing at their jobs.
In 20 years of teaching in two states and five grades, I have had kids throw chairs, slide on the floor under an entire row of desks, read sitting in the recycle bin, bring their dead pets to school, and wear the same shirt for three weeks straight. They make villages out of their fingernail clippings, talk to their crayons, break their glasses to avoid wearing them, lose hearing aids, rings, coins, and during one strange fashion trend, the bottom parts of their pants.
There are days when I have to remind myself that I went to college, that this is a career, that I am a professional. I want to bang my head on the wall.
Which is exactly what happens at home; sometimes things go smoothly, sometimes you feel as though you are stuck in a car on a vacation to you know where.
When I use the bathroom or school, it’s a mental health moment. It’s pathetic, but it’s all I have.
To make it inspiring, someone should leave a marker there so we can mark an X as each day goes by.