Monday, March 22, 2010

Teacher Blues

Packing to go to New York for my upcoming semi-important gig, I realized that I have an embarrassing surplus of clothes, mainly work clothes that I used to wear for university teaching: stylish blouses, tailored skirts, grown-up Mary Janes with chunky heels, and the like.  I haven't worn any of these clothes since my last semester teaching, which was two years ago now, yet I'm extremely reluctant to get rid of them.  What if I ever teach again?  A good friend of mine who lives on the razor's edge of poverty in the South Bronx has given away all of her baby things in between each baby (there are three so far), saying, "God will provide."  But these clothes were expensive, I thought.  However, chastened by memories of my friend, I got out a bag and started putting things in it to give away, but the only things I could manage to part with were some recital gowns that no longer flatter me, not exactly useful or practical wear for most people browsing at the Catholic Charities thrift shop on my new town's Main Street.

When I started teaching at my university, I felt as though, my years of performing notwithstanding, I had finally found my calling.  When I was in the classroom, I was in the zone.  Taxi drivers and strangers on the subway and the street would assume I was a teacher (though that may very well have been because most middle-class-looking white women seen in poor neighborhoods in New York, like the one in which I taught, are either social workers or teachers).  I don't know if I'll ever teach again, though I suspect I will in some form.  When we moved here, I sent my academic vita to a dozen schools within a hundred miles of here (an optimistic gesture, considering I still can't drive a car).  The state schools, however, were (and stil are) all under hiring freeze, and in any case my rather eccentric background -- abandoning opera for research-based recitals; then abandoning most performing in favor of speculative music-cultural research -- makes me a less-than-obvious candidate for a teaching position in a state school, although state university teaching jobs are highly desirable gigs.  My experience teaching in a large urban university back in New York had been such a positive one that I then decided that my calling was to teach in community college. I might never teach a promising graduate student, but promising graduate students are highly overrated, I thought.  So I phoned the head of the music department at the local community college, introduced myself, and explained my work.  Somehow from this conversation he gained the mistaken impression that I was an ethnomusicologist (how anyone would draw that conclusion from my c.v. baffles me); but anyway, all his positions, including teaching voice as an adjunct, were filled.

So then I decided I would get certified to teach in public school.  I dreamt of nourishing the budding talent of disadvantaged high school students in my economically-depressed community, and teaching them that the beauty and goodness of music could enrich, improve, and change their lives, as it had mine.  I spent countless hours and about a hundred dollars researching the ways my state would allow me to become certified, only to come up empty-handed.  I had numerous conversations with an educational recruiter in my area, who explained to me that my doctorate had no meaning in this context, nor did my years of teaching at the college level.  I would simply have to go back to school and get a master's degree in education, and then I'd have to do many hours of supervised student teaching.  While I agreed with her that my experience had not taught me the latest early-education pedagogical methodologies, I was confident I could learn those from books.  However, I balked at the idea of going back to school after the long, hard road to my doctorate, so it was not to be.

I'm thinking of homeschooling my son and whatever other children we are blessed to welcome, if for no other reason than that I love teaching so much, and miss it to the point that every day I find myself fantasizing about my time in the classroom.  But the truth is that I really don't know how to teach young children.  High school would be fine; for me, the really exciting stuff in terms of both ideas and pedagogy begins around age eleven.  But I now wonder, looking back, if I was too demanding even of my college students; I was so intent on their getting it, on their loving what I loved, that I think I expected them to reason and write on almost a graduate level, which not all of them could manage.  I fear that my greatest failing as a teacher is the same one that used to plague me as a young singer:  I was having a powerful experience onstage, but my going through it did not necessarily bring the audience there with me, or allow them to come to the catharsis that the music led them to expect.  If I homeschooled, at any rate, I would need an overhaul in my very meager store of patience.


Enbrethiliel said...


Pentimento, I had a similar experience with my own teacher's wardrobe, when it was time to give it away. One of the senior teachers asked me whether I'd like to donate them so that one of the new teachers, one who wasn't as well off as the others, could save on the cost of a uniform. (I guess I should add, just to be clear, that, in the Philippines, teachers as well as students wear uniforms? I think it has something to do with many schools being Catholic schools, run by folk in habits. It wouldn't do to have a large chunk of the population in civilian clothing . . . but I digress!)

I wanted to be generous--and to prove that I wasn't as heartbroken about having resigned my position as many people seemed to think me--so I let her have my old clothes. Several months later, I realised that I had been pressured (mostly by myself) to burn a bridge that I wasn't ready to burn yet.

There are times when I think I gave away all my educational idealism with those clothes. I really miss the teaching I used to do.

Mark in Spokane said...

Well, I'm a teacher (law school) and there are days it is rewarding and days that it isn't. One of the problem with education in the US is that it isn't really about learning. It is about certification. I would say that very few of my students are really interested in learning what I teach. What they are interested in in mastering enough of the material to get a decent grade so they can move on and eventually graduate, take the bar and get a job. Rhetorical theory, persuasive argumentation, objective analysis -- the techniques of the lawyer's toolkit -- simply don't interest them. And it is getting worse, not better, over time.

This makes teaching difficult some days. Other days, not so much...

Mark in Spokane said...

I'm going to include a link to your blog on my own blog. If you would like to reciprocate, that would be appreciated!



Enbrethiliel said...


To add to what Mark has said:

The obsession with certification is evident to anyone who has taught high school. When students ask, "Is this going to be on the test?" they aren't being lazy; they're proving that they've figured out that modern schooling is about being tested and getting through the current assessment cycle.

Okay, I'm getting off my soapbox now . . .

On a personal note, I did sail into teaching with the same optimism that I had when I started blogging. I shared a hope similar to yours, that I could make "dead books" come alive for my students. I think I did succeed when it came to a small handful . . . but I'm not sure how much good that did them when it was time for the uni entrance exams. Modern schooling's assembly line model isn't very compatible with real education.

(Pardon me for being so talkative! I so rarely get to talk about teaching these days!)

Pentimento said...

Obama has talked about establishing alternate pathways to certification, but I doubt it will actually happen. The teachers' unions are against it, and it looks as though the president has probably used up any favors he had outstanding just now. At any rate, every state does it differently. In a certain sense, homeschooling is a challenge to the education-industrial complex that turns out such poor product. But that said, I don't think that everyone that does it, should.