Teaching: What It’s Like When It’s Not A Movie (Part 1)

Teaching, like abortion, is a hot political issue which, if you’ve never faced firsthand, you can only discuss in the abstract. That doesn’t stop all and sundry from having passionate theories. At best, these theories are naive and twee (“Teachers should shake hands with every student as s/he enters the classroom!”); at worst, they have the power to kick the shit out of public education (property taxes = school funding; vouchers; charter schools in the strip mall where kids dick around online at their own pace; more standardized testing testing testing). The only people with credible opinions re: what teaching involves and what students need to be successful in school, are teachers. And we disagree. A lot. But our disagreements are fired up by concrete experience, not theory. If you’ve never stood in front of a room full of kids and tried to get them to engage with– to WANT to engage with — a complex concept* that their still-developing prefrontal cortexes** struggle to grasp…well, go ahead, have an opinion, but know that you see through a glass, darkly.

All schools — public, private, charter — struggle to teach students what they need to know to survive, and it’s because we have no idea, really, what the jobs of the future will be. I’m a nascent example: I started a career in print journalism in 1996, eight seconds before the world went online. The Internet, in 1996, was like a cute little newsroom pet with its adorable modem trills and burps; its real-time weather reports and dancing cats. And then? It rose up and ate us in our sleep. I raced ahead of every job I ever had like Wiley E. Coyote as the cliff crumbles behind him, trying to get to a paper that wouldn’t fold or become a pamphlet. By the end, none of my old jobs existed anymore — it was all wire services and freelancers. Print journalism had its heart cut right out of its chest.

We live in exponential times. As fast as the world changed between 1996 and, say, 2001? That’s nothing compared to what’s going happen to the 18-year-olds who walk in and out of my door every day. I prepare them as well as I can, but we all know they’re about to climb onto a rickety socioeconomic trapeze. This affects different kids in different ways: Some get motivated and work harder than ever; others give up entirely. They feel helpless, and they’re marking time.

So, yeah. We’re all wondering what comes next in education. If we had more blue-collar jobs that paid a living wage, education would be less fraught: Kids could drop out at 16 with solid options — electrician, plumber, auto mechanic, etc. There would be no shame in leaving school early if academics just weren’t your thing, or if you didn’t want to rack up $100,000 in undergrad student loans.

And whatever happened to apprenticeships? Apprenticeships would be 37 kinds of awesome right about now.  I would totally go for ironworking, because that way I wouldn’t electrocute myself, have a car jack fall on my head, or have to investigate the depths of strangers’ bathroom pipes. My dream job, however, remains “Kitten Shepherd.”


*Or, hell, even a simple concept that they’re just not interested in. I dare you to make a teenager care about punctuation the week before Christmas or the prom, or if he hasn’t had enough sleep the night before, or if he had a fight with his girlfriend on the way to school, or if he subsists solely on Hot Cheetos and Coke, or or or…

**The “executive function” part of the brain responsible for long-range planning, risk assessment, empathy, and understanding that it is wiser, if not better, to attend Senior English than to lick a psychoactive toad.

COMING NEXT: Part 2 — Teaching: What It’s Like When It Is Like A Movie, But Not the Movie You’re Thinking Of

15 thoughts on “Teaching: What It’s Like When It’s Not A Movie (Part 1)

  1. “My dream job, however, remains ‘Kitten Shepherd’.”

    This made me laugh.

    The rest of his post made me fear for my children and wonder how you do what you do – teachers are fucking amazing. Well, except the ones who suck (not you).

  2. I agree with bugbrennan. Both on “kitten shepherd” making me laugh, and on teachers that do not suck being fucking amaze-balls… Thank you.

  3. Because wealth depends upon poverty. I suppose not all radical feminists are also anti-capitalist, but capitalism is intricately enmeshed with patriarchy — so a critique of patriarchy must also include a critique of capitalism. Once this ol’ revolution is complete, no one will be rich. and we won’t need lawyers, ’cause we will have something like democracy, where we are responsible for each other, and won’t need lawyers to help (or hinder) us through the legal system. I know we’re a long way from freedom. And I know some radical feminist lawyers. and some lesbian lawyers. and some who are radical feminists and lesbians and lawyers–but they do a lot of pro-bono work. they do alright, that’s true. But I dunno, the contradictions of being right in the middle of the legal system, upholding and arguing laws and stuff (even if you have the luxury of working on cases that do not involve defending rapists and corporate fraudsters, etc) — seem difficult to reconcile. But then again, we live with heart-breaking contradictions all of us, every day….It’s mostly the “rich” part that seems the most problematic thing. anyway. that’s the most articulate i can be about it for now….

  4. Oh, c’mon, you know that’s not what I mean. of course women are not supposed to stay poor. We should all have *enough*. Not too much, not too little. “rich” = too much.

  5. I have deep respect for good lawyers. Life is like a complicated board game, and whenever certain kinds of problems arise, the lawyer is the only player who has read the rules on the inside of the box. Our legal system is fraught and riddled and broken in places, but it’s one of the best in the world (and certainly the best one currently serving 300,000,000+ people). Without it (pre-revolution, anyway) we’d have chaos. We’d have the strong preying on the weak in ever-more nightmarish ways.

    It’s unfair, but making a good living means independence and a greater range of choices. And when radfem lawyers make money, they use it not only to build free/independent lives — they use it to help other women. They do free legal work; fly a few women to a conference they couldn’t attend otherwise; fund scholarships. Because they’re not terrified about making rent, they have energy for activism. Because they can afford a nice trip now and again, they have time to think/write/organize.

    Radfems with money, power, and connections can make people listen — can make things HAPPEN — in ways that only money, power and connections can. I wish more of us made more money, but we tend to choose careers that make a difference in other ways. In the board game of life, radfems and lesbians tend to…I don’t know, teach people how to play; help them push their pieces around the board; make sure there are enough copies of the game for everyone; and organize the cards into neat little stacks. Which is great — and the game is toast without us! — but I’m grateful that Cathy Brennan is there to make sure no one plays fast and loose with the rules on the inside of the box while we’re working on the revolution.

  6. I agree with you. the radical feminist lawyers I know are, as you say, committed to using their influence and access to get the best for women and challenge the degradations perpetuated on poor, racialized women by the “criminal justice system”. These women give the best they have–and it’s pretty fuckin’ excellent ‘best’, at that–here’s an example:

    Click to access Factum%20-%20Womens%20Coalition.pdf

    I know they work hard, and I know they also pay a price. There aren’t many of ’em.
    I love that you’re a teacher, and if I had kids, i’d send ’em to you. Girls and boys. Cause you’re going to do your best to teach them how to be human. thoughtful, ethical, compassionate, curious, active — eventually even free. or within spitting distance of freedom….
    but rich? not in material goods — money and stuff, anyhow.

    When I say stuff like “make wealth history”, I do not mean “wimmins are supposed to stay poors”.

    I’m sure you know that.

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