Teaching is a Three-Ring Circus

While I was with my friend yesterday and she was commiserating with me about the shitty pay that teachers receive, I said something that I personally feel is very true: "Teaching is a performance art." If you cannot grab your students' attention and maintain it, you will not survive even one year as a teacher. I know this as sure as any other lesson I've ever learned, because I had to learn it the hard way.

So how does one go about becoming a teacher?

It's not enough to do your bachelor's degree in education, not even a master's degree or a doctorate will really prepare you. Not really. Sure, learning about famous, dead, white, male teachers has a purpose - it helps you attain certification so you can actually get hired to teach - but once you're sitting at your desk and there's five minutes left before the first bell of your teaching career rings, none of those textbooks will do you a whit of good. I'm sorry to disappoint any aspiring teachers out there, but this is the God honest truth.

So what can you do to prepare yourself to become a teacher?

The best advice I can give you is to practice in an actual setting with real live students. Tutoring one-on-one, either by hiring out yourself or working with a service like Kaplan, Full Potential, etc., is a good way to start, as it gives you an idea of the rapport you will need to build with students, but in order to get the full experience of a class dynamic, you need to teach an actual class. I've been fortunate enough that almost every woman in my family is a teacher or works within education, so as a young girl, I got to go in with my mother, who's a teacher-aide, on school holidays (I went to a private school while my mother worked in a public school) and witness teaching from a different perspective.

Another thing that truly helped me was my experience working for the first principal to hire me, Mrs. Furmanick. A large part of my interview process involved my teaching English to a class of 7th graders, and I only had a few days beforehand to prepare. With great energy and excitement, I searched online for a short story that would capture the attention of these middle schoolers. I don't remember the exact story I used (this was six years ago and my memory is a freaking sieve), but I know it was fantasy and involved some kind of dragon. Whatever, I thought it was cool and I had a good feeling the students would, too. After finding my story, I prepared questions and planned my lesson down the milisecond. Heck, I even bought my first "teacherly" outfit, this silky blouse with sleek beige khaki pants.

I thought I looked professional. I thought I was prepared. I thought wrong.

Sure, the first half of my lesson plan went great. I introduced myself and asked the students to say a little about themselves so that I could learn about them, too. I introduced the story, taking great care to emphasize the fantasy and action elements of it. Then I called upon various students to read, stopping the reading every so often to ask pointed questions to make sure the students understood the story and were paying attention. I was so smug, thinking I had the job in the bag. I was as good as hired, I thought. Then suddenly, the story was done, all my questions had been answered. The students were all seated in their desks, looking at me attentively, waiting for the rest of their lesson. But my script was done. Despite the fact that I still had 15 minutes left in the class, I was done.

That was the moment I realized that teaching is not an exact science. You can plan your lessons, and yes, you should plan lessons ahead of time so that you are prepared, but you have to be ready for anything. You have to have back-up plans so that you don't have dead space and time to kill. Because the students will smell the blood in the water and nothing, nothing is worse than showing the students you're not prepared for them.

Did I get that job? Yes, yes, I did. But those 15 minutes I did not plan for were brutal. I had to scramble and call upon everything in my power not to flounder. I equate this experience with a comedian who's planned for a 20 minute routine, and then realizes mid-act that his jokes only take five minutes to tell. It was hell, but I've always been a good ad-libber, having been an active participant in my drama club during high school.

This year is my sixth year as a teacher. I have taught students in grades 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, and 12. I even had two brief experiences teaching at the college level, just one class apiece for an undergraduate English class and a graduate English class. I am not perfect, but I am experienced and feel I can handle just about anything a student can throw at me - barring violence and anything of that sort, of course. It's not the classes I took in education or the workshops that have made me the teacher I am today - if I am to be honest, it's 60% on-the-job learning and 40% experience from my years acting in high school.

1 comment(s):

Whitney said...

I love this! Thank you so much for writing this.

I had my second observation teaching a real lesson last month and it was horrible! Pretty much the same thing happened to me, plus a million other little behavior problems. I'm so glad I'm not the only one that this has happened to!