Friday, December 29, 2006

The teacher's dilemma

[I just found this entry saved in my drafts folder--I forgot to publish it during the summer. It's based on a quotation from Frank McCourt's Teacher Man, a book about being a high school teacher.]

...Had the word spread that this McCourt just rambled on and then disbursed high marks as easily as peanuts?

I didn't want to be known as an easy marker. I would have to toughen my image. Tighten up. Organize. Focus. Other teachers were spoken of in awe and fear. Up on the fifth floor, Phil Fisher taught mathematics and terrified all who came before him. The stories came down. If you struggled with the subject or showed little interest, he roared, Every time you open your mouth you add to the sum total of human ignorance, or Every time you open your mouth you detract from the sum total of human wisdom. He could not understand how any human brain could find difficulty with advanced calculus or trigonometry. He wondered why the stupid little bastards could not apprehend the elegant simplicity of it all.

At the end of the term, his stupid little bastards flaunted passing grades from him and bragged of their achievement. You could not be indifferent to Phil Fisher.

Ed Marcantonio was the chairman of the Mathematics Department. He taught in a room across the hall from mine. He taught the same courses as Phil Fisher, but his classes were oases of reason and serious purpose. A problem was presented and for forty minutes he led or urged the class toward an elegant solution. When the bell rang his students, satisfied, floated serene in the hallways, and when they passed Ed's course they knew they had earned it....

I wanted to teach with Fisher passion and Marcantonio mastery. It was flattering to know that hundreds wanted to be in my classes, but I wondered about their reasons. I didn't want to be taken for granted. Oh, McCourt's class is just bullshit. All we do is talk. The old yack, yack, yack. If you don't get an A in his class, man you're just plain stoopid.

Frank McCourt, Teacher Man

Every teacher, either consciously or subconsciously, must decide whether they want to be a Fisher, a Marcantonio or a McCourt. It's difficult to have elements of more than one type. I seem to have chosen the McCourt type as my template, and with that comes some difficult moments that make you question your choice. When a student says, "What did we do yesterday?" and you say, "We had a great discussion about _______," the student then asks, "But did I miss anything?" meaning some type of assignment. You must answer No, but how do you say to a kid, "We had a great time, and I think some things stuck in some students' heads. I may have actually taught some things yesterday the students will never forget. Your peers had some insightful comments, and I was very funny." Instead, you just have to say No and feel like an idiot, because you feel as if the absent student has sized you up, has figured you out, has branded you an incompetent in her mind. The only defense against that is the inner belief that it's not true, and some days that belief does waver.

No comments: