Difficult Work: Oh, Let Me Count The Ways

Teaching is bloody difficult work. And don’t let anyone give you that romantic drivel about the three months teachers have off every year as an argument that teachers have some kind of cushy existence. I’ve seen the sticker, and even though it contains a kernel of guilty truthiness for me, I philosophically abhor the message: “The best thing about teaching is June, July and August.” The summer break is not part of our contracted work year; i.e. WE DON’T GET PAID FOR IT. What is done, though, conveniently enough for those of us who are not great at financial planning, is that the pay teachers receive for approximately 180 days a year is very nicely divided up equally into 12 installments, one for each month of the year. So it appears, and even feels like we’re getting paid for that time. But we are not. We are, through most of June, in July, in August, and through parts of December and March, for all intents and purposes, unemployed. There’s this, though: we know we’ve got a job when the unpaid vacation’s over. You won’t see teachers standing in the unemployment line during their summer breaks, unless they’ve been laid off, which is an ugly reality in our current economic crisis. Even with secure jobs, many teachers find it necessary to work on their months off teaching summer classes or building fences or remodeling bathrooms or painting houses. I don’t do this, as a general rule. I don’t need the money (a bald-faced lie), and without the time away from teaching I would likely go off my rocker. Right now, in fact, I’m paying someone to do the painting (the fact of the matter being, that I need the money to pay the painter, and the mortgage, and the rest of the bills, and the groceries, and the college fund for my five year old son).

Now that that’s out of the way, let me see if I can pin-point just a few characteristics of the work that make it bloody difficult. Let’s first talk about one of the greatest human mysteries, in general, yes, but especially in relation to teaching and learning: Motivation. Here’s a scenario first, a scenario that I experience, perhaps, 60 percent of my time spent inside of a high school English classroom. My students, more often than not, are trying to prevent me from doing my job. My job is to teach them English; their job, as they understand it, is to stop me from teaching them English. I tried to think about this. What other profession experiences this kind of resistance from their ‘clients’? Soldiers in a war–that was my most ready comparison. In the war with Iraq, the soldier’s job was to liberate the Iraqis, but there were Iraqis by the thousands trying to stop them. Thousands of Iraqis who would rather not be liberated, thank you very much. Similarly, there are thousands of students enrolled in public schools who would rather not be educated. And I don’t have any firearms. That makes the job difficult.

I think it’s an important question. What makes young people uninterested in something that can only be a good thing for them, if we accept the premise that public education is indeed a good thing for them? Part of it is ingrained in our youth culture. Let’s begin with some broad generalizations: Teenagers are resistant to authority. They are resistant to adults telling them what to do or what is good for them. They are resistant to working very hard on intellectual endeavors. They would much rather play. They would much rather be entertained or be entertaining. They would much rather watch t.v. or listen to music or text their friends or play video games. They just want to have fun. And somehow, they have traditionally found less compelling this business of learning to use their minds and develop skills of intellect. They are children still, for crying out loud, big children.

Now, I’m betting that many of my top students would find exception with all of the above, and rightfully so. I have students in my classrooms every year who’s intellectual curiosity and drive far exceeds what my own was when I was their age. They are brilliant thinkers and scholars and they are motivated intrinsically to learn as much as they can and develop their skills to the fullest extent. Sitting right beside them, however, are others who do very well in school but are clearly motivated by externals: approval or money or gifts or love from parents, grades, another bullet on the resume, college entrance requirements, etc. We call them “hoop jumpers.” I prefer the intrinsically motivated scholar, and, while I have grave doubts about the efficacy of the hoop-jumpers, I find them for the most part a pleasure enough to have in class. At least these students have found a reason to plug in. But the majority of my students are not like either of these, scholars or hoop jumpers.

For various and sundry reasons, the majority of my students are unmotivated in the extreme, distracted in the extreme, disadvantaged in the extreme, so much so (for an alarming number of them), that their failure in school, or at least their failure of taking full advantage of their education, is almost a forgone conclusion when they come to me as freshmen. I don’t believe it’s a foregone conclusion, but these are the setbacks many of them are dealing with: They can barely read. They can’t write. They have abysmal social skills. They do not trust or respect adults. They don’t respect their peers. They have drug and alcohol issues. They are homeless. They are learning disabled. At 14 they believe they have no memories of their childhoods. They are tired. They have ADHD. Their parents are divorced or divorcing. One of their parents is dying from cancer. They are unhealthy, morbidly obese or dangerously skinny. And looking at them, all 200 of them, it is nearly impossible to know which of these characteristics are true for any one of them, except for those characteristics that I can directly observe or those the special education department or a counselor or a parent or a student informs me of, and even over the course of a year, when one of a teacher’s primary goals is to “get to know students” (really, a kind of joke when you think carefully about it—not the goal but the logistics of accomplishing the goal), I couldn’t tell you with any kind of authority, except for the fact that Peter didn’t do any of the work, why he failed freshman language arts! If you are a caring individual, these things make teaching bloody difficult. I haven’t even scratched the surface.

Let me pose the super-duper million dollar question: What motivates students? And what do you do when students have none of that stuff?

Perhaps, I’ll attempt a response to this question in my next missive.

Published by michaeljarmer

I'm a public high school English teacher, fiction writer, poet, and musician in Portland, Oregon

6 thoughts on “Difficult Work: Oh, Let Me Count The Ways

  1. I would agree with you that it is terribly difficult work and hard to figure out, but you are asking the right questions and doing the right things. In my HS days, I would put myself in that “at-risk” group that you described in a number of respects…some of which are still challenges today. It was people like you who tried to reach out, without hope of tangible results or rewards, that turned the tide for me.

    While the “distracted culture” is likely spreading, the roots are firmly American. In Europe and Asia, intellect is respected and stupidity is not. I remember many times being left out or treated as weird because I grasped concepts that my classmates did not (even as part of the “at-risk” crowd). That wouldn’t have happened in most other countries. I dumbed down my outward behavior to adapt and fit in. Not much has changed in those 30 years.

    You will not be able to tell from your vantage point who you are reaching, but you are reaching more people more deeply than you realize. I wish I had the wherewithal to do the same. My request is that you keep teaching those kids as if you were making a difference because, at a level that you will never quantify, you are.

    1. I appreciate this a great deal. This anti-intellectualism rampant in our culture is maddening and disheartening. I highly value your perspective on this. Thanks for reading, sir.


  2. Thinking these thoughts, in my own way.
    Did you get a chance to watch the RSA.org video, then?
    A student has been inspired by their mode of delivery to create a similar effect with our document camera. He’ll us the approach to capture, then present his insights gleaned from our Transcendentalism unit; I’m looking forward to it :-).

  3. It’s tricky really. I’ve tried to explain to my non-educator friends who cannot fathom why I’m so tired everyday when “I get off at 4pm for goodness sake” that teaching is less like the picture of the schoolmarm at the front of the blackboard…it’s more like the food fight scene in Animal House. One of my friends who came to pick me up and take me to the airport at lunch one day finally got it. “I’ve never seen someone pulled in so many directions all at once and still able to stretch that far!” Teaching is like performing in a three-ring circus, except you are performing in ever ring at the same time. (Ok, I think 3 metaphors ought to cover it…yikes). That seems to be how I keep their attention…dancing and singing and acting like a crazy person. Once I have them hooked I spoon feed them tidbits of knowledge covered in media.
    My favorite quote from a student of ALL TIME was after teaching a Hip Hop Poetry unit to incarcerated boys. One kid shouted out after the exam, “HEY! You tricked us! I thought we were just listening to rap…you made me learn!” (he said it with disgust, but it felt like he had given me the Congressional Medal of Honor!)
    Maybe that’s the answer. Trick them into learning?

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