An English Teacher Does The Math

Teaching is like this:  I can never get it right.  I will never feel like I’ve mastered the craft;  I am always learning it.  If I think for a moment I’ve mastered it, I’m a fool.  There will always be days when I feel unstoppable and totally effective followed by days when I am sure I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.  There are more days like the latter than the former.  What I learn if I am paying any attention at all is that there are smart things to do in a classroom and dumb things to do in a classroom.  I try to avoid doing the dumb ones but for some reason I do a certain number of them over and over again.  I believe the following statement:  teaching is one of the most complex social interactions ever undertaken by a human being.  Think about the sheer mathematics of it, and thus, come to understand the profound opportunities that exist for making mistakes.

At home, you have a relationship with your roommate or your spouse and your units of children.  In your job you have a relationship with your boss, your coworkers, and your clientele, which, for the most part, you deal with one at a time.  These are all complex social interactions, don’t get me wrong about that, and I know, these are gross simplifications.  But consider this:  I have interactive relationships with my teaching colleagues, a close relationship with my two teaching partners who share students or curriculum with me, and with the department of English which number about 10 more individuals, say.  For ten of the twenty-two years of my tenure in my high school, I was a member of a committee called a Site Council, an elected but voluntary position which put me on a panel of about 18 individuals made up of an equal number of teachers and parents, an administrator or two, a few classified staff (secretaries, assistants and the like), and a couple of students, whose charge it was to meet a couple of times a month, a few hours at a stretch, and to facilitate staff development and school improvement for a facility serving about 1400 students and staffing about 50-some teachers.  Working closely with this group over a three year commitment, our job was to make the school a better place and to make everyone in the building happy.  In short, considering only my peers and colleagues, already the job is chock full of extremely complex social interaction.

Okay, then there is the issue of these 200 students of mine, which, truth be told, has always really hovered for me between 150 and 170 (the day has passed when contractually English teachers were limited to 125 students—that language that was dropped from the contract altogether).

All of these kids have parents or guardians, sometimes multiple sets of them.  This potentially creates another 300 to 400 relationships to negotiate over the course of my work year.

But when I walk into a classroom, 6 times over the course of my teaching schedule over two days, I am faced with about 30 warm bodies and the expectation on both my part and theirs, not to mention the administrators who hire me or the taxpayer who pays me, that I will make something happen.  Now this is where the real complexity begins.

I have a body of knowledge with which I am supposedly conversant.  Let’s see, we’ll call it the literary survey of the United States of America and the United Kingdom, from, say, about 800 a.d. forward, all major periods and movements, current trends in contemporary literature, the new research in that field to include oppressed and suppressed literature (from women and people of color) throughout history, and a general knowledge of the ever mutating multicultural cannon from around the world.  I should also be conversant in the current trends in educational theory and practice and be able to incorporate those into my classroom work.  Oh, and then there’s this simple matter of teaching young people to write well, or, at least, competently, which, after 22 years in the profession, I’m still not convinced is even possible.   So the first part of my relationship with these 30 kids (x6) is to communicate to them somehow something of what I know and what I believe they need to know in a way that is engaging and meaningful.  If that were it, teaching would be a piece of cake.  But every kid in that classroom has his own agenda.  Much of that agenda is usually counter to mine.  Additionally, every kid in that classroom has a unique perception of who I am and what I’m about, as I have of her, as she has of the kid sitting next to her, and that kid has of her and of me, as all kids have of each other and the group as a whole and of me, and as I have of the group as a whole, with all of its various and sometimes contradictory needs and desires and levels of skill and academic readiness.  It boggles the mind.

Ultimately, as I believe I am teaching the whole student and not just that part of him that writes or decodes symbols on a page, something of a relationship is an important part of the mix.  But what happens in a room of 30 (x6) students is that I end up getting to know only a few of them well and sometimes for the wrong reasons.

I get to know the names of the trouble-makers and clowns first by necessity. And then I continue to devote far more than a fair share of my time and energy to their shenanigans.  There are two or three of these in any given class in a good year, but it’s important to note that just ONE of them can cause monumental disruption in a classroom.

I get to know the ones that are socially really needy, who want to talk to me or have my attention as much as they possibly can and tell me things I don’t want hear about their mothers and their aunts and the boil on their grand daddy’s ass.  I get maybe two of these in every class.

I get to know the ones that are precocious and sharp and outgoing, the ones I can always count on to speak when no one else will speak or who are just highly motivated and play the game of school very well and turn in all of their work.  There might be four or five of these in a group of 30.

I’ve counted 10 students there in a class, generously, that I will potentially get to know much better than the other 20 in the room.  Of course, there are skills that we pick up or intuit to prevent these 10 kids from totally derailing our attention and hi-jacking or dominating our classrooms, tools for drawing out or getting to know the silent majority.  But they are subtle skills that require a masterful handle on the management of large numbers of adolescents in a single room that I wager not very many human beings and not a large number of teaching professionals ever get a handle on.  So it is a constant battle to avoid ignoring the vast majority of the students in my room, let alone get to know them all in any significant and meaningful way, let alone allowing them to know me in any significant and meaningful way.

It’s not very sophisticated math, I’ll admit, but the most difficult things about teaching in a public school setting have to do with sheer numbers—numbers of relationships, numbers and various kinds of interactions, the complexity and unreliability of human behavior times 200, numbers of preparations, numbers of names to learn, numbers of minds and lives to access.  And next, in another blog entry, I think, because it has its own set of mathematical and pedagogical and philosophical problems, I’ll try to deal with the most difficult number of all: the number of papers to grade.

Published by michaeljarmer

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

4 thoughts on “An English Teacher Does The Math

  1. I have to admit that the very idea of getting to know 30 people in a room at the same time terrifies me. I always did wonder how a teacher could possibly read that many 5 page papers and have something intelligent to say about every single one of them. Looking forward to that one!

  2. I just took a mini-mental break from that next topic–the papers to grade–to read this. Thanks again for reaching out through cyberspace to be connected with all of us. Often it is that connection which recharges for the moment and allows a fellow teacher to re-center herself for the next task in this list of goals and minutiae that is the academic year.

  3. Try it in a class with 45 students. That’s how many are in my advanced-level 9th grade and 11th grade classes every year. Of course, the low-level classes only have 20 each, which definitely helps.

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