{June 8, 2009}   Being a teacher

Some time ago, I came across this text by Frank  McCourt, who at almost the end of a thirty year career teaching in the New York City public high schools,  related the following conversation he had with a beginning teacher:

“A young substitute teacher sat beside me in the teacher’s cafeteria. She was to start her regular teaching career in September and could I offer her any advice?

Find what you love and do it. That´s what it boils down to. I admit I didn´t always love teaching. I was out of my depth. You´re on your own in the classroom, one man or woman facing five classes every day, five classes of teenagers. One unit of energy against one hundred and seventy-five units of energy, one hundred and seventy-five ticking bombs, and you have to find ways of saving your own life. They may like you, they may even love you, but they are young and it is the business of the young to push the old off the planet. I know I´m exaggerating but it´s like a boxer going into the ring or a bullfighter into the arena. You can be knocked out or gored and that´s the end of your teaching career. But if you hang on you learn the tricks. It´s hard but you have to make yourself comfortable in the classroom. You have to be selfish. The airlines tell you if oxygen fails you are to put on your mask first, even if your instinct is to save the child.

The classroom is a place of high drama. You´ll never know what you´ve done to, or for, the hundreds coming and going. You see them leaving the classroom: dreamy, flat, sneering, admiring, smiling, puzzled. After a few years you develop antennae. You can tell when you´ve reached them or alienated them. It´s chemistry. It´s psychology. It´s animal instinct. You are with the kids and, as long as you want to be a teacher, there´s no escape. Don´t expect help from the people who´ve escaped the classroom, the higher-ups. They´re busy going to lunch and thinking higher thoughts. It´s you and the kids. So, there´s the bell. See you later. Find what you love and do it.


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