Thanksgiving, Day 10: A Saturday Off

One of the tricky things about being a teacher is that there is this unspoken assumption that you have no desire to be anything else.

Perhaps more than a lot of other jobs, teaching is seen less as a career than as a calling, something you do because you feel it is what you must do. Not all teachers feel that way, of course, but that is generally what we expect of a good teacher. That hard-working, sacrificing person who puts the students and the school ahead of themselves. The person who is constantly striving to contribute to their classes, to their department, and to the school at large. Possibly even to the greater educational system in which they live and work. Being a teacher means being part of a much bigger system than simply your class of twenty or thirty kids at a time, and that’s part of what you agree to when you sign up.

For the students, too, school is the center of their lives. It’s where they spend most of their time, make most of their friends, and devote most of their energy. They have clubs and sports and studies, and devote all of their energy to those things. [1] When they graduate, the friends they had here will be part of their social and professional networks for a long time, especially at a school like Ritsumeikan Uji, where most of the kids will step right up to Ritsumeikan University with their classmates after they graduate.

I don’t know how it is at American schools, but Japanese schools take this idea and run with it as far as they can. School never ends. Sure, kids have to go home eventually, but they’re reluctant to do so. Give most kids a day without classes and they’ll come to practice with their club. Give them a vacation, and they’ll still be coming to school, in uniform even.

It’s not that they love studying – they don’t, I can assure you – but it’s where this is where their lives are. And so it must be with the teachers.

As part of our duties at the school, we have occasional work on Saturdays. It’s called doyo koza (土曜講座), and it varies from week to week. One week I might be just at my desk, catching up on work. Another week I might be escorting kids to their volunteer duties at a local day-care center. Sometimes I’ll be there as part of a school event, such as entrance exams or a school festival. Whatever I’m doing, I’m doing it because that’s what the school needs done. All in all, it adds up to about half your Saturdays in any given month. When you add in club duties – brass band, in my case – that number can go even higher.

No, not this kind of Bad Teacher.

The thing is – and this is probably something that makes me some kind of Bad Teacher – if it weren’t required, I probably wouldn’t do it. Maybe if I lived closer to the school I would mind it less, and there are some school events that are definitely worth coming to. But I tend to guard my free time jealously, and not everything I do during a doyo koza day is necessarily something that needs doing. At least not by me. It does often test the limits of my creativity, in the “Only boring people are bored” sense. [2]

If not me, though, who? There’s the rub right there – there’s more to working at a school than just teaching classes, and it’s the job of the teachers to do it. I can’t shrug off my duties any more than I would expect any other teacher to do so – especially when some of my colleagues have to spend a lot more time at school than I do. If I didn’t want to do this, I should have picked up another job. It’s something I try to teach my students – there are some things you don’t want to do, yet you have to do. So make the best of it.

The side effect of all this, of course, is that it makes me appreciate these two-day weekends even more. When I have a Saturday coming up, it’s something to look forward to. Even if The Boyfriend and I don’t have plans or any special ideas, it’s still two whole days that I get to use to recharge and do those things I want to do at home. Not all of which are nearly as productive as what I would do at work, but still… If I’m going to waste time, then I’ll waste it the way I want to.

Now. If you’ll excuse me, I believe my schedule calls for a nap right now. Hold all my calls.

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[1] Though they could, perhaps, channel a wee bit more into the “studies” part.
[2] My mother used this as her stock response when we were kids and complained about being bored. As in many other things, mom was right.

On Finitude

I debated whether I should post this, to be honest. It seems like I’m letting more hang out than I really should, given the circumstances, but that’s the purpose of this blog. I may not update it as often as I should, but it’s the place to go when there’s an idea in my head that just won’t leave. And if I have to vent to someone, the ceaselessly hungry internet is as good a someone to vent to as any.

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Here’s the setup: the school I work at hires full-time teachers on a three year contract. Because it is a private school, run by a private university system, they are beholden to private sector labor laws, the effect of which is that they are allowed to let teachers go after three years with little more than a bunch of flowers and a sincere “Thank you.” The legal logistics of it are murky, of course, but the take-away is this: my time at Ritsumeikan Uji will end in April, and there doesn’t seem to be a damned thing I can do about it.

There is the matter of finding a new job and being able to remain in the country, but that’s not all that’s on my mind right now. With the sure and certain knowledge that I have a deadline, a thought popped into my head that seems vividly appropriate, but at the same time incredibly insulting: “This is how terminally ill people must feel.”

Oh, I should have been a chemistry teacher…

If you are terminally ill and you just read that and thought, “What an asshole,” I will grant that you’re probably right and I apologize. But the questions that flooded my mind seem to be the same that one might think when seeing the end of their life approaching.

Why didn’t I make better use of my time here? Don’t get me wrong – I did a lot and learned a lot and tried to stay involved with the school, but at the same time I know I could have done more. I could have gone against my nature and been more sociable. I could have spent more time with clubs. I could have taken more advantage of the school’s resources and connections to better myself as a teacher. I could have done more than I did. Why didn’t I? Because I was wrapped up in the day-to-day minutia of being a teacher. Because I valued my free time now over improvement for later. Because I was lazy and short-sighted, perhaps.

What do I do with the time I have left? If I really were an asshole, I’d just slack off. Take the attitude that since nothing I do matters anymore, then why do anything? But that is contrary to my nature – I can’t do that any more than I can stop eating for the next seven months. What I do may not amount to a hill of beans in the long term, but here and now it’s important, and it’s important that I continue to remain dedicated to it. And there is a part of me that wants to wax hyperbolic [1] and carry a bell around with me, ringing it through the halls while I cry out, “DEAD MAN WALKING!” But that would just be ridiculous.

Think of the CHILDREN!

What about the kids? I’ve taught a lot of good kids at this school, and they go beyond being good students to actually being interesting people. One of the biggest reasons I tried for the permanent position was that I wanted to have a chance to teach these kids again, and to see new interesting people emerge over the years. After three years, I was just starting to get the hang of this gig, and wanted the chance to really flex my creative muscles and find better ways to get the students both using English and interested in it.

On top of that, what do I tell them? At some point, they’re going to start asking about next year and whether I’ll be teaching their class. Do I hedge and dodge and make them wait until the end of the year, when the departing teachers are sent off to a farm upstate? Or do I tell them ahead of time? Or am I seriously overestimating their opinion of me that it would even matter to them?

What’s going to happen to all my stuff? This may sound kind of petty, and I suppose it is, but over the last few years, I’ve built up quite a body of work, lesson plans, and even full courses. I was the drama teacher, one of the few advanced reading teachers, and built the curriculum for the regular first year classes. I made an inordinate amount of lesson plans, many of which I’m quite proud of. What’s going to become of all that work? Who’s going to take over the drama class, and will they know what they’re doing? Who’s going to take over my reading classes, and will they be able to keep them interesting and fresh? Who will keep refining the first year curriculum so that the students get the tools they need to do better in their second and third years? Am I leaving all of what I built in the hands of people who will build upon it, or will it all be shoved into a cabinet somewhere to be forgotten?

Damn GPS. Every frackin’ time…

Where do I go from here? After this, what? The chattering monkey in my brain is convinced that nothing better can come along. This was a great place to work, with wonderful co-workers and facilities. And the pay was good, too. After this, what do I do? Do I go back to the eikaiwa purgatory from whence I came? Do I work part-time, teaching English to businessmen? Do I leave teaching and find something else? Will I stumble across something even better than this? Do I live with a bunch of cats in a van down by the river, eating government tofu and slowly going mad? I have no idea, and that kind of uncertainty doesn’t do me any good.

Keep in mind, though, this is just the way my Scumbag Brain works. If you’ve been following along, you may recall the freakout it had when I got this job – wondering whether I’d actually be good enough to do it, if I’d shame myself out of a career, all that. And that worked out just fine. Better than fine, really. It became a job that I deeply, deeply wish I could keep.

So perhaps this, too, will all work out for the best in the end, no matter how many doomsday scenarios I can spin out. Perhaps in a few years I can look back at this entry and marvel at how anxious I was about something that, ultimately, wasn’t that big a deal.

Let’s hope so.

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[1] As is evidenced by the fact that I’m sitting here comparing the loss of my job to dying.

Arrow. Knee. You know the rest…

As a rule, I don’t like it when bloggers start out by apologizing for not having written anything in a while. So I won’t. [1] So here’s a post about what I’ve been up to in the past… while.

No, kitty, that's my sweet roll. BAD KITTY!!

When Skyrim came out, I took one look at it and said, “Nope. This would be an unimaginably bad idea.” I know myself well enough to know that if I got into a game that immersive, that complex and that malleable in terms of how its played and how involved the player can be, it would come to dominate every bit of free time that I had. Any creative or otherwise productive thing I had going would no doubt wither away like an old fruit, left on the tree for far too long until it was nothing but a shriveled husk, good to no one.

I also knew that it was inevitable that I would play it eventually.

And I was right.

It’s a game that gets into your head and just sits there, taking up as much space as it can. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a lot of fun. There are so many different ways to play it, the world is mapped out and written to an amazing level of detail, and I will never – never – get tired of lurking in the shadows and clearing out caves of bandits with flaming arrows. That’s just more fun than I should be able to have.

But of the game itself I did eventually grow weary. At a certain point, your primary skills are too good for most enemies to challenge you, but those enemies will break you in half if you try to confront them using your less-fleshed out skills. So, as a sneaky archer I could wipe out a coven of necromancers in no time flat, but if I tried to work on, say, my destruction magic instead, they would have me for breakfast. Literally.

I seem to like the non-hominids. The implications are terrifying.

What this means is that I did eventually stop playing. I’ll go back to it, I’m sure. I have a skinny little Argonian lined up for future adventures. But it probably won’t be for a good long while.

The other thing taking up time, of course, is work. The new school year started last week, and that’s always exciting. Here’s a little fact for students: your teachers are just as nervous about the new year as you are. We don’t know who will be in the classes, what the dynamics will be, what the skill levels will be – all we can really do is plan our fingers to the bone and hope for the best. To borrow an old military aphorism, “No lesson plan survives contact with the students.” Once you’ve met everyone, then you can start figuring out what will actually work for that given class, and hope that you can find the best way to teach them. It’ll involve some trial and error, but that’s part of the adventure.

This makes perfect sense to me.

Things are off to a good start, though. I mainly teach first year students, fresh out of junior high school, and that’s a really interesting opportunity. It’s a chance to help them set their study habits and their learning methods early on, so that you don’t have to break them down again in the years to follow. Some of them are still eager to learn and be part of the class, although it is about the time where that teenage ennui sets in and the last thing they want is to be seen actually enjoying something that isn’t sports or pop culture. Starting from the first class, I try to get them to understand what I want to achieve in the class, and what I expect from them, in as clear and simple a way as possible. We’ll see if it works.

Pictured: Not a valid assessment technique.

As an aside: one of my teaching bugaboos is when students don’t understand things, but don’t tell me that they don’t understand. As if I can mind-meld with them and find out what they’re having trouble with. Often, they’ll turn to their classmates, but there’s no guarantee they can help either. So I spend time during the first couple of classes going over the basic comprehension phrases with them:

    Could you speak more slowly?
    Can you say that again?
    What does ~ mean?
    I’m sorry, I don’t understand.

And so on. Every year I try to get them to understand how very important this is to their learning, and this year my phrase is this: “If you do not understand me, then I have failed.”

Not entirely true, of course. It could be that they weren’t paying attention, sleeping, chatting with friends, thinking about football practice, whatever. But I’m giving this strategy a shot in the hopes that its novelty will catch their attention. Teachers are supposed to be the ones who know everything, the ones who are In Charge. The idea that a teacher could fail might just reduce the intimidation factor just enough to allow them to ask for help when they need it.

Or not. We’ll find out.

Other than that, though, life is life. My mother sometimes expresses frustration because we don’t email often enough [2], but she knows that it most likely means that everything is copacetic. Not every day is worth a blog post or a phone call or a long, drawn-out email. That’s what Twitter is for, and I’m pretty quiet even over there.

If, on the other hand, North Korea actually gets a missile that works, you’ll be hearing from me in no time flat, don’t worry about it. And I have a few ideas for some more blog posts that don’t amount to, “Hey, so I haven’t written a post in months…” [3]

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[1] Except that I just totally did.
[2] And I’m sure she’s not the only one.
[3] See what I did there?

You Get Nothing! You Lose! Good Day, Sir!

Pictured: Teacher of the Year

I had an interesting interaction with a student the other day that got me to thinking, which is always good, though it did send me down a mental rabbit hole for a little while. Which is not so good. Unless you consider that it inspired me to write a blog post. In which case it is good.

See? This kind of thing happens to me all the time…

We had a recitation contest this past week, wherein first year students would have to memorize a text in English and deliver it with some amount of oratorical skill. This year we had a section from the memoirs of Helen Keller, an old folk tale, a couple of speeches from Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” and John Lennon’s “Imagine,” among others. Lots of kids prepare for it, and from among them, eight students are chosen to compete in the final.

So, I was talking to one of my first year students about this, and while he had tried out, he hadn’t made the cut. He said that, in response to not becoming a finalist, he had been called a loser.

Now, before we get all knicker-twisty, let’s put in a couple of caveats: this kid does tend to humorous hyperbole when he can. Moreover, I don’t know what Japanese word the other person actually used, to say nothing of the nuance of that particular word in Japanese in that context. On top of that, what I heard was a translation of that word by someone with an imperfect grasp of the subtleties of English. So let’s not get into what an awful human being this other person may or may not have been, mainly because that’s not what I want to talk about.

"As always, Bob, your feedback is invaluable."

What I suspect, given all of the above, is that the student in question – who has in the past displayed quite the competitive streak – probably knows what “loser” means, and regardless of what the speaker may have meant, I suspect that this student believes he might be one, and the thought chafes at him. I reminded him that there were only eight spots available, that not everyone could make it, and if he’d tried his best, then… Oh well. So it goes. Not everybody gets to be a winner.

That thought dovetailed nicely into the work I was doing with my advanced reading class (which he’s not in, which is a pity). We did Harrison Bergeron, a dystopic story by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. about an America where everyone is forced to be equal in every way so as to eliminate competition and the hurt feelings that come about from seeing someone who is better than you. It’s a great little story that we had a lot of fun unpacking [1] and is often brought up in situations where people are rewarded for effort over performance.

It’s the little league games where the losing team is given extra at-bats to make up for a low score, or a spelling bee where everyone gets a prize of some kind, or a school where there is no such thing as a failing grade. There is incredible tension between the need to treat kids fairly and the desire to keep from breaking their spirit. We want to make sure that skill and accomplishment are rewarded, and at the same time make sure that each precious snowflake gets their due.

(from Despair.com)

I thought about that as I was telling this kid that I was sure he tried hard and that was the most important thing. That he shouldn’t consider himself a loser, but just accept that there were at least eight people who were better than he was. This thought unfolded like an origami flower in my head, probably because I can’t just leave any damn thing alone.

At what point do we stop praising effort and start expressing disappointment in poor performance? How can we help students understand the difference between constructive failure and failure brought about by laziness? Should the teacher be the unforgiving rock against which a student dashes himself, or the compassionate guide that encourages her to find her way?

Or are all of those just false dichotomies, over-broad generalizations that cannot apply to every student and every situation that might come up?

I have no idea, really, other than to use the cop-out answer of “all of the above.” Some kids will flourish when they’re praised for trying hard. For them, success will just be a by-product of effort, and the real reward will be the recognition of that effort. Other kids won’t be happy until they’ve “won,” whatever that means to them. To these kids, praise for effort will be empty and cloying, and will be of no help whatsoever. Different students need different things, and it’ll take a lot more years under my belt than I have so far before I’m able to pinpoint the best strategy for any given student.

Tell me you didn't live for these when you were a kid...

I seem to be of the effort-praising school of thought, and that’s usually how I deal with my students. I don’t like to point out their failures as failures, but rather as lessons for improvement. If a kid makes a mistake in class, I thank them for the opportunity to teach something that not only they need to learn, but probably several others do as well. I prefer means to ends, and process to product, and I think I reflect that in my interactions with students. Not every student is going to benefit from this, but it’s the most authentic way I know how to be.

What I was able to get out of all this, however, was a working definition of the word “loser.” It is a person who has failed due to a conscious and obvious lack of effort. Someone who has, in effect, lost a competition to themselves. If this student had indeed done his best, and despite that did not reach the finals, then he is not a loser. He just hasn’t won yet.

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[1] Well, I had a lot of fun. I can only hope the students did as well.

Can you homosexuality?

So I came out to one of my classes yesterday.

It really wasn’t something I expected to do, certainly not in the lesson plan, but when that ball starts rolling there’s really very little chance of stopping it.

Here’s how it worked out: we were practicing some basic can/can’t, could/couldn’t language. We talked about some famous people – Salvador Dali, Albert Einstein, for example – and what they could and couldn’t do as children. Then the students had to ask each other questions – “When could you…?” or “What could you do when you were…?”

All well and good, and then I had them ask me questions since we had some time left and I needed to fill it. I got “When could you teach English?” and “When could you cook?” And then… “When could you get married?”

This question, or some variant of it, comes up from time to time, and I first correct the grammar – “When could you get married?” – and then tell them that I’m not married. This is usually followed by “Eh? But… Ring! Ring!” They point to the ring I wear on my left hand, given to me by The Boyfriend a few years ago.

And this is where the dilemma starts. I don’t feel comfortable sharing that part of my life with my students. Approaching that boundary between the teacher/student relationship and the human being/human being relationship is awkward to me, and I would rather preserve the distance in order to do my job better. I know other teachers do it differently, and that’s cool, and I don’t want to be a featureless placeholder to them. I need to be human enough so that they’ll enjoy the class, but not so human as to distract them from what’s going on.

It makes sense in my head. Really. I swear.

At the same time, I can’t lie about it. To do that, to say, “Oh, yes, my wife. She’s lovely. Moving on…” would be an insult to The Boyfriend. I told him, and he was surprised and, I suppose, flattered, even though he would find it hard to do the same thing. With his colleagues, he has chosen to avoid the issue as much as possible, and if that means making a few… embellishments so that they’ll change the topic, then so be it. My overriding sense of honesty, however, won’t let me do that.

As for the students, they probably get lied to enough as it is, and I don’t want to be a part of that if I don’t have to. They’re growing up, and someone has to start treating them like adults, if only in a few small ways.

On top of that, there is what I believe to be the ethical responsibility of someone in my position – a gay man with some authority and standing amongst a group of young people who are still developing their moral view of the world. I know that I have a chance to expose them to a gay person, to let them know that we are real people, which may help them be more tolerant and accepting of gay people in their future. What’s more, statistics suggest that there are probably about 50 gay kids in this school, and perhaps knowing that there’s at least one teacher like them will help them get through this tough time in their lives. I don’t expect them to start hovering around my desk from now on, but I hope that, when word gets around – and it will – there’ll be a few gay kids who can at least say, “Well, he’s gay and open about it and doing okay. Maybe I can deal with it too.”

All this shoots through my head, creating a cognitive block so that all I can really do is answer the questions as they are fired at me rather than just open my mouth and explain the whole thing. Am I divorced? No. Is it fashion? No. Is she dead? No. Is it another man’s wife? Hell, no.

Finally, one of the boys asked if it was a woman or a man, and laughed at the ridiculousness of the idea. I told them that was the key question, and that was pretty much that. They asked if I was serious, the girls thought it was the coolest thing in the world, and I had to let them all kind of freak out for a minute before I ended the class. To my relief – but not surprise – no one really got upset as far as I could tell. And the Alphas in the class seemed cool with it, which is the important thing.

Any remnant of a lesson plan that I had was pretty much out the window, so we ended early.

I’m not afraid of anything, certainly – my colleagues all know, and no one has blinked at it. And I think I’ve built up enough of a rapport with my students between last year and this year that even if they have a predisposition against gay people, they may find themselves wondering if they can maintain it against someone they know and like.

It was just a very strange way to end my day, and I figured I’d share.

UPDATE (22 October): The other day, one of the Alphas came up to me as I was preparing the whiteboard for the lesson and said, “Can I ask you something?” And my answer to that is always, of course, Yes. So he stood next to me, and in kind of a stage whisper asked, “Are you… gay?”

Given the above, I figured he’d either forgotten about it or just not taken it seriously at the time. So I said, “Yes I am.”

“Really?”

“Yup.” And I continued writing vocabulary up on the board. He turned around and said to his friends, “Yes.” And that was the last I heard about it.

Until some of the girls asked what my favorite color was, and seemed shocked that it wasn’t rainbow. TV has a lot to answer for.

I wanted to take him aside after class and ask why he asked me, but I didn’t. Somehow I figured that it wasn’t the right question to ask – at least not then and there. So we’ll see how things work out.

Of course, MY students are perfect….

There’s been some news going around the teaching blog-collective about one Ms. Natalie Munroe out in Pennsylvania. The reason for this is that she posted on her blog a list of comments that she felt would be more appropriate to some of her students, rather than the canned “Lacks motivation” or “easily distracted.” She came up with a list that she felt was more accurate, which included such comments as:

“Frightfully dim”
“Rat-like”
“Am concerned your kid is going to open fire on the school”
“I hate your kid”
“Seems smarter than she actually is”
“Just as bad as his sibling. Don’t you know how to raise kids?”
“Dresses like a street walker.”

Among other things.

It looks like basically a teacher who had reached her breaking point and decided to vent years of frustration all at once. Of course, she has been suspended from her duties as a teacher, and has become the center of a media circus, with defenders and detractors on both sides. Those who have her back say that there is too much of a burden placed upon teachers to be selfless, unflawed people whose only thought in the world is the betterment of their charges. When a child succeeds, the parents pat themselves on the back. When the child fails, they blame the teacher. Add to that the huge entitlement issues that come from a generation of kids who all got gold medals just for trying hard in gym class and you have a whole lot of pressure as a teacher just to keep these kids awake in class, much less to try and teach them anything.

On the other hand, there are those who wonder why, if she has such strong negative feelings towards these kids, she is even bothering to be a teacher at all? Obviously she’s not enjoying her work, and the teacher who doesn’t like what she does is not going to teach very well. Clearly she needs to find a career more suited to her temperament. Besides, perhaps the reason the kids aren’t learning from her is that they can sense her disdain no matter how she tries to cover it up. They know she doesn’t like them, and the feeling is returned in spades.

Here’s where I come down on this: Every teacher has thought the exact same thing about their students at one time or another. Any teacher who says, “Why I just love each and every one of them!” is a liar. Maybe they’ve wiped their memory clean of the bad kids, but I guarantee there has been at least one student in their career who generated fantasies of a burlap sack, some bricks and a river.

But you just can’t say these things. Not because you have no right to say them – of course you do – but because it will put you in a river of shit. Comments like this made by a teacher reflect badly on the school and on the other teachers who work there. After all, unless she’s a lone sociopath, it’s highly likely that there are other teachers in her school who think the same things about the same students, but still manage to slap on a fake smile before every class and pretend they care about how each and every kid is doing. Teachers are held to such a high standard that we are not allowed to air our true feelings in a public forum, lest those true feelings contaminate everyone else. And all it takes is one angry parent, one call from some kind of community group or – gods forbid – a lawyer, and the teacher who was just having a really bad day can find herself out of a job.

And you know what? It really isn’t fair. Exhibit A: www.ratemyteachers.com

This is a site where parents and students can rate their teachers in terms of easiness, helpfulness, clarity and popularity, and then leave a comment. I looked up one of my old teachers, one that I rather liked, and found comments such as:

* “Can be a real jackass when you get on his bad side.”
* “Okay teacher. Knows his stuff, but he’s a little to into himself and doesn’t seem to understand that students have lives too. He can put on a big tantrum and thinks his word is that of god.”
* “…sometimes he’s extremely disrespectful to students”
* “hes got an attitude he should drop it”

On another teacher I had and liked immensely:
* “Plays favorites like a 10 year old baseball coach.”
* “Prone to little fits. Only really pays attention to kiss-ups”

On a teacher I picked randomly whom I have never met:
* “one of the most insanely idiotic classes I have ever had. At no point in his rambling, incoherent class was their anything even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought.”
* a bullshit buddhist ******* who needs the stick pulled out of his ***”
* “creepy. went for extra help and he’d only talk to the girls…”

This, of course, is an egregious double standard. Students and parents are allowed to heap whatever kind of public abuse they want on teachers, who just have to smile and take it. When a teacher turns around and does the same thing, they get suspended, possibly fired. Thanks to the anonymity of the internet, people feel free to say the things that they would never say to a person face-to-face, and so have no problem loosing all kinds of vitriol against teachers. [1]

But gods forbid a teacher should let loose about what he or she feels. This is even though, unlike the teachers on Rate My Teachers who are being called out by name, Ms. Munroe stays very general and never names the students in question. As she says in a blog entry responding to this situation, “When my boss makes a general comment about something at a faculty meeting that is pointed at certain individuals but not all of us, I don’t sit there and think, ‘I can’t believe he said that about me!’ I know if it’s directed at me or not. I ask myself, ‘Are these things that I do? No? Then it must be for someone else.'”

Likewise, if you’re a parent and you don’t know if your kid is probably one of the ones she’s talking about, then maybe you need to start paying more attention to your kid.

It’s absolutely unfair, and not just to the teachers. Students need to be told when they are screwing up. They need to know what kind of behavior is appropriate and what is not. They need to know that what they’re doing is not going to lead in any way to a better life, and if that means a teacher resorting to direct language, then so be it. In addition, parents have to be relieved of this myth that their children are all perfect little genius angels. As much fun as it is to try and shift the burden of raising your kids onto the shoulders of a low-wage public school teacher, the fact remains that you are the parent and you are who is ultimately responsible for raising a decent human being. If someone has to slap you upside the head from time to time so that you remember that little fact, then that’s what has to happen.

I would truly love to see a “Rate My Students” website go up, available only to teachers, where they could post candid comments about kids and their parents. It would make my heart sing…. [2]

All that said, however, I still think that Ms. Munroe did the wrong thing. Yes, it’s not fair, but as Grampa said in The Princess Bride, “Who ever said life was fair? Where is that written?” The fact of the matter is that a teacher just can’t say those things in a public place like a blog. The current educational paradigm, wherein all teachers must automatically be selfless saints whose only concern is for the betterment of their students, is harmful and unfair, but that’s how it is. If you really can’t get through the day without telling someone what schmucks your students are, that’s what paper journals are for. Write down everything, put it in a drawer, and feel better.

Once you’ve done that, you go back to work and try to focus on those reasons why you chose to be a teacher. Take note of the kids who thank you for helping them, who improve with hard work, who come up with well thought-out observations and answers. I felt a warm glow in what passes for my heart when I saw that some of my students had added the books we’d read to their favorite books on Facebook. Cherish those kids and know that there are far more of them than there are of the bad ones.

Still, maybe we need teachers like Ms. Munroe to take one for the team so that people start to think about what being a teacher is actually like. In her new blog, she writes:

“While I never in a million years would have guessed that this many people would ever see my words, and I didn’t even intend them to, I stand by what I wrote and think it’s good that people are aware now. There are serious problems with our education system today–with the way that schools and school districts and students and parents take teachers who enter the education field full of life and hope and a desire to change the world and positively impact kids, and beat the life out of them and villanize them and blame them for everything–and those need to be brought to light. If this ‘scandal’ opens the door for that conversation, so be it.”

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[1] As an aside, Ms. Munroe’s page on ratemyteachers has comments ranging from “No respect for students. Evidenced by her recent blog post scandal” to “Props for speaking her mind. Aren’t there more than our fair share of students here who feel and act a bit too entitled? Stop b****ing and start working with your teachers….”

[2] A comment from The Boyfriend made me wonder if we will ever see a TV drama about high school from the teachers’ point of view. Other than “Welcome Back, Kotter,” nothing is coming to mind….

Reflections on a Conference

One of the things that my school does for its new teachers is to encourage them to go out and see the wider world of English Teacherdom. In this case, it meant sending me to the JALT 2010 Conference here in Nagoya. For those who don’t know, JALT is the Japan Association for Language Teaching, one of the biggest such groups in Japan, and its national conference draws tons of people as presenters and participants. There are companies selling books and resources, professionals peddling their wares and their curricula, and lots of people trying to steal ideas from each other. Good fun.

Having more or less finished with the conference (there’s still a half day to go tomorrow), I am of two minds.

There were certainly a lot of creative ideas around, many of which I will be taking back with me. I went to workshops and talks on error correction, writing, the use of humor in the classroom, and the use of logic puzzles. I saw a production of Henry IV which gave me some ideas for my drama class, and picked up some books which, while they may not be entirely helpful right now, should definitely be an advantage in planning for next year. So, from the practical side, it was a worthwhile event.

But there’s a social side to it as well, one that I’m less comfortable with. Lot of people seemed to know each other, and I knew barely anyone. Two other teachers from my school went, but one stayed only for Saturday and the other had to go back today. So by the time the big old wine-and-cheese, backslapping, Irish pub music hootenanny started in the evening, I knew basically no one. And all I could think about was getting out of there, away from the camaraderie and the shop talk and the forced cheerfulness.

I’m sure they’re all nice people and all, but overlaid on top of my natural dislike of socializing and meeting new people there is a general feeling that I’m not really one of them, despite having spent over a decade teaching English in Japan. These are people who can use phrases like, “establishing the pedagogical effectiveness of negotiated interaction” without skipping a beat or, as I wanted to do, giggling at the ridiculous level of buzzwording going on. Speakers threw out names and the titles of articles as though it were a given that I should know who B. Laufer was and why his work on passive and active vocabulary would be valuable to know. They passionately debated the benefits and drawbacks of student evaluations as though that argument would decide the issue once and for all.

I just wanted a few new tricks to use in the classroom.

So, it’s 8:30 in the evening on a Sunday night, and I’m where I was last night and Friday night – in my hotel room. Because despite being one of them, I don’t feel like One Of Them, and the idea of trying to infiltrate my way into that crowd just strikes me as futile and desperate.

It’s not you, JALT. It’s me.