Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Happiness and Teaching

Yesterday I wrote about a young teacher who was happy when she ate lobster. Today I'm going to look at something a little broader--what exactly makes teachers happy? That's a tough question, because there are a lot of variables. I know a lot of unhappy teachers, and the reasons for their unhappiness are varied, with some more valid than others.

I like my job a lot, and I feel blessed for that. I'd like to share this happiness, but it's very much about circumstance and point of view, so I'm not always able to do it. It's a little easier to give students optimism than it is to give it to adults. Because I'm happy with my work, I try to show students they can be too. I try to show them that they have choices. That's important to me. Alas, it's not important to the politicians who make the laws, or the bureaucrats who regulate my work.

For example, I wrote a few days back that I will be rated based on the NY State English Regents scores of six beginning ESL students. This is awkward because my main role is not to teach them whatever it is they do on the English Regents this year. My main role is to teach them to speak, understand, write and read English. If that means teaching them, "My name is ___________. What's your name?" then that's what I do. I want them to be happy here, and it's hard for me to see how they do that if they can't communicate.

If I were to judge myself by the same standard the State does, I'd be very unhappy indeed. I do not expect those six students to pass that test, and I will not waste one minute of my time or theirs preparing them to do so. They will pass that test when they are ready. I judge myself differently. Little things kids say to me mean a lot.

I have had one girl in my class for a long time. She arrived toward the end of the 2014-15 school year. In 2015-16, she didn't manage to pass my tests, and was very quiet. This year, for some reason, she started talking. She started making jokes. In fact, she recently went out and got herself a job as a cashier somewhere. I congratulated her, and told her how happy I was with her progress.

"It's great to see you speaking English like this, " I told her. "How did it happen?"

"I don't know," she said. "I was surprised too."

But it was her time. I may or may not have had something to do with it, but regardless, I'm very happy about it. This means a lot more to me than some test that measures things she may or may not know, and may or may not be ready for. It took her a little longer than many to acclimate herself, but she's here. And she knows I'm her friend. I'm happy to go in and support her every chance I get.

It's hard to rise above what's expected of us. I suppose I could research the English Regents and teach it to my classes, ignoring the over 90% of students who won't be taking it this year. Maybe I could cram for the NYSESLAT and make sure all my students went to the next level of English, whether or not they actually merited it. I could have them bone up on Hammurabi's Code so they could more easily answer the stupid questions about it, should they ask them for a third year in a row. (Perish forbid the geniuses who take all our money should write new tests each year.)

I see new teachers discouraged. I see them leave. Some of them, particularly those who work for vindictive and short-sighted supervisors, are afraid to even talk to me. I guess if you make it your mission in life to meet standards designed for your supervisor to more rapidly advance himself to principal, you're always going to be disappointed. This is particularly true if your supervisor is not all that bright, and won't get any better even if he becomes principal. Then you'll be working on making him superintendent, thus further surpassing his level of incompetence.

It's problematic when your happiness means nothing to your supervisors and you judge yourself by how closely you meet their expectations. I expect nothing from supervisors, have not done so for years, and I am never disappointed by them. I've been lucky in that I haven't had a crazy supervisor in several decades. This notwithstanding, I never judge myself by what crazy people think of me. That's an impossible standard.

Most of my energy at work comes from my students. As far as I can tell, they are who I work for. Of course getting along with your supervisor can make your life easier. I write an aim on the board. I always have a lesson plan. I could probably work just as well without either, but I don't need the hassle, and I particularly don't want other members having issues. (Maybe that's selfish. As chapter leader, every time anyone else gets in trouble, I do too.)

I haven't got a magic formula for happiness. I try to judge myself based on factors other than test scores. If the painfully shy girl smiles despite herself and I see it, I think I'm doing a good job.  When I manage to make a kid come to class on time with zero confrontational episodes, I think I'm doing a good job. When I see glimmers of a kid who hated school liking it, I think I'm doing a good job. I can't precisely put my finger on how I measure myself, but I can assure you it has nothing to do with test scores.

I'm also pretty happy since I let go of fear. I don't know when that happened. Maybe it was when I started writing. Maybe it was when I stopped caring who knew who really wrote the blog. But fear is useless. I've seen members refrain from reporting outrageous supervisory misconduct because they were afraid of repercussions. Guess what? The repercussions came anyway.

I did manage to put a bad supervisor behind me in the early 90s. Because the Spanish teacher always threw students out of class and I never did, she was going to make me teach all Spanish. I'm certified to teach Spanish, but English is my first language and I love teaching English. I don't know how I'd manage happiness if I hadn't grabbed that chance to transfer, back when there was a UFT transfer plan instead of the ATR. Given what happened to John Adams, I'd likely be an ATR right now, and that would not make me happy at all. Nonetheless, my friend Chaz has molded a very positive attitude into being an ATR and made it work for him. I'd hope to be able to somehow do the same.

Chaz looks at the absurdity inherent in his position and embraces it. Maybe that's something you have to do wherever you are. But one of the saddest things I ever hear is when a five-year teacher tells me how lucky I am that I can retire. For one thing, I don't want to retire. More importantly, I see a person who has to put fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years or more into something she wants to leave right this moment.

We've gotta work on that for ourselves, for our colleagues, and for our students. Maybe it's a long and winding route to happiness. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be looking for it.
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