Friday, October 16, 2015

A Teacher's Motivation


For my graduating class, it's nearing the end of our undergraduate education. We're more than halfway done, almost through the first five semesters, and it's nearing the point where people are getting bored with their major. Some are failing out. And we ask these people, "So what do you plan on doing now?" to which we receive the disturbing response, "Oh I don't know. Probably just teach."

As an Early Childhood Education major, I don't meet many guys. If I'm being completely honest, I often only meet one type of girl: an overly-hairsprayed, heavily makeup-ed, yoga-panted sorority girl who "just loves kids!" Not that there's anything wrong with sorority girls; I know plenty whom I love and adore. But when asked why we want to be a teacher, "I was failing organic chemistry," and "I love kids!" is not good enough. Personally, I love to dance, but that certainly doesn't qualify me to be a professional choreographer. I love clothes and fashion, but I am not called to be a fashion designer. Instead, I sit back and appreciate the work done by choreographers by learning their dances, and enjoy the work of fashion designers by wearing their clothes. The same is true with teaching. Just because you have a passion for children, or even for education, does not mean you must (or even should) be a teacher.

I am greatly troubled by the comments most of these ladies dish out.

"I can't wait to have every summer off for the rest of my life!"

"Oh, this job will give me great benefits. I wouldn't have these benefits in other professions!"

"I love teaching because I get to hang out with kids all day!" 

As the daughter of a teacher, I have a newsflash for these women. Our summers will be filled with lesson planning, classroom organization, faculty meetings, professional development opportunities, and preparation for the upcoming school-year. We will get the same benefits as every other state employee, and would receive better benefits if we obtained a career on the federal level. And we do not, in fact, get to "hang out" with kids all day. We have a very important job to educate them. It is our job to ensure that they learn what is expected of them in a timely and effective manner. Their progress is on our shoulders, so God forbid you decide to teach because you got a degree in something else and your career never quite took off. "Oh well, if it doesn't work out I can always teach," is not (and never should be) an acceptable reason to become a teacher. Educators arguably have the most important job in the world. We train the future doctors, engineers, and business owners. Our career is no back-up plan.

When asked the ever-present question "Why do you want to be a teacher?" I am prepared with an answer. To make a difference and to leave my mark on the world are too cliché, too common, and far too vague. The truth about me is that I struggled quite a lot in school. But let's be clear on one thing: in early elementary, I loved it. I looked forward to going to school every day; talking with teachers, doing projects with friends, and of course, playing outside for recess. I was a great student, and helped out the teacher when and where I could. I was the name left for substitutes; the name that was never written on the board for misconduct. Once, I even tutored my classmates while my teacher led a reading lesson because my scantron was graded wrong on the Benchmark test. I didn't need remedial math, and ended up teaching it to my own peers!

I wish I could say that spark of learning would last forever, but, like all children, I grew up. Very few students maintain their eagerness and enthusiasm to learn as they move into higher grades. There are fewer activities, too many lectures, harder content, and far too many ridiculous rules. I even had a teacher that wouldn't let us turn in a research paper we'd worked a month on if we hadn't stapled it by the time we walked through the door!

By the time I reached sixth grade, I had my first true struggle in school: timed multiplication tests. We had a sheet full of multiplication tables with only a minute to fill it out. My teacher had a rule she considered to be motivational. "We will do these every Friday. But... Once you pass it, you don't have to take it anymore!"

Easy enough, right? Wrong. From the moment the timer clicked on, I was in panic. My face would grow hot and I would begin to sweat. My lungs did not function normally, and I had to remind myself to breathe. My hands would shake and I would always be at least two rows from the bottom by the time the alarm went off. "Time!" my teacher would call, and I would sit back in my chair defeated. It wasn't that I didn't know my multiplication tables. I'd known them for years and tutored my own classmates on them! But I could not, for the life of me, write them all down on a timed test.

As promised, we did those tests every Friday, and once people passed, they didn't have to take them anymore. About two months into the semester, everyone had passed...except, of course, me and about three other people. The four of us took those tests for several weeks with everyone watching. We never passed, and eventually, my teacher made us stop doing them. I guess she just gave up.

Little did I know, the physical and emotional swing I had when a timer was set is recognized in the psychological world as test anxiety, and it would not end with multiplication tables. Any time I was presented with a test that we were only given a certain amount of time on, my flushed face and hyperventilation would strike again. This follows me even today.

Suddenly, it was time for high school, and "a talented mind like mine should be in the AP program!" Or so they said. I even knew a school counselor who told his students that they could take regular classes if they wanted to "flip burgers for the rest of their life," but "anybody who wanted to be somebody would enroll in the AP program." I was never really one to believe that, but I had a different motivation. My strong suit was English, and I wanted to take an AP English class. However, the AP English class was linked with an AP History class, which I wanted nothing to do with. I'd never been fond of history because it had never been presented as anything overly enjoyable, so I really didn't want to torture myself with that. But everyone said, "You're smart! You'll be fine!" So I took that blocked class of AP English and AP U.S. History, and to this day, I consider it one of the worst decisions of my life.

As expected, the AP English portion was fine. I wrote good essays and participated in class discussions over books, poems, and short stories. But when presented with the history information, I seemed to be a lost cause.

My teacher was pretty much a witch (for a censored title), claiming that she would be willing to help anyone with questions, but she never seemed to have all that much help to give. She would grade our notes and get angry if they weren't the way she wanted. My mind clearly worked differently than hers from the very beginning and my notes were never the way she wanted them to be, so she gave me an F on all my pages. So naturally, I began attempting the notes like she wanted them. No surprise, I got an A on the notes and failed the quizzes because I couldn't follow my notes. She would put you on the spot to answer questions, and if you gave an answer that stimulated discussion but wasn't the answer she wanted, you wouldn't get credit for the discussion. She would go around the room and quiz us orally in front of the rest of the class, which gave everyone anxiety, not just me.

The biggest problem I had, however, was (as established previously...) testing. I told her at the beginning of the year that timed tests scared me, and if she would just allow me to stay after the bell for a few minutes, that I would be fine. I told her I would probably always finish before the bell if I didn't feel I was under any pressure, but she would not have it.

"The AP test at the end of the year is timed Bethany," she told me, "I do what I do for a reason."

Then I asked the unthinkable. "Well, do I have to take that test?"

She stared at me with a cold expression for a long time before taking a breath, and laughed, "Well it would be stupid not to. The school pays for it and it will give you college credit for the class."

So I busted my butt. I studied hours each day for every test and always scored about two points under her passing mark. I was in there for weeks taking makeup tests until I passed one. I never passed any of them.

So one day at lunch, out of complete desperation and stupidity, I approached her for help. She had the audacity to ask me, "Are you really studying?" and I wanted to punch her in the face, but I swallowed my pride and said, "Yes." I continued to tell her all the ways I'd studied: re-reading each chapter, reviewing my notes, taking practice tests, writing songs, creating alliterations, and even acting out scenarios with stuffed animals in my room to remember the order of events in wars and scandals. By the time I got all this out, she was clearly stunned with my creativity and work ethic, but certainly would not show any sign of being impressed with a girl who could not even pass her class. Instead, she said, "Oh. Well. You're still young and your brain isn't fully developed at age sixteen. Maybe you just aren't to a point where you can answer this level of a question."

I was stunned. Now I had test anxiety and an underdeveloped brain? I just snatched my test back and said, "Yeah, maybe that's it," and walked out.

Looking back, I remember paying a fee for that AP test at the end of the year, so the school did not, in fact, pay for it. And you only got credit for the class if you passed the test, which, to no surprise, I did not. It was all for nothing. To this day, my teacher still smiles and speaks to one member of my class (a National Merit scholar who scored a 5 on the AP test) and doesn't give me a second glance. As if I ever got a first one.

I often wondered why she decided to become a teacher. I couldn't possibly think of a worse career for her to choose. Then, I discovered an article about her in the school newspaper. When asked, "Before you decided to become a teacher, what did you want to be?" she answered, "A child psychologist." It was that day I learned that things could always be worse. At least when she wounded me I was a teenager with a decently strong sense of self confidence. I hesitate to consider what she might have done to a poor child.

I vowed to never take another AP history class again. I finished the next year with an A+ in both AP English and regular World History. My world history teacher is one of my favorite teachers to this day, and I have no regrets at all about that class. Senior year, however, I found myself in both AP Literature and AP Government. I'm still not sure how I was convinced, but the AP Gov teacher was supposed to be very good, so I never argued.

The teacher was a fat, old, retired lawyer. He signed every letter the "Old Bald Fat Guy." I loved that class. It was engaging and I actually participated in discussions even though I was often clueless. Even when I said something completely wrong, he would take the time to ask questions that steered me the right direction until I got it right. He was shocked when I failed the first test. I, at this point, was not.

I had given up on myself. I was prepared to cry through my studying and fail all my tests, as I had done in AP U.S. History. But he was genuinely concerned. He called me in for a meeting one day during lunch and said, "Bethany... I was very shocked to see this."

He handed me my first graded test with a big fat F on the top. I just looked up at him. Why? I thought to myself, I'm stupid. Don't you know that? 

"You're a very hard worker and a good student," he said instead. I was shocked. "What can I do to help you?"

I started crying on the spot. To know that an AP teacher (that wasn't my English teacher) believed in me and had faith in me was more than I could handle. I hadn't expected it at all. The rough old lawyer brought me some tissues and waited. I never had to tell my story. He knew there was one there. People like me don't just wake up one day and decide they're stupid. Something had to have convinced me otherwise.

I got to stay after the bell on test days if I wasn't finished, but I always was. The pressure of the time limit was lifted, so I was able to organize my thoughts in a timely manner without panic. Still, government was not a high subject for me, so he tutored me once a week during lunch. He even gave me a blank notecard to use on tests to cover up parts of the question (to identify what it was really asking) and to cover the answers until I'd formed my own in my head.

I didn't get any A+'s or anything; he's a teacher, not Jesus. But I did pass every test. Even the AP test at the end of the year, and didn't have to take Government in college. It, in contrast to my decision to take AP U.S. History, was one of the smartest decisions I've ever made. I use his test taking strategies even now, and credit him with my success. That Old Bald Fat Guy turned out to be one of my biggest heroes.

So what was the difference between these two teachers? Their motivation. Their attitude towards their job was different. The first teacher thought she ruled the world. The second teacher recognized that he was teaching the generation who would one day rule the world, and thought they should be educated accordingly. The first teacher had incredibly selfish motivation (I later learned that the school gets paid more for every passing score on the AP exam, which was the reason she pushed her students so hard to obtain one), but the second teacher was genuinely concerned for his students. As far as he was concerned, they deserved the credit.

Both educators are my motivation to become a teacher. I strive to be a teacher just like the Old Bald Fat Guy, and strive to show students that teachers do not have to be like my AP U.S. History teacher.

Kids have to go to school. They are forced to attend. But teachers are responsible for their attitude towards learning. Teachers have control over whether they love or hate coming to class. I sincerely hope no one else has ever had a teacher suggest their brain was underdeveloped, but everyone has had at least one experience to prove that the teacher is what makes the difference between a wonderful and miserable school year.

It is naïve of us to state that education is 100% about the kids. Teachers also work to make a living and support their own families, not to mention the laws and limitations that prevent them from meeting individual students' needs. But a teacher's motivation should not be themselves. Our salary is not big enough, our benefits are not good enough, and we work more for free than any other occupation with our lesson plans, grading papers, testing, and professional development. We are paid as teachers, not as mothers, advisors, therapists, or referees, when the truth is: we do it all.

We've heard it before: We are not in this for the income, we're in it for the outcome.

Because the kids deserve it. They are worthy of a good, intriguing education. They should be excited to learn. They deserve to have a chance at enjoyable learning and we owe it to them.

If your heart is not in education, you should choose something else. I promise, no one will be offended. Students, teachers, parents, and administrators are all counting on you to be the absolute best you can be for your students, and you can't afford to let them down. You don't get the choice to fail. It's not an option. After all, this never really should've been about you anyway.

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