Right now, about 3/8ths of a year into my teaching career, feels like a valley.

You see, I’m at a frustrating point where I have a decent idea of what I should do (at least in general terms) to improve my teaching immensely…but it’s just not happening, and the blame for that is entirely on me. It’s like seeing an object and reaching your arms and hands outward, outward, short of the goal, and falling flat on your face — because you haven’t taken the few steps forward to put it within reach.

Okay, so maybe “falling flat on your face” isn’t quite where I am yet. But it feels bad enough.

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The catalyst for this whole mood for me is multi-layered and starts something like this:

In my senior English class, we finished up debates today. They have been surprisingly good, for the most part, and despite some problems, I think the students did a decent job of defending their positions, even the students who argued positions that they did not necessarily believe in (and there were a few of those; I had warned them that it might happen because of the mere logistics of the debate).

I have one student, however, that decided that it wasn’t worth coming to help argue for their side of their issue, leaving the other two members to pick up the slack. And this is the second time this student has bailed on a group for a presentation, which makes me think the excuse of being sick (despite pretty good attendance otherwise) is a load of bull.

Thinking that approaching this student myself might not be the most effective way, I went to talk to another seasoned teacher who has expressed a great fondness for the student. We discussed the problem, particularly that failing to participate will almost inevitably result in a failing grade given this student’s lack of effort on the assignments that are completed, and we decided that it might be a good idea to talk to him together.

I thought we had mostly worked things out for that situation. But after school, prior to a meeting, this same teacher caught me in the teachers’ lounge, grabbed another fairly experienced teacher, and said to me (paraphrasing here): “Let’s have a chat.”

I expected this to be about the same student, but I was dead wrong. Instead, the teacher (we’ll call her Mrs. S) named off several of my seniors and asked me if these were the students I was having problems with. It honestly caught me a bit off guard, and I clarified which ones I really thought were giving me grief and which ones were tolerable enough not to be real issues.

Come to find out that Mrs. S seems to be implying that there is some problem going on with my senior English class…which had not been my impression, really.

Says Mrs. S, “I think the problem is that the seniors don’t think you like them.”

I sit mostly in flabbergasted silence; I am quite fond of the vast majority of this class.

“And,” Mrs. S continues, “I think I might have an idea – the kids have made comments about you not standing during the Pledge of Allegiance.”

(If you hadn’t yet guessed that I teach in a rural school, I imagine all doubts are gone from your mind now, dear reader.)

That the seniors have noticed this fact is not a surprise to me – they have brought up it up briefly in class, although I brushed it off in order to make sure that debate happened on schedule – but I am having difficulty with this as an issue.

This gets into a tricky spot for me: on the one hand, I have a policy about not disseminating too much of my personal opinions in the classroom because I want to make the classroom environment open to any opinion that can be reasonably held and argued. Yes, there are plenty of educators out there who insist that this is a wrong-headed idea (James Nehring is one), but I haven’t found any compelling reason to override this desire for ideological neutrality. I don’t divulge my religious beliefs, as much as is possible, and neither do I see any reason to divulge other opinions that aren’t relevant to the discipline itself.

But if Mrs. S is correct, then avoiding any confrontation of this issue will be counterproductive.

Still, I am absolutely frustrated by this development. I think my reason for not saying the pledge or standing during it is valid – I don’t see the necessity in having to affirm my support for the government when part of my role as a citizen is to look at the government with a critical eye, and I see my loyalties as something loftier than to a government anyway, despite the fact that I would likely never contemplate anything other than constitutionally protected action against my government – but I find it a bit exasperating that my opinions here have to be put on trial (which is itself a bit ironic, given our work with debates right now) and that there will likely be a great deal of social pressure to conform to this practice of at least standing. I don’t want to conform to that, since I’m the “adult” in the classroom and would like to set my own example based on my own convictions.

I’ll probably end up raising the issue myself tomorrow, if it doesn’t come up on its own (since I won’t be standing or saying the pledge), and if I can, I’ll try to connect it to what we’ve studied in our discussion of debates. But there is still a sense of defeat for me in having to give in to this.  I guess it comes with the territory, and it should be a good thing to introduce some more diversity of opinions into the class.

I don’t know. It just felt like another thing to come down on me at a moment when I don’t feel all that confident in what I’m doing, and from a teacher, no less. I couldn’t have been oblivious to something like this, right?

And so I walk through the valley of the shadow of doubt, hoping that I will grow a little more sure of what I am doing in this whole matter and a little wiser in the process.

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