Inspiration


I got a mailing quite a while back about an interesting professional development opportunity: a workshop entitled Teaching East Asian Literature in the High School, held in July at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. It sounded like a cool opportunity: pay $60 registration fee; receive a set of books to study and discuss (via Moodle) before the workshop; get put up for 5 nights with a free meal each day, study East Asian history and literature, and learn pedagogical techniques for the material; get a $300 book grant for producing a lesson plan on some of the material within 5 weeks afterwards. A great opportunity for a world literature teacher, I thought.

The problem: limited opportunities. And I happened to call just after they had filled their 25 seats, so I went on a waiting list.

But the good news is that I was informed this morning via E-mail that I had been given a placement because someone else dropped out. So I’m going now, and I’m quite excited. This will be my first professional development opportunity not provided by our district or regional office, and I’m glad to have it.

If you want a quick three-word description of what my life feels like lately, look at the title and you might get what I’m saying. (The Easter egg might also help, if you see it.)

Most of this feeling is unrelated to teaching (and is generally stuff that I wouldn’t want to spill on an unsuspecting and largely indifferent reading audience), but the sudden realization I had yesterday that there are only three weeks of school left before Christmas break most certainly is related. Ooh boy.

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I’m in the midst of grading autoethnographies, and I’m taking this very short break from grading to reflect on one specific paper. (After I finish with them, I intend on returning to the assignment to gauge its efficacy and my efficacy in teaching it.)

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I had an epiphany today, rather suddenly. It happened to me in the middle of teaching one of my sections of sophomore English, and I have no idea where I came from. I thought,

This is my job. This – this is my job.

But it doesn’t feel like work…

It was an exhilarating feeling, just that realization that what I’m doing is my job. Not like student teaching – that was a job, but nothing that I felt was my real job, the one that would provide money to support my family. And I had a “real job” in between, so I had even forgotten to a degree what it was like getting up every day to go to a school and stand in front of a group of students and attempt to help them learn something new.

That’s my job?

Seriously, I know that teaching is tough, and I am under no pretensions that I am going to feel like this for very long. But I still think that this job, despite the effort that I do really have to put into it, is so satisfying and natural to me that even all of the work doesn’t wear me down like “real work” does. It really is a calling (just as vocations ought to be, in the spirit of the original Latin), and I am thrilled to be answering that call.

Teachers –  do you feel this way about your job? Even after the days of difficult students, trying moments, failed inspirations, and the burdens of a less-than-ideal system, do you find yourself realizing that this is a natural feeling?

I am not in the greatest of spirits today, not because my classes went horribly – they really didn’t – but because they were dull. I mean it – I know I probably would have been bored if I had been sitting in my students’ place, and that doesn’t encourage me.

Some of the material is just harder to work with. I decided to start out with Native American creation myths with my juniors, and I admit that I haven’t had very good instruction planned. It’s been planned but not well – I just don’t have the kind of inspiring stuff that I want.

I’m not in bad shape, though. Everywhere I turn, I hear more evidence that the last teacher set the bar really low, so much so that it came back to me that some of my students have reported learned more in the last week than they learned with my predecessor all last year. (That’s probably unfair, anyhow.) I don’t honestly consider it a compliment as much as it is a statement of my current non-failure. It’s also not a statement of success, either.

I guess maybe this is somewhat like what I’ve been told the first year will be like; one teacher told me that he suggested to his dean that refunds be issued to his first class of students, and I’ve heard that the first two or three years help establish your “groove” in teaching. Okay, I’m not going to argue with experience on this one. Nevertheless, I wanted – and still want – to do better than the normal first year; I want to thrive, not simply survive.

That’s easy to say and hard to practice.

As always, I wish I had an easier solution to go from uninspiring to inspiring – hard work and more (and deeper) reflection, I guess. And maybe I should feel good about the fact that I don’t feel good about my teaching; awareness is not the problem, even if I struggle (only in the tiniest sense) with apathy.

Has anyone else ever felt like this during the initial stages of teaching? It would be great to hear that I’m not alone on this. Otherwise, I’ll just have to keep on pressing forward with the assumption that this is just the path I need to traverse.

Join me for this innovative and highly educational webinar at…okay, perhaps not. Probably, if I could fully demonstrate how to do inspiring things with an uninspiring curriculum, I wouldn’t be blogging about it here. (Then again, maybe there’s a philanthropist in me somewhere – after all, I’m not in teaching for the money…)

I think most teachers, at least in the early rosy-eyed days of their careers, want to inspire students. (Some teachers may have lower expectations about how many students will realistically be inspired: the student who is inspired by integrals or conic sections might be rarer than the student who is inspired by the poetry of Emily Dickinson or the fiction of Kate Chopin.) Yes, education is our primary goal, and of course we want students to develop greater academic prowess, yadda yadda, but I think there’s a deep part of us – the student part – that remembers (if it has happened to us, and hopefully it has) being inspired by teachers to love literature, language, history, the human body, nature, chemical reactions, etc., and that “inner student,” until it is stifled by the outer cynic, sits on our shoulder whispering, Hey, you make these kids feel the awe of what you do. You gotta make them understand why you love what you do. Be that teacher.

And we all start out wanting to be that teacher. We know what good teaching is from having had good teachers, and (as an education professor of mine uncontroversially pointed out) no one goes into teaching wanting to emulate the awful teachers they had.

Okay, that’s good – make the students understand why you love what you do. But what if you aren’t inspired by what you’re going to teach?

I found out last night that I was having trouble finding my own Muse for a course as I was planning the first week of classes. (I find that poetry writing and lesson planning actually aren’t all that different – you have to have a grand vision, direction, and some creative drive in addition to the structure and execution of the thing. At least, you do if you want to be inspiring…) With all of my classes, I started off saying, “Where is this course going in the long run, and what would be the best way to get us started thinking about it?” For my senior world lit, the answer was culture; we will be doing an autoethnography project in the first few weeks, and there is a lot of analysis of our own cultures to get us thinking about how culture and literature intertwine. For my sophomores, the idea was to invoke universal themes, facilitated by my (somewhat) inspired idea to have students discover the sort of themes that emerge through a more approachable medium for them: songs. (Think about themes that transcend musical genre: Do we only hear about unrequited love in country songs?) Even for my juniors (perhaps the most difficult of the three), the idea of challenging notions of what makes literature “American” provides a jumping ground into Native American creation stories.

And then I got to my novels course and thought, Wait, what direction do we have? We’re reading a bunch of mostly unrelated canonical novels…

And my inner student whispers, Hey, just because it’s an elective doesn’t mean these kids don’t deserve to be inspired…

And I wonder how I will find my Muse in material whose only substantial connecting thread is the length of the works.

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Like so many things in teaching, I don’t think there is an easy answer to my proposed idea. It’s hard enough to inspire even a majority of students with the most inspiring material – some students just aren’t easily impressed – but doing it with a lackluster curriculum presents an additional handicap. Maybe there’s a reason why the wizened cynic starts shouting down the inner student; maybe it’s easier that way.

All I know is that there’s an insistent voice still urging me on, and the only thing I know how to do is to listen – and think.