The greatest thing about being a teacher is that you get to keep doing it. No matter how badly or well a lesson or a schoolday goes, there’s another coming after it. So you get another try.
The second greatest thing about being a teacher is that what feels like failure often is, in part or full, a secret success. Often, the best response to kids’ having no idea what you were talking about yesterday is to say it again today.
My first feeling of getting through to my crazy 7th grade homeroom my first year teaching occurred when I grabbed a lab out of one of the New York State Standards books, something about using the way different weights of pendulums and the length of the string, affected the period of oscillation, where the kids were supposed to get the idea of varying independent variables to influence a dependent variable.
The lab was a disaster, the washers we were supposed to use as weights for the pendulums flying in back-and-forth projectile volleys across the room. Arthur and Jose, bored with the worksheet on which they were supposed to draw a picture of their experimental design, had set up one barrier with a stack of textbooks on one side of the room, Jeffrey and Danny D set up their own on the other, and reenacted something like the Battle of Austerlitz using handfuls of the small washers. One handful went astray and plinged into the back of Joeni and Sharon’s heads, the two girls who had, with iron concentration, completed every stupid lab sheet and every asinine textbook assignment no matter how much riotous nonsense was going on in the back of the room, no matter how sidetracked by writing names on the board or the section sheet and yelling at people to get back into their chairs their incompetent teacher became.
In this case, Joeni brushed the washers out of her hair, stood up, turned around, narrowed her eyes, and quietly said something unprintable to the boys in the back of the room, and then sat back down. Sharron had continued timing the oscillation of the pendulum without stopping.
The bell rang, and the class tumbled out of the room, leaving trampled-on ditto sheets, the strings of floss we were using as the rope to the pendulum, and shiny washers all over the floor.
My usual response to this kind of successful pedagogical experience, for the first several months of the school year, had been to spend an hour or so cleaning up the classroom, head home feeling like I’d been run over by a bus, fall asleep, and wake up in the middle of the night, planning furiously another lesson or lab to make up for the three to six periods of failure that had gone on the day before.
But this time, I just decided the lab had been too complicated, so I cleaned up, made some new dittoes of the same lab handout, and did the exact same lesson again, telling Joeni and Sharron (who rolled their eyes at having to complete the same activity they had done perfectly well the first time) to come up with new independent variables to try.
And so again, and again, until the fourth day there were 32 kids standing silently by their chairs watching the little pieces of floss oscillate back and forth and timing how long it took, and answering pretty coherently when you walked around and asked them what was the independent variable and what was the dependent variable in each of the experiments.
The point isn’t that this was great pedagogy, or that they were lucky to be in my 7th grade science class versus any other. It wasn’t and they weren’t.
No excuses, no regrets, is (my jazz musician uncle once told me) the essential artistic attitude. Being happy in failure, and being happy that what looks like failure is a partial success, and being happy to go home and then blow your horn another day.
At the end of my first year teaching, the night of the last day of school, I went with some friends and fellow teachers down to Coney Island, where we rode the ricketty wooden Cyclone and ran into the water with our clothes on. The first year was done, and nothing could be harder. In my own case, the second year was harder, more dispiriting and humiliating and depressing. But I got to hang on and teach another year, and another, to keep doing it until, by my own lights, what we were doing was really worthwhile.
As the saying goes, parents send their best to school- they’re not keeping another, better, set of kids at home. The first day of school has its own awkwardness- the kids and adults sizing each other up, the kids, especially in middle school, wary of each other’s potential cruelty and the unpredictability of adult whim. Eventually, though, the classroom becomes familiar if not always comfortable, and for better and worse, everyone’s true personality comes out.
In a world of impersonal neighborhoods and virtual work, school is the most important in-person community in many people’s lives, for parents as well as kids. I live in the kind of community that Charles Murray described as “Belmont” in Coming Apart- the kind of well-educated and well-employed small town where social norms have in some ways changed little since the 50s (almost all the parents are married, and many of the moms work part time or not at all). If anything, more of our identity has shifted to the kids’ lives, and so today, my own kids’ first day of school, many of us put the kids on their school bus and then drove over to the school to watch them meet their new teacher for the first time, and then turned around to greet again our more impersonal, less real adult lives, relieved that the summer was over and we could stop worrying about where our kids would spend the day. Life remains stable and pleasant if anxious in Belmont-style America.
The roller-coaster of the school year tugs itself slowly to the top, and then sits for a moment before it will rush downward and forward, like a washer on a piece of string, a pendulum that will swoop back and forth, our oscillations that someone, somewhere, can watch and time and count.