I have a 4th-year HAVO class. They are not a particularly angelic class. They are are noisy, bratty, entitled, bored and generally teenagery as any other. They are not little sweethearts but a couple of days ago I got to see their best side.
Ron, a blond lanky 17-year-old boy, was escorted, late, into my class by a deputy head.
When she had left he burst into tears.
Apparently there had been an incident on the playground and there had been police. He might well be temporarily expelled. He was utterly devastated. I did not ask what had happened. I just asked him if I could help and offered him private time so that he need not feel embarrassed in class. What happened next was striking.
There was no mockery of his tears. Both boys and girls clustered round him to comfort him. They hugged him and offered kind words. Rufio, the big tough kid with the seriously harsh home-life went and sat next to him and talked to him quietly, "Don't worry about being expelled for a couple of days. It happened to me. You'll be OK.". I stepped back and gave them room to be compassionate and accepting as a group and gained a new respect for them.
Apparently we have finally turned that corner. In some places and some times at least, boys can be vulnerable and be comforted by other boys and girls. Whatever else goes sideways in this world, this is going better than it did when I was a child.
This is what people are really like. Their first impulse is compassion.
(Privacy note: nowhere in this blog or elsewhere do I use the real names of my students)
Let me tell you what all teachers know and never mention because it is so very obvious. Kids are kids.
Arun is uncertain, but nobody can do a sum in his head faster. He was stellar in primary school, but abstraction is hard.
Lena is two pages ahead of everybody, gets distracted and draws. She is so fast she sometimes skips the detail....
Eda has a hard time concentrating with a group around her, she can wear headphones and check in with me. She is also a huge anime fan, so I draw pictures on her.
Marijn has the worst handwriting and a really hard time getting his super-fast reasoning down on paper.
Rupert is working so hard to catch up and his parents are divorcing. Dad, does not give him a chance to do homework.
Maryam is devastated because her beloved great grandmother died. She can take her test later.
Gert dresses like "Off the Wall" Michael Jackson, down to the one fingerless glove and will drop mathematics as soon as he can, we are making sure he can maintain a 6.
These are real kids that I teach. They are various colours, genders and they have, as yet probably, no idea what kind of person they fall in love with. I give them hell if they do not do their homework and take a moment with them to listen, when stuff sucks, despite their best efforts.
Diversity is the state of nature. It is something an organisation has to actively work to avoid, it is part of what makes my job awesome. There is no need to "tolerate" or "encourage" diversity. It just turns up. You just need to accept that kids are kids and adults are just larger kids.
I just got back from a funeral. At my age funerals are to be expected, but he was four years younger than me and a lot fitter, so I was not expecting to attend this one.
I went to a funeral and had some beers, because he was the kind of person who would appreciate you sticking around, meeting the other survivors and having a few beers. Thoughts occur.
There is a process of loss that you have to grow up enough to handle and which is so very much a part of growing up that it almost defines it. As you get older, the world that you considered fixed and entirely yours either ceases to exist (where the hell did the technology of my childhood disappear to?) or becomes the property of interlopers. That last part is crucial. There is a scene at the end of the Brat-pack film "Saint Elmo's Fire" where the teenage protagonists go back to the student bar where they used to hang out and find younger versions of themselves sitting at their table. They understand that this is no longer their space and move on. That happens to me all the time and it will happen to all of you
and that is fine.
The first reaction is negative, because those toys were mine, that space was mine. My children were born there and I grew up on that street. I pretty much invented being here and doing that. We come to believe that we own things by simply having made use of them, having celebrated crucial moments of our lives there. We expect that bond to last forever, but of course it does not. The young, foreign and different will inherit everything that you currently think uniquely yours, change it in ways you cannot envisage and become, as you once were, trapped in believing it theirs alone.
The world will roll on and you will not persist,
and that is fine.
At the funeral were hordes of people that cared about the person I knew as a colleague. He was gone and all that remained were his children and photographs
and that is still fine.
So we should, as always, seize the day for we will not persist and very little that we know or believe to be ours will remain. That is our nature and understanding that is what makes you a grown-up.
The article I link to at the bottom states a profound truth (so read it), but to defuse the clickbait, the "Better Question" is "What struggle do you love?" because dreams that do not involve sustained, often painful, effort are just vacuous fantasies.
We all want to be rich, fit and famous, but only the people who actually LIKE making the harsh efforts involved in becoming those things get them. It is not just a matter of "wanting it enough" because that kind of determination or grit will last a month at best. Then you will no longer have the volition, the willpower to force yourself to stick with the strict diet, exercise regimen, painstaking political manoeuvring, massive work-week, or impoverished artistic struggle that your dream requires.
Only by liking the effort, by enjoying the process can you sustain it.
I like teaching. I even like the difficult classes. I enjoy battering against a sea of indifference and teenage cool. I enjoy hammering out a relationship with a volatile crowd of people who are not like me at all. I loathe the admin, but I stick with it because of the surrounding awesome.
Something in me persists despite failure, complaining parents, chaotic school environments, huge cultural adjustments and many, many hours of preparation, marking and administration. Sometimes I falter and doubt my vocation, but it always seems to bob to the surface and inspire me again.
Just that one moment when a troubled teenager feels a little more capable. That suffices.
It is really, really hard. But I like the struggle, so the vast wealth and fame of being a secondary school maths teacher shall be mine.
And that shall suffice.
So the tiny blond firstyear in my maths class will be represented by Chiyo from Azumanga Daioh. Chiyo started the year hoping I was a friendly teacher and gradually got disenchanted with maths, because it seemed hard. I have been working on boosting her self-confidence and last week I was fighting an uphill struggle.
The kids had to do a standard test: form-filling on a computer. Schools buy in these things as a metric, a way of judging the progress the children make in a year. The trouble is that many of them are badly made and inevitably you end up giving a test to children that is about things they have not learned yet. That is a bad thing. That is a way to crush a child's confidence without any academic value added.
Chiyo cried bitterly during the test, so I wrote a note for her to take home that said in strong terms that the test she had taken was no reflection on her abilities and hard work. It was a dumb test, but the whole class had to take it. That cheered her up a bit and this last week she has been putting up her hand and giving a lot of good answers. I have been giving her a bunch of air-time and sometimes turning to her when someone else did not know the answer: "Well I think Chiyo knows. What do you think the answer is Chiyo?"
So today she was asking about a problem with angles and as I sat down next to her I said: "I think you can actually solve this one. So when I work it with you, I bet you need to boop your own nose because you actually already know how to solve these." Chiyo looked at me seriously and agreed to my terms. We worked it and it dawned on her.
I raised an eyebrow and she solemnly booped her nose.
I finished up with "I think you are pretty good at maths Chiyo, but sometimes you get a bit uncertain. Good work."
My day is good.
One of the fabulous things about being a teacher is that it mercilessly slays your preconceptions and prejudices. The Slayer this week was a girl in a headscarf with a name like Asrar.
I teach Maths in HAVO, which is the second highest form of secondary education. I teach group 4, which is about 11th grade in the US and my group 4 classes are either A or B level maths. The "B" level is harder, more hours and essential for anyone heading for a technical/scientific career. Going from 3rd year Havo into Maths B means that you got a good maths mark that year and that the maths teacher supported your choice. Asrar is one of a number of my pupils who did not come from 3rd year Havo. They transitioned up from the rung below HAVO, which is called VMBO in the Netherlands. Making that upward step is hard, particularly in mathematics, particularly to B-level maths.
Asrar has also been hard work for me, because she is way behind the class and often asked that most impossible of questions: "I don't understand ANY of this." She is generally quiet, but sometimes tetchy, all the way in the back of the class in a headscarf and often locked in conversation with her best buddy. I had privately formed the idea that she and her bosom friend were not very bright and not going to make it and end up failing back down to VMBO. So the other day, when the class was playing up and in the middle of if Asrar pulled a "I know nothing" I said in my preachy teacher tone (because sometimes I suck) "well it would help if your had gone to the remedial maths lessons as I advised you to do".
She got really righteously cross with me.
She had gone, from the first day. She was trying. She had even, from her own money, bough last-years (3 HAVO) maths book to practice from. I could see it on the desk. Asrar was angry and close to tears and I was truly deeply shamed. So I apologised from the roots of my soul and did the only thing I could to make up for it. I sat down and one-on-one worked through the problem she and her friend were stuck on. She was now only eight pages behind and obviously working hard to catch up. We worked the problem and as I we did so I realized that she was stuck because the assumptions built into the problem (it implied, but did not say explicitly, that you would solve with with calculator functions) were invisible to her. She did not expect to need to use the calculator because as far as she knew, this was yet another chunk of algebra the VMBO course had not taught her. She was stuck because she came from a different educational stream.
Once I worked though that calculator part she quickly identified and solved the time-scale and calculation parts of the problem that I had had to help the HAVO kids with. Suddenly I realized that she and her buddy were hard-working and a lot brighter than I had assumed but held back by the cruder, less-effective maths tools that they had learned in VMBO. So I sorted out a free maths tuition for them and I shall put in some extra hours myself. Hard-working motivated pupils are why teachers teach.
So I am prejudiced and I sucked somewhat. But I am learning, gradually, with a little help from Asrar.
It is one-thirty in the morning and I have mostly finished prepping my classes for Monday. Anyone who tells me how much free time teachers have is going to get my worst "teacher look". This last month has been a hell of a ride. Teaching at my new school is like starting from scratch, making all the basic mistakes again and feeling like a fool. It is large, slightly chaotic, has tough and underprivileged kids is a huge range of abilities, all the management got changed last year and they use a suite of different applications for registration and class admin that I have never seen before. My mentor and my coach have had major personal emergencies, my boss audited the lesson where my beamer died, taking my carefully prepared slides with it and I am not sleeping. I am fighting on four fronts and losing.
Education is staffed with people who started as morons like me. They remember making those mistakes themselves and even the mangers are pretty merciful, but they also cannot carry dead weight: the whole business is too precarious for that. It is a tough call: I do not believe there are teachers that shine from day one, or they are extremely rare. I think that teachers either bump their way over and through the first obstacles in order to find their style or they blow up, burn out and leave the game.
I nearly left the game.
This job is my love, my central meaning, but it has been harsh. There is no screen, no sheltering rock between you and your failures in teaching. There is no nuance, no aspect of a mistake that does not immediately swing round and bludgeon you. The slow delivery, the spelling mistake, the too-harsh correction, the careless word, the misremembered name, the too-complex explanation have instant, unmistakable impacts. You go into a class well or badly prepared and the extent of that preparation swings the outcome but does not decide it. You go in and roll dice, not because you are incompetent, but because the class that walks in today has shifted in composition (the nerdy guy made it, the tough girl didn't) and part of it did, or did not, go to the party, wipe out in the Biology test, get rained on, lose a bicycle and watch it's parents fight tooth and nail.
..and of course your beamer may be busted.
The difference between me and the experienced teachers is that they smell the class that walks in and brace for it. They look into the sixty eyes with a good semblance of confidence. They can swing more classes in the right direction and have more coping strategies for when that does not work. They roll with the mood and have learned the robust caring of the surgeon, the nurse, the professional: not indifference, but a mental triage that preserves you from losing little chunks of soul all the fucking time. I want to be like that, but the wanting is not sufficient. The other day my class was going solidly wild when the small blond lady from next door came in and LOOKED at them. They fell silent. It was like all the air in the room had been replaced by a thick plastic block of caution and waiting. I was ashamed, both of them and myself, but grateful for the help.
Later, when I asked her how she did it, she could only say: "I have been teaching for forty years and I wait for quiet moments. When it is quiet I say something, then I wait for the next." Quiet moments. I think I would know one if I saw one. I think she generates quiet moments. I, as yet, cannot.
That is what is so frustrating. There is no path between where she is and where I am. Not teacher training, not self-help books, not even a radioactive spider or magic. It is just some kind of accretion. The people who have "it" cannot wield it faultlessly (though their failures share many features of my successes) and they cannot fully explain it but the good ones can quell most classes with a look and set a spanking pace and sometime inspire.
I have always liked opera. Partly because it is an insane business of putting on full theater, often with extensive, complex sets and having people both sing and act out convoluted plots. It is asking for trouble and I have seen opera productions by skilled and experienced companies produce memorable and often hilarious gaffes.
You see where I am going with this.
Anyway. I am not yet dead, burned-out or fired. The head of the ruff-and-tuff VMBO section of school told me that if I could teach here I could teach anywhere. "If you can manage these classes, any other classes are cake." That is the scariest encouragement I have ever had. So I am going for bronze. Not gold, just survival and, if it can be managed, a little development.
I have been now at my new school for three weeks. This interchangeability is new to me. I have had to find jobs based on vague business-card titles and well-established skills for most of my life. I am used to defending the fit of my bunch of skills for a vague need, now I am suddenly quite recognisable and well-defined. I am a secondary maths teacher. I am good for all your maths-teaching needs and was not tested on animals. Of course I am also new, uncertain and finding my feet.
So here I am at a new school. The new school is very, very different. Where the chic, slightly staid Gymnasium where I started debated academically (I kid thou not) which classical statue should be on the first floor veranda the new school is juggling many, many more pupils of a huge range of abilities and many, many different home languages. The new school covers every imaginable education option for a child that does not need significant psychiatric intervention. It is huge, welcoming untidy, overstretched and awesome. There is a little chaos, but so many chances offered, so much love.
So here I am falling in love with another school, with another batch of kids. Damn my foolish heart.
I am a London boy at heart and I find myself at ease in the rough multiculturalism of a London Tube Train. My classes in the Gymnasium where white-blond with the occasional lonely droplet of another skin colour. The new classes are much more the Tube and the Lewisham of my childhood. They bustle in in headscarves, leather jackets, glasses and fresh make-up and I take care to pronounce names correctly and make plenty of mistakes. They are a different kind of student. They are the children of capable, hard-working people who consider education a precious gift. These children work hard. They do not want me to cherry-pick the problems for them. They want a starting point and a deadline. They are there to learn.
Of course I am glib here, but this is the fruit of three weeks of not properly understanding, not being the right teacher. I almost blew a class. Damn my foolish head.
It came to a head with the second-years, an Arts class heavy on the teenage girls. They were impatient: their last-year maths teacher was a brimming bucket of awesome (damn his hide it is true) and they resented me a bit quite simply for not being him. I started out too friendly and frenetic, my uncertainties bringing out the clownish, fast-paced strategies of my childhood, my explanations too hurried and high level, my attention too scattered. I got one lesson of mercy and then they ripped me to bits.
So that was not fun. A class is separate entity from an individual child. One of my most vivid schoolday memories as a relatively sweet, intellectual child was of a student teacher stepping into oue classroom and the sudden visceral knowledge sweeping through me and every other child there that we could and in fact would shred her. Easily. I remember making a German teacher cry. It was just part of being the class we were.
So here I am on the other side of that dynamic. Having spent a lesson in a literal muck sweat, a lesson being massively strict and a lesson surviving I was kid of dreading seeing them today, particularly as their mentor had mentioned that they took pictures of me looking chubby and sweat-stained. So here I am walking into my next lesson with them.
So I just sat on a desk in the middle of the room and talked to them as to a friend. I talked, extensively about my feelings and my privacy. I emphasized that I would never, ever look in their phones at any of their pictures. I had a conversation about my privacy and theirs, about my mistakes and their expectations and they performed the little miracle that teenagers sometimes summon: being the best of their adult selves. They said well, your explanations were sometimes not good, but sometimes they were fine we were just missing our old teacher and not listening. We have deleted the pictures we took. Sorry. We suggest you talk more slowly and wear dark colours.
I heard everyone out and took notes. We made a deal. Then most of the class moved up to the front and asked me to go through the problems they did not get, slowly and carefully. I did that with extreme care and was rewarded with that most precious of teacher moments: the sacred look of surprise when something becomes clear, when an idea explodes into understanding and your brain turns the corner. We did maths and they high-fived me on the way out of the class.
Old Dog, but still wagging.
Today was a gift, a blessing. Let met tell you about it.
It has not been easy lately. Now that term is over and there are no more classes my job is down to two hard things: the huge slog of marking the last masive batch of tests in record time (I have currently done 180 this week) and the delicate and thoughtful business of helping the school decide whether a pupil should move up to next year's class. That is obviously a crucial decision in any school: it could mean that your child would have to repeat the year. At the Gymnasium where I currently teach it can also mean that the student would need to leave school entirely. The maths score has a strong role in deciding marginal cases, so my marks have more power than I am sometimes comfortable with.
So getting the marks in is important and attending the meetings is important, but I am only really happy when engaged with a room full of kids and I no longer have that. My classes have gone cheerfully off to their holidays and I will probably never see them again. I was too experienced to expect them to miss me, but I grieved a little.
While I was waiting in the corridor for the previous meeting to end Armin, one of my second year students came past. Armin is big, bluff, smart and earnest. He works hard at everything and is always on the move, but today he stopped to tell me something. "I am really sorry you are leaving Mr Noyce. You were one of the best maths teachers I have ever had. You took time for both the smartest and the weakest. Thank you."
Damn. I had to take a moment to process that.
No crying. I thanked him gravely and told him that the pleasure and privilege were entirely mine. Which indeed they were.
That was a blessing, for which I am deeply thankful. Armin reminded me why we do this hard thing, why we write bright human letters on the blank face of this world. Teaching is the long train that links us to the first gift, the first moment of passing on knowledge and caring, the long train of light back to the beginnings of humanity. If I have made Armin a little stronger, a little more able to be his own self, I give thanks.
I went into my meeting, tried to say useful things and got back to my massive pile of marking. Halfway through the pile I got a call. The school where I first encountered teaching, where I fell in love with teaching, wants to hire me. They offered me a job, teaching a wide array of pupils, so it will be a new challenge, a new track for the long train.
Without love, where would we be now?
So my second years found out that I am not going to be teaching them next year. But first a bit of self-analysis....
I get attached. Something in my nature makes any, job any activity I truly care about into a sort of personal relationship. I fall in love. That is sort of great, because it imbues my work with meaning and a heft. But it sort of sucks that many jobs cannot fulfil that need.
Teaching is the exception. Teaching children or adults is a labor of love, a bright stroke of fierce compassion against the dark background of the universe. It rocks and I love it. For me it will always be the Good Fight, what Buddhists call "right action". I know that I am a tad more dramatic/poetic than most of my surroundings, especially amongst the pragmatic, plain-dealers of the Netherlands, but as a French salesman once told me "il faut assumer ses passions": you have to own and honour the things that drive you.
I suspect that very many teachers love their classes. It is a work hazard in a profession that is almost a direct extension of parenting. It is the limb that the ancient process of raising children had to grow in order to fit our slowly-developing, complex offspring into the amazingly intricate world we have created. As time goes on that limb becomes ever longer and thicker: more skills, more flexibility and intricacy appears, earlier in a child's life. We teach environmental issues now at an age when I was still grappling with seasons.
This is a long preamble to what happened yesterday. Arif is one of my strongest mathematicians in the second year. He has the neat, square-cut build and impeccably trimmed thin moustache of his Turkish background, his mother's sharp analytical spirit (and love of mathematics) and a hard-working, thoughtful spirit gives me hope for the world.
It was strange to see such a person being tentative, unsure. He approached me delicately, respectfully at the beginning of class, "Mr Noyce, we heard a rumour... that you were fired?!" Arif is brave, but uncertain.
Ah.Hmmm. Time to deal with this.
Because I am a teacher, everything I do is an example. Every shifting, human moment of respectful, hopeful, stupid, angry, scatty, brilliant action is noted. It is my responsibility to make those moments good examples. How I handle this is as a lesson? What do I want to teach?
I address the class and tell them that I shall not be teaching them next year. I am not "fired" but my contract at this school has not been renewed. I am honest. I shall be at another school and no I do not yet know which one. I am cheerful and calm when faced with uncertainty and change. I take a moment to reveal to them that I had never taught before I taught them. I am transparent and open.
They are silent and a little shocked and even a bit sad. Natasha, whose strong opinions often flood out of her, exclaims "But, you DO this. They should fire Ms X instead." Heh. I explain that the school can hire someone who has more experience than me and a full teaching qualification. I teach them to understand and respect rational choices. I tell them that though we have sometimes butted heads, I think they are a great class, hard working and fun to know. I shall not forget them. I let them know I care and have a good opinion of them. It is most certainly not their fault.
Because I am a teacher, I teach all the time.
I shall miss them like crazy. A class full of children is a crash course in human foibles. It breaks you of the notion that any life could ever be like any other. It beats you over the head with the sweet, scary individuality of your fellow travellers and shows you how they triumph, fail, do good and bad things and trip over their own fixed notions. It has been like having an extended family and I give many, many damns about their happiness and futures. Too many. I shall have to learn to limit that. Nurses cannot grieve every wound and teachers have to to keep some distance too.
... and so we keep moving forward. Keep picking up and sorting. Being hopeful and gentle. Showing respect.
Always teaching, see?