Today was a little strange: walking among the other teachers with a feeling of being an imposter, a dead man walking. I hated going to school. It took a bite out of me, but TO HELL WITH THAT. I have classes and students.
The students, the classes, that is what turned my day around. It started with the the first class. The highly pubescent and distracted third form. We do not always see eye to eye, but today they were fresh and friendly and the material worked in our favour: mechanically understandable, short explain, lots of assisted practice. We drilled into it and emerged victorious. We worked together.
I had been expecting to spend the day as a floating skull of unhappiness and my classes saved me. They were hopeful and cheerful when I was short of those qualities. They demanded teacheriness of me, they demanded my commitment and I could only respond and, in responding, rejoice. They woke me up from the small cramped space of unhappiness and failure. They reminded me that...
I love teaching. I truly do. It hits me in the heart and I will never stop doing it. No matter what.
I ride a monowheel. i.e. a single-wheeled, electrically driven, self-balancing unicycle. It is a strange device and it took a great deal of practice to learn, but these days I can glide around on it pretty successfully. Learning to ride it involved a great deal of falling. Lots. I fell off it, stumbled, tripped, wiped out and generally made a complete ass of myself: often in full view of people who were undoubtedly wondering why I would put myself through those changes.
Learning to ride that crazy little wheel involved a whole bunch of new reflexes and very importantly the willingness to be vulnerable, to be prepared to learn and fail publicly.
By now you may have an inkling that I am not just talking about self-balancing unicycles. Teaching is just the same: it is a whole new world of things to learn and mistakes to make. It is has been an opportunity to grow, to exceed my own expectations and also to fail.
So there we are. I had my evaluation and I am not renewed. I shall not be continuing in my present school. It is very upsetting, but not unfair or arbitrary. My current school is one of the best and most demanding in the Netherlands. It has the pick of teachers and they took a flyer on my untried and untrained self. I have learned a stupendous amount, but the standard will be more easily met by someone with more experience, someone fully qualified.
I hate feeling rejected. I hate being judged and found insufficient. It is particularly rough when you actually give a damn, when you have fully committed everything you have. That sucks, but the meeting was kind, professional and as positive as such a thing can be. I understand the decision, but I am very desolate right now.
Nevertheless, the monowheel is still there and still humming, so I shall pick myself up, recover my balance and keep learning. There will be falls and the occasional scrape and bruise, but the skills will accumulate and my courage will be sufficient. For that it is the nature of learning: retaining the courage and will to keep on wiping out, keep on skinning your knees until the (for the onlooker) effortless gliding is achieved.
Wish me luck.
Tales from Teaching
Well is has been most of a school year. I am gradually getting used to being Mr.Noyce the maths teacher, still overjoyed with the differences I make and sometimes desolate from my failures. There have been ups and downs, moments of sadness and moments of pure, scintillating joy. It has been a huge challenge and the greatest and most profound change I have ever undergone next to fatherhood.
When I look at that paragraph I realise that it reads like a goodbye and perhaps it is. I am still in love with teaching and expect to remain so. I still love the school and the children I teach. I am however under review.
That is perfectly normal. The school I teach at is one of the best in the Netherlands. They can attract and retain very skilled teachers, the current staff are are hugely professional and put a great deal of effort into providing a very, high quality of education. The standards are very, very high and I am a new and still very inexperienced teacher. I have good intentions, some useful previous experience, a passion for mathematics and a deep respect and liking for my students. But the school may well be able to find that kind of person with ten years of solid background. The school fortunately has a policy of taking on people with potential and developing them, but I am sharply aware that the very skilled student teacher who I have been working alongside is already fully qualified and would like to stay on at the school.
I think my chances are reasonable. I got a decent mark from the student survey with strong and weak points, my colleagues in the maths section were cautiously positive and the classroom visits went quite well. There are whole bunches of things I could do better and am working to improve, but that is true of any new teacher.
I hope I get to stay on at this school. If I do not, I shall certainly stay in teaching. It is where I belong. If I do not make the cut I shall be very sad, but I shall not, not ever, give up. That is what a calling means.
So Renata is a puzzle. She spent a lot of time in the beginning of the year comparing me unfavourably to her previous teacher, with some justification in that her previous teacher was the highly skilled rector of our school. She also seemed a little slow of understanding, taking more time and explanation to grasp concepts than many other children.
But then the marks came in. Renata gets, these days, tens.
I would love to say it is down to my superior teaching skills, but it is a least partly down to the rigid, high standards she applies to herself and those around her. Once the pressure of judging and dealing with the changeable nature of the world lets up, once she can concentrate on a maths test, she shines.
The prophecies are a problem though, one that I do battle with every time we meet. She will say "I don't understand this. I cannot understand this" and I have to jump in quickly before the letterbox of understanding snaps shut. I have to step up before her prophecy becomes truth.
I try to curve round her certainties, the way I was taught to absorb and redirect an attack in Aikido. "Let's look at the first part. Let's see what we can already write down. Can we do a simpler version of the problem?" Contradicting her would not help (in a head-on-clash we would both lose) but tempting her to try a process, to have an approach with starts up when she does not see the answer directly, might. She is one of those quick-thinking children that have not failed often enough to be comfortable with it. My job is to get her comfortable with error and retry, with the messy but scientific business of solving the hard stuff.
So Friday. The fourth year just got a test back from me. They took a beating in it because I misjudged the length x complexity, but the major maths ladies and guys powered through and I shifted the marking pattern away from the worst damage.
The final question was doable, but not by people that had already had their courage sapped by the previous two questions. As I said, some of them surprised me, perhaps surprised themselves.
I riff with them for a moment after they have chewed their way through some tough concepts on logarithms and the question comes up: what music does Mr Noyce like?
I can see the expectations slide into place. Maths teacher, always neatly dressed, passionate about patterns. The savvy ones have me pegged for Bach and they are not wrong. But I decided to surprise them.
The Coup's "Magic Clap" blasts through the room and I write neatly on the whiteboard next to the video (because I am always a teacher) "This song is about resisting oppression. It is about the moment of choice."
They love it, as they should and I take a moment to reveal a drive.
"This is why I teach. It is the most powerful way I know of resisting oppression that does not involve hurting people. Mathematics is my weapon, because it cuts through nonsense and misinformation." I pause a beat and quote Gibson at them.
"The deadliest bullshit is odourless and transparent"
... and back to logarithms.
Alec is a heartbreaker for most teachers. He is not the smartest, not the most gifted, but he has an indestructibly cheerful nature and a loud bell-like voice that echoes through the class whenever he is cheerful.
Alec is often cheerful.
He gets really loud, but I do not want to keep saying his name, so he sometimes gets the milder version of my teacher death-stare: the version with less Voldemort and more Kermit. Every time that happens Alec apologises sincerely (but often loudly) and throws himself into whatever is next with unstinting energy.
He generally does not score very well in mathematics - he is not wired for the abstraction, the sheer puzzle-solving jam of maths. It does not properly reward the out-bursting energy that delights (and confounds) his sports teacher. For Alec the things he is learning work better if they go somewhere in his world, build or bust a thing. Nevertheless he genuinely likes maths lessons, so I really hate handing out bad marks to him.
Fortunately, Alec's last maths test was excellent. I set a very focussed test and he had obviously worked very, very hard. So after marking his test I looked at the mark in the corner and thought "that is not enough", so I took my red pen and listed as plainly and factually as I could all the good things about his test: his clear handwriting, his well-separated steps in a logical sequence. I did not write "great" or "clever", but I did put "you obviously studied hard, well done!".
Giving the right kind of compliment is key. Alec might easily find places in his life where he was not "great" or "clever", because we all do that when we get a vacuous compliment. We distrust it and we find counter-examples all too easily. But it was undeniable that Alec had done clean, painstaking, logical work and my noticing that might help him feel awesome.
When I gave the test back he already knew the mark, because it was already posted in the school's homework-diary system, but as I passed around the room I could hear him reading the comments aloud with enormous relish to his best friend, the calm and dignified Justin. When I glanced back, he was luminous with joy and pride.
Well today was a rough day. One of the downsides of teaching is the quantity of moving parts. I give a couple of serious maths tests every term and they take a lot of marking. As I have six classes of about thirty students that is about.... please raise your hand, yes indeed 180 tests (generally two or three sides of close-written mathematics) to mark about every three to four weeks.
That is complicated by the subject I am teaching. Marking mathematics involves not just checking if the answer is right or wrong but also doing a little analysis of the wrong answers to see if the process was correct. I give most of the marks for doing the maths and take relatively few marks off for losing a minus sign or making an arithmetic error. Marking is hard mental labour and it takes a good deal of experience to get fast at it. I am still climbing that learning curve.
Naturally some kids are ill or absent for a test and then need to take a variant of the test at a later date and sometimes I am a bit too nice and let someone have another crack at a really tough test. That adds to the load because you have a different set of answers for the variants and they have to be handled out of the main bulk.
That adds up to a lot of paper, which has to be carefully assessed, marked, returned and also input into the school's database.
Now this goes fine most of the time but, in that huge volume of stuff it is easy to miss a question, not write down the right number, not add up the marks correctly or even mislay a test paper. The other party to the transaction, the child and very often an anxious parent has a lot more bandwidth to scrutinize your work and they are powerfully motivated to find any kind of loophole that might add even a fraction of a mark to the final score.
For this reason some schools do not allow students to take their test papers home: it causes grief. I allow them to take the papers home and I encourage them to look carefully at their test papers. I even ran an experiment where they could revise a question and get extra marks. It produced surprisingly detailed responses.
Sometimes you get conflict though. The head of the lower school got a long, woolly and very grumpy email about my teaching skills last week. There were some very reasonable criticisms but there was a lot of unnecessary blaming going on too. Parents (and I am a parent too) get anxious and it does not always bring out the best behaviour. I was honestly very, very upset, slept badly and I was very grateful that I had some time to process the emotional impact before seeing that class again. Fortunately the head of lower school is an old hand and very pragmatic, we had a good conversation with the head about it and we have it under control: he gave me some stern but supportive advice so I have learned to be more careful and perhaps a little less flexible in future.
It made me realize how vulnerable this job is, how intense the scrutiny is and how tension inevitably mounts as the year goes on and the test results accumulate: mathematics is a crucial core subject. Failing mathematics could cause a student to repeat a year or even change school. This is undoubtedly not the last time I will come under fire from parents, so I will have to be a little more paranoid in future...
This image has being going the rounds for some time now and it bothers me because (a) I have been on both sides of that desk and (b) it misses the point about teachers and parents. Teachers and parents are on the same team: team "Make it possible for your child to be happy and successful".
Someone in a comment thread for asked me about becoming a teacher: whose fault is it if a child gets bad marks?
This was my reply
It's a fabulous job, but very, very demanding. I think it is not really useful to talk about whose "fault" it is if teaching a child did not succeed. I have students who it is hard to get through to, but that is actually the job: I am trying to present material and diagnose problems in understanding the material in ways that will work for all my pupils. If that did not work it is a function of my presentation, the medium it passed through and the ability of the student to receive it.
I do not always succeed, in getting through because the task is complex and it changes for every student in every lesson and literally with the weather outside: try teaching exponents to tired teens on a Friday afternoon after they got cold and wet and had a tough gym lesson. Try understanding factoring quadratics when the boy you like is obviously obsessed with your best friend.
I have found parents to be supportive and helpful and they have found me to be an absolute fan of their child rather than a harsh critic. I have been on the other side of the table and loathe those conversations in which a frustrated teacher is unloading about a classroom situation that you have never experienced at home.
A class recently said to me, in several individual voices, "we are a not a very nice class are we?" and I responded with all the passion and conviction that I possess that I liked them very much, that we did not always get on behaviour-wise, but that did not mean that they were not great kids and fun to know.
If you do decide to become a teacher, be aware that it will draw on your deepest reserves and teach you a good deal about the kind of person you really are. It gets very close to home and you will sometimes shed tears of all kinds.
Today my class cheated.
After the classes are over on Friday at my school we all get together in the staff room, have a drink and talk about the day, about the stuff that happened, about our triumphs and mistakes. It is a nice way of shedding the week, not taking too much home. There is a fierce commitment in this job, a profound idealism that is not easy to wear, not handy to take home, so we talk it out.
So I was not expecting the head of the senior school to take me aside and tell me that my kids were cheating.
She had been called by a parent, because their child had received a photograph of the test paper, the test I had given today, and warned them. The two classes involved are pretty good kids, but I am under no illusions. Kids can be individually absolute sweethearts, but collectively fairly merciless.
Smartphones make this possible. All my students have them (which is a wonderful thing) and it only takes a moment of inattention for a photo to be taken and shared. I was keeping an eye out, but also working on a stack of marking: looks like I missed a trick.
It was otherwise an easy day the day, only two classes, both taking a test and I was well prepared. The room was not very quiet - the older classes were getting a disco-themed lesson on sexually-transmitted diseases just down the hall, but their real problem was question 7. Question 7 was s a chunk of real mathematics, real problem-solving, look at this from a couple of angles challenge.
The deputy was sympathetic and pragmatic. "Don't worry too much", she said with the cheerful gravitas of the very, very experienced. "This happens and it even happens to very experienced teachers." We did a little damage assessment and it looks like I don't need to do any marking this weekend.
It is dumb. Whoever did this will probably cause his or her class to take the test again. Mathematics, certainly the way I teach it and mark it, is not very much about a singular answer, but a great deal about using the right process, building the right steps. if you copy my test paper and work out the perfect steps, perhaps with the help of one of my best students, you have actually just educated yourself. You cannot apply the advantage you gained without doing quite a lot of learning.
So it looks like I have the weekend off and my fourth-years are in for a tough time.