For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been teaching. Two classes a week, 3 & 1/2 hours each class. the course is called “Social Foundations of Education” and it’s honesttogoddess a thrill a minute. It’s the first time i’ve had my very own classroom. I mean “my own classroom” in kind of a symbolic way, I guess. In a way of having responsibility for guiding a bunch of learners (what’s the collective noun for student-teachers?– a reading of teachers? no–A pedant of teachers! but “pedantic” is kind of pejorative…anyhow, i’ll think on it, and take suggestions).
i was terrified. I don’t think i’ve been as scared about doing anything so much as I was scared of teaching. Stand-up comedy was pretty fuckin’ frightening, but you didn’t have to hold forth for all that long. It was over quick, whether people laughed or just stared atcha. the staring bit seemed to last longer than the laughing bits, but i’m sure that 5 minutes is 5minutes no matter what It sure isn’t 3 and a half hours, even if it sometimes seems that long. I had to design a course syllabus, come up with readings, assignments, a rubric for marking, and lesson plans for three and a half hours twice a week. And THEN–my students are all teachers, too–secondary school. and this is their last semester before they go off and have their own classrooms. so, you know, they know what they’re doing already.
So far, we’ve been together four times, and it’s the best job I’ve ever had. Honestly, it’s too early to tell yet, but I am so impressed with them. They’re interested and engaged and they seem to want to work together and they’re good sports, ya know? they laugh at my jokes, too.
Maybe i’m naive. the class is pretty even in terms of sex–a few more men than women, and that was another thing that kinda skeeved me out, i spend almost no time with men in my life. Was i gonna become a fun feminist in the face of male entitlement? would that happen? I can be all righteous and radical in the comfort of my own blog, but what about if I am faced with “I’m a Nice Guy ™”? Will I crush his well-intentioned spirit, or will I get bowled over by his entitled smooth-talkin’ charm? I am kind of a soft touch, as I learned again in Turkey, and I’m a woman, you know,(and Canadian, at that) i learned that thing about taking care of other people’s feelings (at the expense of my own…) and being all apologetic. I dunno.
I’m sure that will happen, and it might even happen in this class, we have eight more sessions together, after all. But the stage has been set. I don’t think we’ll butt heads–and even if we do, it’s part of my job to use those incidents as “teachable moments” and I don’t want to let those go by. These folks, too, they seem pretty on top of that, and have already jumped in on those moments when they happen. Some of my friends who are also teaching tell me about really tense moments in their classes when their students get into scraps about racism–one friends’ student told her, “I wouldn’t intervene if a kid said something racist in my class–I don’t want to interfere in their freedom of speech”. Would she have said that to me? I’m white and middle-aged, my friend is Asian and younger than me by at least a decade. But why would that student say such a thing? Why so little understanding, by this time in her education, of how racist and sexist speech interferes with the freedom of speech of people of colour, Aboriginal people, and anti-racist white people? that latter group, mind you, we have a responsibility to step in no matter what. No matter what. We might have more to lose, but only because we have more in the first place. I don’t know what my friend said in response to that comment.
Cultural capital. we’re trying to understand Bourdieu’s conception of habitus, eh. And Symbolic Violence and Social reproduction and all that stuff. It’s complicated. And all these people, well, most of them, they have some cultural capital–the school system worked for most of them, they were successful. Not all of ’em, mind you. A previous lover of mine, she didn’t graduate from high school, but now she’s a principal of one. She had other kinds of help, though, came from lots of money, and a loving supportive family. They thought she wasn’t smart when she was growing up, so she thought she wasn’t smart, either. but eventually, the time to explore and the access to learning that the family money in some ways afforded her allowed her to figure out a way in to the Institution of Power that is education.
Anyways, everyone in the class, all 31 of them, come from the same kind of complex mix of family class and cultural background, racialized identities, gender training–Some of ’em had a little bit more cushion, some cultural capital (like music lessons) but not so much economic capital–or economic capital (Dad was a tradesman in a union shop) but not really cultural capital (three books in the house at any one time, most of those pulp novels, for example). Of course, i’m not saying anything here exactly as I’ve read it. The folks in the class have trusted me with some personal stuff that i’m not gonna blog about. But you get the idea.
There’s a very few who can’t seem to cope, though. That’s always the way. How did they get this far? So far, there is one assignment due (out of three), and these very few students haven’t read one article nor mentioned anything in their paper that we’ve talked about or read–and yet, here they are. one more semester to go and they’re going to be teachers. go figure. Some combination of being abandoned by the system, something’s going on in their lives, they don’t think they can do it, they’ve been rewarded for mediocrity, and/or stuff they’re not telling me. It’s a pass/fail course. People don’t typically fail these courses. I want them all to pass–but more than that, I want them to learn, to wrestle with the ideas, to teach each other and me–to leave my class, my little six-week long class–with their horizons of expectations broader than they were before. Is that kind of pretentious? maybe. but maybe not. I feel a bit bigger already, myself from this.
Sometimes they’re a bit frustrated by all the theory they’re being asked to read. “what does this have to do with teaching?” some of them ask, “I need things I can do in my classroom”.
But theory is important, and it is something you do. Like, if you want to make music, you have to know some theory, what notes sound like, and the difference between pitch and tone, and sharps and flats–that’s theory. if you want to figure out numerical equations, it’s helpful to have a grasp of formulas. You need to understand rules of grammar in order to write, and it helps too to have some sense of etymology, to k now how language works in theory in order to practice it. Any theory you can’t use in practice isn’t good theory. But practice without a theoretical frame or backbone or scaffold is just assembly line dull. If you don’t know much about your social location, the characteristics and history of the folks in your social class, (including of course race and sex), you’re not going to be able to ‘read’ your students, and you won’t be able to talk to them, either.
My friend J is coming over to my class on Wednesday and she explained some of Paulo Freire to me, “your students are your text” she said, “he [Freire] started teaching people literacy skills by finding out what they already knew, and going from there. In order to do that, he had to be able to ‘read’ them, to understand, like a text.” okay. So that’s helpful. I don’t think I have sorted this course in a way that I can do that exactly, but in a way I have, by talking about class location and getting them to position themselves and build physical representations of concepts with pipe cleaners and plasticine–I am getting an idea of who they are in the world. But i’ve already made all kinds of mistakes and assumptions and I only have the merest glimmer of what they are and how to correct them. but I’m also doing a bunch of things right, too, I’m pretty sure.
Oh, I don’t know. It’s still frightening, but in a different way–more of a low-level constant anxiety way, tinged with that kinda fluttery, hopeful excitement feeling (like starting a new love affair, or a new job that you’ve always wanted)–more like that than ‘pee-yer-pants-panic’, which was close to how I felt the week before class started.
the important thing to remember is, we are all in this together.
I don’t know what i’m doing. But every day I ask for help. And every day I get it.