I had an interesting conversation with a colleague recently who has expressing disdain for her adult students. I use the term ‘adult’ loosely, as they are mostly college kids with no hobbies or lives outside of study, and teaching them can be a bit of a chore. They expect you to do all the work, have strange ideas about what they need to learn and how best to learn it, and seem to have nothing to talk about whatsoever other than the same old crap about how many people are in your family or what your favourite movie is.
I can’t blame her for being a little worn-down by all this. She works hard to prepare for her classes, tries to engage the students, and generally does what is expected but doesn’t get much back from the students. So I tried to cheer her up by telling her a little story about the day my life changed.
It had been a long day, lots of driving in the cold rain, lots of unenthusiastic high school kids to teach, disagreements with admin about what we should be doing, all the usual garbage that can really drag you down. I arrived for my evening class with no time to spare and was dreading the evening encounter with a bunch of apathetic brain-dead kids who expected me to have enough personality for everyone.
I stopped at the door and took a moment to compose myself. I was aware that it was going to be a bad class because I personally was not in a good state to do my job properly - which was to manage that group of people so that their expectations were adjusted appropriately so that they could be met. (This was a lesson I was learning from my old mate Tom Hill, who made a big deal about teaching being a process rather than an emotional journey.) So I mentally girded my loins, focused on what I had to do, and “put the face on” - my happy smiley teacher face that exuded the illusion that I didn’t care that I had heard the same crap a hundred times before. I didn’t care what the students said, I was going to enjoy the bloody class if it killed me. And so were they.
Three and a bit hours later, walking down the street I realised that I was a) pleasantly tired, and b) whistling. I was totally relaxed and happy with my lot in the world. I had put a lot of energy into the class, and somehow got an awful lot back. My tiredness was the feeling you get when you’ve done a fair day’s work for a fair wage, not the weariness that had been afflicting me of late. I realised that by putting my own feelings to one side and focusing on the job at hand, I had become the happy smiling teacher in real life. I slept better that night than I had done for a while and woke up feeling a lot more enthusiastic about the world.
Since then I have (by and large) been a lot more positive about my students, and learned to like them for their cooky nerdish ways and little puppy-dog eyes. I’ve also graduated into more challenging teaching, in that I have a lot of older students with different attitudes and experiences to share, which make the job more varied and fun. I’ve had to shift my expectations, but if anything I’ve become firmer in my agenda with regard to teaching. I’m more focused on the students’ problems than on my own, which makes me more successful and more popular as well as making my problems go away.
In short, charging into the classroom determined to enjoy it means that you do enjoy it. Life is what you make it, only more so.
Anyway, my whineybutt colleague looked at me in astonishment when I told her this and then asked me what drugs I was taking. Is it really so hard to understand?