The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 7)

I think I’m having a midlife crisis. Some men, when they find themselves in a similar situation, go out and buy themselves a toupee or a snazzy sports car, but that’s not my way. My way is to sit down and write about my life as a teacher. I guess you could say that this blog has become therapy.

It’s funny (and a little scary too) how big of a role the workplace plays in turning us into the human beings we eventually become. My work certainly has played a key role in causing this crisis I’m facing.

This morning, when I was getting ready to step into the shower at 5 a.m. to get ready to go to work, I started thinking about my retirement. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the day when I can finally walk away from the classroom. That thought led to a memory of a conversation I recently had with a fellow who teaches at my current place of employment. He is seventy and still coming in, every day, to put in his six hours up in front of students. When I asked him about retirement, he said, “I tried that, for a while, but got bored, so I decided to start working again.”

FYI: Words you will never hear coming out of Troy Headrick’s mouth: “I got bored with retirement so I went back to work again.”

Yes, I’m sure I’m having a midlife crisis. I know this because I have little patience for silliness at work. I also have little tolerance for people who want to preach to me about how I should be doing my job. These “experts” are often about the age my children would be, if I had children. Lately, it’s been students who’ve been offering this “advice.” Would I use “anger” to describe my current mindset? Not really. I’m more like exasperated.

Lots of teachers end up getting beaten down by what our education system has become. Actually, come to think of it, it’s “schooling” that’s the problem, not education. There are important differences between the former and the latter. The former is what drives so many teachers crazy. Education is pure and wonderful. It sets us free. Schooling enslaves us. It turns us into bureaucratic idiots who have crises. The distinctions between these two is further clarified in this very interesting letter, written by Gerald J. Conti, a long-time teacher who finally decided to throw in the towel, primarily because schooling today is “data driven” and emphasizes teacher “conformity, standardization, testing, and a zombie-like adherence to the shallow and generic Common Core.” Conti also points out that “creativity, academic freedom, teacher autonomy, experimentation and innovation are being stifled.”

One of the things that has bothered me over the years is this: Back when I was a serious learner, when I was in college and grad school, I could honestly say that I was engaged in something noble and enriching. But not long after I became a teacher, especially at the college and university levels, I got caught up in a system that was far too often dispiriting and demeaning. Like Conti, I had to begin focusing on petty things, which turned me into a petty person. Too much of my time was spent on learning how to navigate the territory of the academic department I was working for without getting into trouble. As a result, I got good at acting like a robot and playing workplace politics but almost forgot how to read and think. Meanwhile, I’d been hired to do reading and thinking with my students.

Right here, I’d like to insert an important qualifier. My current place of employment, the institute I’ve been working at for nearly half a year, has hired me to “train,” not “teach,” even though I work in a classroom. This difference in terminology suggests something important. There is not even a hint of pretentiousness at my new gig. What I do is very mechanical and straightforward, and thus the expectations are crystal clear. This allows administrators to be a lot more honest with me, and I, in return, can be honest with myself and my students. And, as the old saying goes, honesty is the best policy.

The university taught me how to think critically and to cherish such thinking. Then I went to work and listened to a zillion school administrators speak emotively about the importance of instilling critical thinking in students. (By the way, those who practice critical thinking are, de facto, required to question everything and to accept practices, ideas, and beliefs only after they have survived a very withering scrutiny.) This double standard—critical thinking is a good thing to ask others to do and to apply to everything except us and our institution—puts teachers in a bind. They are torn between the way they have taught themselves to live and think and how their bosses tell them to live and think. My last sentence raises an important point: Being a critical thinker is about how one lives in the world and interacts with reality. It is a mode of being. Critical thinking is not something I turn on and off like a light switch. I live it all the time.

I can see that I’m doing a little critical thinking right now and wonder if I should be praised or chastised for doing so?

That’s a very good question, one I’ll have to ponder awhile. As I do so, I can feel my crisis deepening…

2 thoughts on “The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 7)

  1. Dear Troy,

    First of all, I couldn’t agree with you more. I must say that you have a special place in my heart as one of my favourite teachers. You are a teacher who can engage with his students. May be that’s the system which makes you feel this way. I can empathise with you more now since I’ve been also teaching quite some time. I wouldn’t understand how you feel now if I wasn’t teaching. It’s about the school, system, administration, the support that you get from them, the working ethics which we usually lack in Turkey, etc. Everyone is an expert to themselves. Everyone loves giving unnecessary advice to each other. I’m not sure if you’re still in Turkey but I felt the same way when I was there. I had only one school which I enjoyed working for and I was about to change my career. Now I’m teaching Academic English which I used to hate when I was in uni and I can’t also believe I do it in another country. It’s pretty challenging for me but I love it! If you love your job, I think you need to find a place which you’ll love working for (I’m also aware which is super difficult to do so). Change your school or the country you are in if you can. Fresh starts are always scary but they’re refreshing. That’s why all the best and good luck my dear teacher. You have many students who appreciate what you do. Keep up the good work and never change! ❤️

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  2. Hi, Derya,

    Sorry for the slow reply and thanks for reading my blog and making an insightful comment. Actually, I left Turkey in 2008 and then taught for eight years at The American University in Cairo. (My most recent blog is about that AUC experience.) I married an Egyptian while there and have returned to the US after many years away. I’m now doing training and teaching and learning how to live in the US again. Thanks for the kind words and I hope you continue to blossom as a teacher. I always had the feeling you’d do great things. That feeling is certainly turning out to be right! Take care.

    troy

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