Losing My Faculties A Teacher's Story

ISBN-10: 0812969510
ISBN-13: 9780812969511
Edition: N/A
Authors: Brendan Halpin
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Book details

List price: $15.00
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 8/10/2004
Binding: Paperback
Pages: 256
Size: 5.25" wide x 8.00" long x 0.75" tall
Weight: 0.440
Language: English

In June 1990, with the aid of some creative credit card use, I go to Taiwan on a bogus "exchange program" through my university. (My future wife, Kirsten, and I are the first and last participants.) The "exchange" is with some English-language institute in Taipei, and the idea is that my university sends them recent grads to teach for a few months, and they send students to the university's ESL program for a few months. Of course, the real idea is that the Chung Shan English Language Institute can put "Affiliated with Ivy League University" on its brochures.
I fell into this because I worked in the International Programs Office, and, being a senior with no ambition or clue what to do and six months before my student loans were coming due, I decided that spending six months in Taiwan would be a pretty cool adventure.
The only downside (apart from the fact that Taiwan in the summer is a bowl of heat, humidity, and pollution that puts even my native Cincinnati to shame) is that I have to work at the institute teaching English.
Well, maybe "teaching" is sort of a misnomer. Most of what I do is work in the children's English classes, which they attend on Wednesdays and Saturdays, when they only have a half day of regular school. There is a Chinese teacher here to run the class and really teach them stuff, and an American teacher to run language games. It's like a very specialized, makeup-free version of clowning. I'm good at it, but it gets old pretty quickly.
I also work the occasional evening teaching teenagers and adults. Here I am the only teacher in the room, and though the syllabus has every class planned out and it's mostly going through lame exercises in the book, it is a version of teaching. Sometimes I veer from the syllabus and actually talk to the students. I find that I enjoy the teenagers the most. I don't know why this is-I think I am just one of these rare and probably defective people who really enjoy the company of teenagers.
It is July, and I have an early-evening class of all teenagers. Years later I will still remember some of them-Julie, Jim, Kellie, and Angle, who pronounces it "Angel" (of course, they have Chinese names, but I never know them, which is kind of weird-it's like your French or Spanish teacher only knowing you as Pierre or Vicente or whatever name you adopted in high school language classes). I've been teaching this group for about a month, and they are finally comfortable enough to start speaking, and the lame exercise in the book evolves into something that very nearly approximates a conversation. Most of the students are speaking, their English is flowing pretty well, and they're asking questions about the grammar point and then using my answers-everything is just working really well. I am shocked when class ends because it feels like it just started.
I meet up with Kirsten, who was teaching across the hall, and prepare myself to leave the air-conditioning and step into the lead apron of swampy heat that is Taipei in the summertime. When the heat hits me, it's like a punch in the stomach. I've been here a month and I'm still not used to it. I immediately start sweating from every pore in my body, but I feel something else too. Something strange. Something I have never felt at the end of a day of work before.
I am happy and full of energy. I feel great-I'm buzzing tremendously and talking a mile a minute as I practically run down the street searching for some kind of cold beverage to save me from imminent dehydration.
"I can't believe this!" I say to Kirsten, who is looking at me "with stranger eyes," as one of our Chinese buddies would say. "I feel great! You're not supposed to feel great after work! You feel like shit, you go to happy hour to try and get happy, you don't get happy just from work!" I worked the five previous summers in an insurance company and had a variety of jobs in college, and never, even when I watched TV for money in my dorm as a work/study "job," did I feel this good at the end of a day of work.
In my senior year of college I didn't feel very enthusiastic about pursuing any line of work because I just assumed that work was pain-in-the-ass drudgery that you endured until you had a few pathetic hours of free time in which to do what you really wanted to do. It just never occurred to me that work could be something you actually enjoyed. And then I get this glimpse of a world that few people are fortunate enough to know: the world in which work doesn't suck.
Work, it seems, can actually be fun.
I t is 1992. I live in a tiny, mouse-infested apartment in Somerville, Massachusetts, a small city that borders Boston and Cambridge, and I am about two months into ed school in nearby Medford. I just got through with a year and a half of working at a computer company as a bottom-of-the-ladder, assistant-to-an-assistant mail sorter/photocopier/trash taker-outer. It wasn't horrible (except for one particular day when I was taking out the lunch trash and these bags of unused fish stock exploded all over me), but it wasn't exactly what you'd call fulfilling, and I sure as hell never felt great at the end of the day, so remembering my experience in Taiwan, I decided to go to ed school. So far it's not as horrible as everyone says. I have met some great people. Ten years later I will still be friends with two out of the thirty of them, which is really not a bad ratio. And we do nothing but think about teaching, which, I will find, is something you rarely have time to do when you are actually teaching.
I go to interview at the Boston public high school where I might get placed as a student teacher. The teacher, Gordon Stevens, wants to talk to me before he agrees to take me on, to make sure we can work together. He asks me why I'm interested in urban education. I give him a version of the truth-that this seems like where the real action is in education, the front lines, that if I have any talent for this at all, this is where I should be.
I do not tell him that I don't have a car and that this was the only placement I could get to by public transportation after my classmates snapped up all the Cambridge and Somerville placements.
The whole truth is that I really can't articulate why I feel like I want to teach here instead of in the suburbs. Certainly part of it is feeling like I want to make a difference, like it matters whether I go to work or not, which is something I never felt at the computer company. I remember having a number of really incompetent teachers (along with a handful of superstars) in high school, and I wasn't really harmed by them-basically anybody coming out of my small private high school started with enough advantages to be okay one way or the other. I feel like maybe that's not the case here, like maybe what I do could make a difference, like I would increase my own importance by working with kids who might have their lives changed by me. Yeah, so that's the liberal do-gooder really-out-to-make-himself-feel-important part, which is widely derided (unfairly, I think-isn't that kind of a win-win?).
I don't know. I'd like to say that I'm over that feeling completely now, nine years into my teaching career, but I know that one of the reasons I still love my work is that it feels important.
What I don't tell Mr. Stevens, because I haven't figured it out yet, is that I feel called to urban teaching (maybe a pretentious word choice, but it does feel that way-like somebody's tugging me to get into this, like I can't imagine working in a rich suburb or a private school, even though I never set out to be the Urban Education Warrior) not just because it will make me look big, and not just because I want to try something hard, and not just because it's where the action is. I want to do this because it's mine. Because I have spent my whole life in cities, because I can't seem to get away from the problem of how to live with people who aren't like you (or even people who don't like you), because I was brought up by a single parent in the city, because this is where I live.
Maybe Mr. Stevens understands all this, because he tells me he gets a good feeling from me and is looking forward to us working together. I'm looking forward to it too.
Of course, I'm also terrified.
For the first half of the year, I'll be observing Mr. Stevens. I will take over two of his classes in the second semester. He is great at his job. It's not that he holds the class spellbound all the time-that's an overrated skill usually possessed by Cult of Personality teachers who are so in love with themselves that they convince the students to follow suit-he just oozes competence. And I am daunted by what it takes to achieve it. Even after what appears to be a very successful class, he retires to his "office"-by being in charge of purchasing office supplies, he has scored himself a supply closet in the attic and squeezed his desk between the boxes of chalk and paper clips, making him the only non-administrator in the entire building who has space in which to work when he's not teaching-and tortures himself, agonizing over what could have gone better, what he could have done differently, what he will do differently tomorrow. It looks like a lot of work. I don't know if I really have it in me to do this to myself every day.
Mostly I observe him with a class full of ninth-graders. One of whom is a class clown named Trenton. He is obviously very bright, but he's not doing his work and he mostly makes jokes about his classmates. I write a paper about him and show it to Mr. Stevens. He furrows his brow. He hadn't noticed half the misbehavior that I, sitting silently in the back of the room, have recorded. Now he has more stuff to agonize over.
One day I have a big cup of coffee right before class. I will never do this again. Mr. Stevens gets the kids started on some sort of activity and then needs to leave the room-he has to talk to somebody about something, perhaps relating to office supplies. "Mr. Halpin can help you while I'm out of the room," he tells the class. This is my first big moment, my first moment as a "teacher," and I am paralyzed-I wasn't prepared to actually interact with the kids when I left the house this morning! I'm just the Watcher! I watch, and record, and imagine fearfully how I might deal with Trenton or his classmates in every situation of every class. I can certainly handle the activity, but I hardly know these kids' names! What will I do if they misbehave? What do they think of me? Who do they think I am? I know when I was in high school, I probably would have been instinctively contemptuous of somebody lurking in the back of the room, and I probably would have tried to torture that person, just out of that killer instinct that packs of adolescents possess. (At my private high school we didn't have student teachers-they just threw the twenty-three-year-olds with no experience right into the classroom as full-fledged teachers. We did savage some of them.) What if their relatively calm behavior arises only out of their respect for Mr. Stevens? Will this room turn into a scene out of the first half of Lean on Me, before Morgan Freeman starts carrying a bat and Showing Those Tough Kids Who's Boss? Trenton is having trouble with the exercise, and he calls me over for help. I get right up next to his desk and begin to explain-"Well, you see how the adjective goes here," or some such thing, and Trenton interrupts me. "I'm sorry, man, I don't mean to disrespect you, but you got that nasty Student Teacher Breath." The class breaks up. I have no idea what to say. I am not yet secure enough to laugh at a joke like this. I probably try to pretend like I'm laughing, when of course I am horrified, so it probably comes out all fake, he-heh. Whatever it is, I do nothing to save the situation except for not getting angry. Have I passed some kind of test, or failed it? Or both? I never get a chance to find out. Mr. Stevens returns, order is restored, and the class ends soon afterward.
Nine years later I see Trenton at the ice cream parlor in my neighborhood. He looks at me without a trace of recognition, but I know him immediately.
A t the beginning of the second semester the classes change, so the class of Mr. Stevens' that I will be in charge of is a group of twenty-seven tenth-graders. It is a writing class. I will be able to read and comment meaningfully on all of their papers because I have only two classes. I have no idea how I might manage to do that if I were teaching five classes of this size, which is what all the real teachers here are doing. For the first few days Mr. Stevens is in charge, and we are meeting in a science room with long tables and tall stools, only there aren't twenty-seven stools, so some kids are sitting on the heater over by the window, while others are on the floor. Somehow Mr. Stevens engineers a switch, and we end up in a French classroom that can just barely fit everyone.
On my first day of actually teaching this class without Mr. Stevens present, I get my big Test of the Student Teacher, which I fail miserably. I turn around to write something on the board, and somebody, somewhere (well, I know exactly which table it comes from, but since my back was turned, I do know enough to know I can't point the finger without enduring a twenty-minute debate about how I didn't see and I can't possibly be so unfair as to accuse someone without evidence), throws a piece of chalk. It explodes on the pipe that runs across the ceiling, making a really spectacular noise and showering dust all over the floor.
From the Hardcover edition.

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