Teaching, 30 years on 5

Einsteintoon-cropJISHOU, HUNAN — Thirty years ago this month, I started teaching.

It seems like an incredibly long time — nearly half my life — but at the same time, those years have slipped by quickly.

In that time, I have taught more than a thousand students on three continents, in several subjects, from kindergartners to adults. And I gotta say, I still like it.

As with most careers, everyday work in teaching is fairly routine, run-of-the-mill stuff. At times, it is downright boring (reading essays, grading homework, marking tests, in-service meetings — ACK!), but most times it’s one of the most rewarding occupations in the world — not in the financial sense, but in a deeper and more significant sense. I get to watch young people grow and learn, and at the same time, I grow and learn.

Every teacher can list his or her success stories, I think: students who were nondescript at first, but who later achieved something, no matter ow small, that was noteworthy in some way. It’s those moments that make teaching so worthwhile.

After 30 years, I have lots of stories to tell, but I will offer three examples from the last several weeks to show what I mean.

When she was freshman almost four years ago, L. was a little shy, but clearly capable. Her spoken English was then already quite good. From a very poor, rural family, she almost dropped out of college while a freshman for financial reasons, but through her determination (and the assistance of a helpful benefactor), she will graduate in June. She’s only the second person from her village to attend college, and the first woman.

Last week, L. landed a job in Tanzania, to work for a Chinese-run oil refinery. They were impressed by her grit and her skills in English. Now, she’s in the process of getting her physical exam, inoculations, and passport. In another two weeks, she’ll fly from Beijing to Dar Es Salaam (her first flight ever) to begin her career in the oil business.

How about some more modest, but still significant achievements?

A few weeks ago, the students organized the first English Corner of the spring term. Two freshmen were sent as emissaries to bring me to the meeting place. One girl, D., was so nervous the last time she spoke with me that her upper lip trembled. So, this time she and her partner, J., rehearsed exactly what they would say when they called me.

How do I know? They didn’t tell me. They were right below my living room window as they ran through their lines. I happened to be sitting on the sofa with the window open, so I heard every word. After they ran through the dialog three or four times, D. made the phone call, and I pretended it was all new to me.

She made no mistakes, by the way. And her lip doesn’t tremble anymore when she talks with me.

A. is a student who puts the T in timid, so when she stood up last term without a word and walked to the front of the room to give an oral report, we were all momentarily stunned. Her English was stumbling, and she got stuck on a few words, but soldiered on despite near terminal nervousness. A. gave three other reports that term, each time struggling to get through them but refusing to quit.

Every student has the potential to achieve. The achievements may seem small, but for that student and that time in her or his life, those achievements are important. L. will be able to earn good money to send back to her family in Hunan. D. and A. will be able to speak in English more confidently, now that they’ve successfully leaped over some initial hurdles.

Teaching is a people profession. Of course, that’s obvious, but it’s something that a beginning teacher never truly understands until he or she is in the field for a year or more.

Teaching is not like working in a factory making widgets. Widgets are not self aware. They don’t have their own agendas, which rarely coincide with the teacher’s. And each “widget” in a school is entirely different from the “widget” sitting nearby.

You can make all the lesson plans you want (or are required to), but when boots hit the ground, teaching is an endless negotiation among somewhat interested parties toward a somewhat common goal, led by a person who is somewhat in authority.

It’s like herding cats, as someone once put it.

Teacher prep classes don’t really teach this reality, if in fact it can be taught at all. Sure, we learn about classroom management, discipline, time management, and the like, but experience is the only effective teacher. My first few years teaching were a bit rough, as I made mistakes, but like my timid student, A., I soldiered on.

Perhaps the awful reality of teaching is one reason why so many beginning teachers bail out after two or three years. That, and the modest pay, dwindling respect by others, bureaucratic nonsense, and politicization of education.

If you’re doing it right, teaching is bloody hard work. Not only must you be on top of your subject, but you have to herd the cats in such a way to present that subject to them. In many respects, we end up being surrogate parents, at least for part of the day.

Consider this, though. The average parent cares for two point something children, until they leave the nest. The average teacher cares for 20 to 40 students at a time, 180 days a year, until the teacher decides to quit or retire. Parents work with the same kids for their entire lives. Teachers get a different set each year. New individuals. new group dynamics, new problems, new headaches, new heartaches, new successes.

So, you wonder why some teachers get burned out?

Veteran teachers are supposed to be a font of wisdom for beginning teachers. They write books. I’ve read some of these books, and they are very good. I’m not planning to write a book yet. Maybe after I retire.

But here’s my number one rule for teachers, old and new. All the rest is commentary, to steal some advice from Hillel.

Respect your students.

No matter where they come from, what their backgrounds are, or what their aspirations may be, your job as a teacher is to help them get from where they are now to where they want to be — or where you want them to be — because sometimes they have no idea what they are capable of doing.

If you respect them, even when they are royal pains in the ass, they will respect you, even when you are a royal pain in the ass. With mutual respect, negotiations proceed more smoothly, and you can get stuff done.

I have taught (I think successfully) physics, chemistry, biology, geology, algebra, geometry, pre-calculus, astronomy, literature, public speaking, journalism, writing, oral English and Western culture. I taught physics for 23 years and English as a Foreign Language for six years, so far.

My students have set off on the whole gamut of possible careers: actors, dancers, doctors, lawyers, professors, teachers, founders of charter schools, nurses, artists, photographers, woodworkers, musicians, casting directors, lighting directors, film directors, authors, scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, moms, dads — I’m sure I left a few professions out.

Since my first students oldest ones are now approaching their 50th birthdays, it’s entirely possible (though I prefer not to dwell on this thought too much) that some have become grandparents.

At this point, more than two-thirds of those students are Chinese, because my classes in America were much smaller than the ones here, or in South Africa.

(To put that in context, I estimate I’ve taught about 460 American students. That’s the current enrollment of the Jishou University College of International Exchange, and I have taught all of those students at least one term.)

Have I kept tabs on all them? Sadly, it’s impossible. Facebook is a big help, but since China blocks it I don’t get to visit it as often as I might otherwise. QQ, for my Chinese students, is another avenue of communication, but larger classes means less time to connect with every student, so realistically I only stay in regular contact with just a few from each graduating class.

Do I remember all their names? Faces, yes. Names, most of them. I’ve made it my goal here in China to learn at least the English names of all my students, so I can look at them in class and call on them by name. It takes me a year to really get them all down, and another year to learn their Chinese names. But, unless they spent some time talking with me in or out of class, in time those names (more than a thousand, remember) gradually fade away. My memory’s good, but it’s not eidetic.

I’ve taught in three quite different venues. I began my career at a small independent high school in Louisville, Kentucky — St. Francis High School. I did a Fulbright teacher exchange at the much larger Pretoria Boys High School for a year. (I still have my school tie, boys!) And since 2008, I’ve been at Jishou University in China, which has enticed me to stay yet another year with a generous raise. Besides all that, I’ve been teaching primary students English and have even done teacher in-service for Chinese teachers of English.

Teach and you shall learn. So I keep going. I still have a lot of learn.

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5 thoughts on “Teaching, 30 years on

  1. Reply Thomas Clay Jr. Apr 23,2014 12:27 pm

    You need this book. It’s called Moonwalking with Einstein by Josh Foher and it is about the memory world championships. He uses a technique that priest and rabbis used to memorize large passages and it is pretty simple if you practice just a little bit. I think it is the most important skill any student could possibly learn. I still remember the day you found that extremely old ether that we had to call the bomb squad to dispose of. The experiments that we did with Sodium and all the equations we had to memorize. Seems a hundred years ago and just yesterday. I even remember the Antech Inc. pocket protector you used. I hope that is reflective of the respect I hold for you that you so richly deserve.

  2. Reply PK Apr 24,2014 12:04 am

    This was great to read: very interesting. For me, it’s a road not taken, at least over the last 30+ years since I last taught. Except for doing math with my teenagers, of course, which is teaching in microcosm.

    I’m frequently reminded these days (perhaps it’s a function of getting old) of the influential teachers I have had, and how their influence and memories have been carried along with me throughout life. You’ve had a profound effect on hundreds of people now.

    You might consider writing about your own influences along these lines: people you may have modeled yourself after, people who served as negative examples, etc.

  3. Reply Emily Cowen Plant Apr 24,2014 10:10 am

    Wonderful post Mr Wheaton. I can still specifically remember certain days in your class at St Francis. What an amazing gift of the love of teaching and learning that you’ve given to all of your students!

  4. Reply Dixie O'Donnell Apr 24,2014 10:16 am

    I was just mentioning today that your physics class was fun, even though sometimes we started to have too much fun and you had to get mad at us 🙂

  5. Reply John Wheaton Apr 25,2014 3:14 pm

    Me, mad? Never! Haha! I’m glad to see you guys and gals are doing so well. Dixie O’Donnell, you must have way more air miles than I do now.

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