As a teacher, I am often pressed with endless questions. “When is this due?” “Why did the poet write it like that?” “Can you explain that again?” “How can you tell what that means?” These questions I can handle. I became a teacher after all to help educate the minds of the future. I want them to ask questions—hard questions. I want them to look at words and furrow their brows with critical thinking working through their brains. I want questions. I feed off of questions.
Today, I designed a high interest lesson. We had class debates on issues from the play Julius Caesar. We debated questions like: Is it ever okay to overthrow a political leader? Is there such thing as fate? Students participated and fought and delved into some interesting issues. After the debate, I used my best storytelling skills and proffered all the most interesting details of Julius’s life. I told of pirates, war, conspiracy, lovers trysts, politics, speech making, and assassination. I was at my best (and for the 5th time, I might add).
When I finished, I asked my students to write in their notes a bit about what they learned from the class debates we had or from the info I delivered on Julius. The prompt was “What did you learn today? Any interesting thoughts?”
But they couldn’t handle this simple question. “What if I didn’t learn anything?” “Wait, what do we write about?” “How much do we have to write?” “Wait, what do we write about?” “What are we doing?” “What if nothing was interesting?” . . . I answered, I explained, I repeated. And then, I said, “Yeah write a short paragraph, 5-6 sentences about what you learned or even just a thought you had that was interesting in the debates.” I was greeted with shock and horror. “Are you serious?” “Why so much?” “Why do we have to write anything at all?” “5-6 sentences? (eye roll).” I defended the assignment. “It’s not that much. -- I just want to know your interesting thoughts from today. – This is English, you need to use words!” And then the statement that pushed me over the edge. “I’m only writing one sentence.”
Sigh. We’re doomed.
The questions that make me want to give up the most are the questions students ask that show they are their own biggest obstacles in education. To me the question sounds like this: “How little can I do and still get points for doing it?” I hate that, and I don’t use the word hate much. What happened to curiosity and learning for the sake of gaining knowledge? Why are students so opposed to effort of any kind?
At the last barrage of questions and whiny statements, I grabbed my laptop and left the room. I couldn’t take it anymore. I stood outside the closed door and counted to 10. The bell eventually rang a minute later and my students (some) literally ran out the door. Some saw me standing there and graciously offered me a thank you, full on sympathy in their observant eyes.
When all were gone, I shut the door, sat in a desk, and cried. I cried for my lack of understanding. I cried for the energy and emotion I put into educating these kids everyday, only to be greeted with sheer resistance. I cried because I’m the enemy and they’re the victims. I cried because I don’t know how much longer I can do this job. I cried because I don’t know how to break through.
I want to be a good teacher. I want to have one of those classes where everyone is raising their hands to speak, or better yet, understanding the rules of society and can moderate their own conversations with civility.
I don’t know how to do that, and that’s why I cried.