Saturday, January 26, 2013
Teachers Who Don't Feel Like Working
In yesterday's New York Times there was a story (Link) about a new PBS mini-series--Shakespeare Uncovered--which began its six-part run last night. (It's on DVR--haven't watched it yet.) Anyway, I was reading the feature in the paper (by Neil Genzlinger), figuring it would be fun to watch in these dark drear dour days of January and February. Until I came to this sentence:
Sure, the hourlong programs feel a bit like something high school teachers or college professors might show classes when they didn't feel like working ....
(By the way, if I were grading Genzlinger's sentence--on one of those days when I feel like working--I would circle his they and mention it doesn't have a clear antecedent: the closest plural noun is classes, but it's probably not the classes he's talking about. Or is it? Not clear. Rewrite the sentence. Make it clear. Picky English teacher.)
Well, I was surely glad Genzlinger didn't mention middle school teachers in his sweeping dismissal. He must have known that middle school teachers would never show a film or video just to, you know, have something to do when they didn't feel like working.
I taught middle school for about thirty years, college for a few, high school for about ten--and I really got out a lot of work by showing films. I'm alarmed now that Genzlinger has outed my colleagues and me--has revealed our darkest secret to the readers of the New York Times, whose reporters never don't feel like working--well, there was Jayson Blair, that reporter who faked stories, fooled his editors--but, hey, let's not condemn all NYT reporters because of a couple of sluggards. Let's save that for educators.
First of all: confession. The first year I taught middle school (the first year I taught anything) was 1966-1967. I had five classes a day, forty seventh-grade (i.e., wacko) students per class. (Do the math.) I had two sections of American history, two of English, one of reading. Three different preparations each day.
And then ... a screw-up in the bus scheduling, so the principal added another thirty-minute period to the day and called it activity period. Now I had a couple additional preparations. (I found myself involved, via activity period, in the drama and journalism programs at the school. I loved both.)
I didn't complain. I was having fun. And--some days--I was drowning. Overwhelmed by work and detail. And, yes, sometimes on those days as I slipped below the surface, I would show a filmstrip or a film, giving me time to swim back up for a little air.
I did not show those films because I didn't feel like working but because I had so much work I couldn't do it all. And I was under water.
The job never got any easier. There were years when I had fewer classes, fewer students, but there was always more to do than I could possibly do. But I started figuring things out, too. I organized my days better, my evenings, my weekends. (Critics love to bleat about how teachers don't work in the summer; what those critics don't mention is that we work seven days a week, plus evenings, during the academic year.)
And I started integrating films and other visuals into the curriculum. My middle-schoolers read The Taming of the Shrew--later, Much Ado About Nothing--and then we watched the wonderful films of those plays. (But just on days when I didn't feel like working.)
When I taught The Call of the Wild, which takes place during Klondike Gold Rush, I showed students Chaplin's film The Gold Rush (same era)--but only when I didn't feel like working.
When I taught The Diary of Anne Frank, we read the play, then saw the film--but only when ...
When I taught Hamlet, we read the play--up through Act IV--then saw one of the films--but only when ...
When I taught Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I would show the Huck-related segment of Ken Burns' film Mark Twain--but only when ...
It's annoying for anyone--a teacher, a reporter, a politician, a cop, a welfare recipient, a teenager, a hunter, a lawyer, a priest, an investment banker, a mother, an anything or anyone--to be compared constantly with the worst of our sub-species. But we do it to one another, all the time.
It's a kind of shorthand. Kind of easy. Even kind of fun. Very self-satisfying.
Except, of course, when we are the target. Then it's something else, isn't it? Then it's bias, prejudice, ignorance--all those other ugly words we use to characterize people who don't understand us. And who don't take the time to try.