Friday, April 2, 2010

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Teaching 11th and 12th grade English is a rollar coaster--some days I love my job; some days I hate it--heck, one moment I love my job, and the next moment I hate it. In all, it's a profession that includes lots of highs and lows--and plenty of chaos. I guess that is to be expected when you are dealing with hundreds of teenagers.

The Good

**The other day, I was sitting on a ledge in the cafeteria during "Lunch Duty" (an adventure all of its own), and I started reading The Catcher in the Rye, the novel we are currently studying in English 11. One of my "punk" students--you know, baggy jeans, black beanie with long hair sticking out, and big hoodie--came up to me and said, "Mrs. Nielson, I finished the book. I couldn't stop reading it." Well, I have to admit that I am shocked that this student even read the book, let alone several days ahead of schedule.

"I'm so glad, Carl!" I said, grinning. "What do you think?"

"I think I don't understand the ending."

So, in the midst of the noisy lunch room, we discussed the symbolism of the red hunting hat, the carrousel, and Holden's realization that he cannot protect Phoebe from the dangers and disappointments of adulthood.

A spirited discussion of literature with an unlikely student--now that is something I love about my job.

**A few days ago, I sparked a lively debate in my class about whether or not Mr. Antolini (a teacher in The Catcher in the Rye) is a creeper. I told the students that they must support their opinion with textual evidence, and they had a heyday finding direct quotes to either defend or destroy poor Antolini's reputation. At the end of class, I heard one of the students say, "We always do such fun things in this class."

An unexpected compliment from a student after a day of textual analysis--now that is another thing I love about my job.

The Bad

**I caught two of my smartest students copying a take-home quiz this week. This is incredibly frustrating to me. Cheating is so rampant that teachers honestly can't even assign homework anymore because the students' automatic reaction is to copy it--even if they are perfectly capable of completing the assignment on their own; even if the assignment would only take them 15 minutes to complete; even if the assignment could teach them something valuable. Honestly, the only homework that I can assign is reading (can't really copy that) and major essays (truly stupid if you copy that).

Realizing that many teenagers have no sense of academic integrity--that is one of my major frustrations as a teacher.

**I recently had the students complete a group poster project. They had to draw a character from the novel, using descriptive clues from the text, and they also had to incorporate aspects of the character's personality. The posters and presentations turned out great, and I was feeling quite good about the whole thing. Well, after class, a student approached me and said, "You can't hang the poster of Ackley on the wall." After I questioned her further, she admitted that the kids had purposely modeled the drawing after a specific student in the school who is constantly bullied for his poor hygiene and awkward social skills. Ackley is a character in the novel who no one likes--and the students were alluding to the fact that this real teenager was even worse than Ackley. They had dressed their character in a particular t-shirt that I guess the real boy always wears, so that when other students saw the poster, they would make the connection and laugh. I had not recognized this subtle bullying because I do not know the real young man, and therefore didn't notice the t-shirt.

The incident made me feel ill. I see the best in my students and never assume the worst of them--I do not like to acknowledge that they can be so heartless.

A few positive things did come out of the situation however: 1) I was able to thank the student who intervened so that I didn't unknowingly hang the poster. I sent a letter to her parents explaining how proud I am of her. What a good kid. 2) I was able to speak to that class about the incident--which lead to a talk about respect and compassion: "If there's one thing you learn from me, I don't want it to be the importance of reading and writing--I want it to be the importance of treating people with kindness." It's not very often that I get to say things like that to my students, but it is so very true.

One of the perpetrators came to me in tears after class, and she and I were able to have a heart-to-heart about peer pressure and character. I think she may have learned something.

Witnessing upsetting incidents of cruelty in my classroom and in the hallways--certainly not my favorite part of this job.

The Ugly

**I'm sorry, but facing a room of 25 sleepy, grumpy teenagers at 7:15 a.m. and saying, "Let's discuss the book!" is kind of an ugly situation. They don't want to discuss the book at that outrageous hour of the morning--I don't want to discuss the book at that hour of the morning!! In fact, the early mornings seem to be getting earlier...and the seductive snooze button seems to be getting more tantalizing. I have now mastered the art of showering and getting ready for the day in a total of 15 minutes. I will admit, I barely make it to school on time--sometimes after speeding like a maniac and perhaps even purposely running a red light on a totally deserted street. (Don't you hate that when you are stuck at a light and no one is around??) But I am on time, darn it! And the adrenaline rush really wakes me up for those "lively" discussions.

7:15 a.m. school starting time--now that is an ugly part of this job.

**And finally, perhaps my least favorite part of the job: Grading papers. I don't have school today, and the weather outside is lovely--in the 70s--yet I am holed up in the UB Library, grading research essays. I have about 25 more to do today...and they are lengthy...will I survive it?

Spending a sunny day-off grading boring research papers about gun control, the death penalty, and outsourcing--definitely ugly.

I better get back to it.


  1. you are the BEST teacher.
    in all ways honey.

    you support your kids and take the good, the bad and the ugly all together.
    i had MANY teachers that didn't give a rat's butt. . . so Rachel. . . hang in there!
    i KNOW it means a TON to all of your students that you put in the work and take all the bad with the good. . . even if it doesn't show!

    and *good grief*!
    kids still bully like that!?!

    what wienies.
    but they are.
    i cannot comprehend such cruelty.
    sorry about that part of the job. . . that would be NO fun!
    and good luck with grading papers. . . sounds exhilarating! ;)

  2. Know why I loved that post? Because it is so true. One of my 8th graders that I love even though he is a total punk came for tutoring high as a kite yesterday. That's right. Stinking up the whole building! It is so frustrating and sad. But I know he is such a good kid and sometimes we have great discussion and make real progress on his math. Ugh.

  3. Rachel- I love reading about your experiences- good bad and ugly- especially because some of my kids are near the age you teach. I think we might actually use your post for an FHE discussion? (Thank goodness- Monday always comes and I'm wondering what we're going to talk about that would work for my family)

    You really are an amazing teacher- I'm sure of it.



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