Sunday, 22 March 2009

Teaching In The Blood

I come from a long line of teachers. My mother, the daughter of two teachers herself, started teaching when she was sixteen, at a one-room school in the backwoods of Kentucky. Her students ranged from six years to seventeen, and I used to love her stories about unruly boys and girls who came to school with lice and malaria.

"Don't be a teacher," my mother often advised me, "it's a lot more than just teaching people things." Good teaching, she insisted, was all about the ability to read people; it was about classroom control, and more than anything else, the quality of natural authority. My mother claimed she lacked the last two of these. "Unlike your Aunt Anna Mae," she used to sigh. "Your Aunt Anna Mae is a born teacher."

My aunt Anna Mae was a great teacher. She could spend five minutes with someone and know what made them tick; she could walk into a room filled with noisy brats and in no time at all have them panting for her approval and attention; she could calm the nervous and cheer up the brokenhearted, and they never even knew she was doing it. My Aunt Anna Mae taught first grade in Kentucky for over fifty years and Sunday School at the local Baptist church for over sixty. She was remarkably grounded in the present, though still in touch with the past: at the age of eighty, she knew every book in the Bible -- and the names of all the Ninja Turtles.

Sadly, I am not related by blood to my Aunt Anna Mae. And if my mother had a problem with classroom control and natural authority, it was as nothing next to mine.

In my mother's case, the decision to become a teacher was made for her. There were two respectable job opportunities for women back then: marriage and teaching. My mother opted for the latter: it seemed less problematic. Besides, her teaching income was desperately needed and every penny she made was handed over to her family. "If the war hadn't started, I'd probably be there still," she used to say. The war created job opportunities in places my mother had only heard about -- places she had longed to visit, but had few hopes of ever seeing: New York, Chicago, Washington D.C., Los Angeles.

In the late thirties, my mother saw a job advertisement in the local paper. They needed secretaries in Washington D.C. A week later, she saw another advertisement: they needed secretaries in New York City. Then and there, my mother knew what she had to do. She saved every penny she could and signed up for a typing class, then shorthand. With her new skills, she quit her most recent teaching job -- in the backwoods of Georgia -- and left for a world of adventure, excitement and possibilities.

Typing took my mother away from her humdrum life and let her experience the thrill of living in Manhattan, Chicago, and Washington D.C. Of visiting museums and galleries and concert halls and strolling through parks bigger than her own hometown. Thanks to the war, my mother learned that there was more to life than marriage by age 22, church three times a week, and a life of endless and predictable toil.

When I asked her if she liked secretarial work, my mother would invariably shrug. "I don't suppose anyone really likes it, but it's a means to an end. And the people I worked with were always so interesting."

"Didn't you miss teaching?"

"Not much. I'm good at explaining things, but I had terrible classroom control. And teaching never took me any place interesting."

I was determined to follow my mother's adventurous lifestyle, but in my case, teaching funded my travels. After graduating from college, I saved up my money from a series of secretarial jobs and flew to Japan, where I got my first job teaching English.

"How's your classroom control?" my mother asked me when I got back from my first year in Japan and announced my intentions of pursuing a teaching career. "I can't see you as a teacher somehow; you're too much like me."

My mother was right: to this day, I have terrible classroom control. But I'm good enough at explaining things. Plus, teaching has taken me to all sorts of interesting places: the Near East, the Far East, and Europe. No one-room school for me, though; I've taught in banks, hospitals, factories, junior colleges and even shopping malls. I've seen my share of unruly kids, but I've also taught housewives, retired university professors, bar hostesses, college students, businessmen, and doctors. My students have been Chinese, Hispanic, Korean, Japanese, Russian, Italian, German, Turkish, West African, and Kazakh.

I can't say I always love teaching, but I definitely find it more interesting than typing letters, and far more challenging. My duties change all the time, too. I've taught janitorial skills to Indochinese refugees, beginning Japanese to Welsh violinists and German white collar workers, and English songs to Japanese bar hostesses.

And that is why I teach: I get to go to interesting places and the people I work with are always so interesting.


Jacqui said...

I'm also from a long line of teachers, from grandma to mother to aunt. When I said I wanted to be a teacher, my mother was horrified. She kept saying, "I didn't march on Washington for women's rights so you could be a teacher or a nurse anyway!"

But I love it. And I miss it now tha I write full time. And she understands, I think.

debra said...

I wonder how many of us have chosen our own paths rather than someone else steering us toward one. Or does the path choose us? Hmmmm...

Anonymous said...

Everyone always told me I'd be a teacher like my dad. It annoyed me no end. Yet I ended up a teacher after all, although only for adults. I'm good at explaining things. I'm nothing like Aunt Anna Mae, but I have no desire to teach children either.

Charlie said...

Could it be that controlling a classroom has become much more difficult because respect for elders and authority has drastically diminished?

And couple that with the notion of "punishment": it's outraged parents vs. Bobby staying after school to write "I will not spit at the teacher" a thousand times.

School ain't the same as it was for you, your mother, and your grandparents.

Kim Ayres said...

My mother was a teacher before she had kids and knew all about "the look" and "the voice" that had kids returning to their seats, and adults feeling like they'd been caught behind the bike sheds having a sneaky cigarette.

I love teaching adults who want to learn, but I could never face the idea of teaching a class full of kids who want to be somewhere else

adrienne said...

My mom was a secretary and later a teacher. She must've been too good at classroom control, because they always stuck her with the problem students!

Mary Witzl said...

Jacqui -- Oddly enough, there was a time when teaching and nursing were not considered suitable occupations for women. I certainly want my girls to have the option to be veterinarians or engineers if they so desire, but if teaching or nursing turns out to be what they want to do, more power to them. I'm glad you like teaching too!

For a dizzy, wonderful two years I too got to write full time. Now I miss that, but I know that if I ever stopped teaching again, I'd miss that too. So many quandaries in life...

Debra -- One of the first sentences we learned in Japanese was 'Musuko o isha ni suru tsumori desu' -- 'I plan to make my son a doctor'. I found that mind-boggling: the fact that a father thought he could just make his son a doctor if he felt like it. I like to think that I chose my own path, but who knows? Maybe it was a combination of a lot of things that turned me into a teacher.

Planetnomad -- That would have driven me crazy -- being told that I WOULD be a teacher! I'm pretty sure that if they'd told me that, I'd be anything else right now, so good for you for persevering.

Teaching children has to be the most demanding (and rewarding) teaching of all, but so many people assume that teaching adults is more difficult. My aunt was a hard act to follow. No way would I have the energy or patience to teach children. And with my management problem, they'd eat me alive.

Charlie -- One of my colleagues attended a military school in Nigeria. He and his classmates were regularly beaten and whipped, to the point where they had to give an account of how many fingers were being held up, to ensure they hadn't sustained neurological damage. My colleague often bemoans the fact that we cannot dish out the same treatment -- so very effective on him -- to some of our more unruly students. And I thought of your good nuns... I'll bet they'd agree with him.

School sure isn't the same. Not only did they allow corporal punishment when we were kids, they encouraged it. I don't think that's the way to go, but sometimes it seems like there's too great a discrepancy between the two schools of discipline.

Kim -- I dream of teaching adults who genuinely want to learn -- my idea of teaching heaven! But since I can't, I dream of other unattainable things. Such as having 'the look' and 'the voice'. As I have neither, I am forced to make do with a snarky sense of humor and a lot of slapstick and whining.

Adrienne -- My mother got a lot of problem students too, but in her case it was because no one else would have them. She went back to teaching after we grew up and got landed with everyone else's 'I'll quit if I get him again' kids. She had some lively times.

Robin said...

I think you should saunter up to unruly kids, and stand next to them. Then yell, "Look over there, class! A rare, puffer bellied Peruvian Swallow!" while pointing out the window. While everyone's attention is elsewhere, you taser the kid. When he recovers, you flash him a note that says, "If you tell anyone, I'll kill you."

By the way, if you don't delete this suggestion, I'll kill you.

JR's Thumbprints said...

I find teaching very very confining.

Bish Denham said...

Yep, WWII really had a big effect on the lives of very ordinary women. Obviously your Mom was one.

My mom, who homeschooled me, thought I was good with kids would be a teacher. I did end up working with kids, but with emotionally disturbed ones. My sister was teacher...

Mary Witzl said...

Robin -- That's such a good idea I'm going to risk your homicidal wrath and leave it there. I'll definitely have to try a modified version of that sometime. I'm thinking water pistols, maybe, or a pea shooter. And believe me, that thought will get me through all my classes today.

JR -- Teaching can seem a little stifling, to be sure. But in your case, that's surely more to do with the venue than even the students? I hope some of the guys I teach won't end up in the Turkish equivalent of where you teach...

Bish -- Arguably, I work with kids like that too, and so do my colleagues. One of my fellow teachers has a fairly dirty-mouthed lad with Tourette's disease -- picture that. She figures it's a mercy she can't always understand Turkish.