I underestimated how bizarre of a profession teaching would be.
Prior to this year, even though teaching was a consideration of mine since I was in high school, I was always mildly annoyed by how much teachers lamented being teachers, complaining of low pay or being under-appreciated or having to deal with terrible students and terrible parents while simultaneously proclaiming themselves to be the saviors and martyrs of society, lest we raise a generation of idiots.
Now that I am a teacher, I don’t know what to say, because I know if I start talking about teaching, if someone starts me down that meandering path, then I won’t be able to stop blabbering about it, often in terms of nonsense, because when the whole job is stirred up and spat out before me, it looks a little like gibberish. Perhaps it’s best for my company if I just stay silent, but I am often unable to help myself.
So here is my gibberish:
We teachers are here because society decided we are not just valuable, but indispensable. Every child in the nation is required to have an education of some sort. That’s what childhood is: a period in life where one can do little else but be forced to learn in state-mandated educational captivity. This notion is fairly recent in the history of civilization and rather unprecedented, and yet today we take it with a grain of salt. Of course schools are necessary. Of course children need to be in schools. Of course we need teachers to teach them. Has it ever been any other way?
Whether the original rationale for public education be nation-building, economic prosperity, or public safety, who knows what it is anymore if none or all of the above? English-learning makes sense; we want people to communicate. Science makes sense, we want people to bail us out of our foolish mistakes with new discoveries or build new ways to make our lives lazier. But somehow I, as a music teacher, have to prove to the world that it is worth it to the taxpayer that my students can subdivide eighth notes or read a scale. Of course I know this is valuable, but what does Sacramento care? What does Washington care?
Music is often justified by how it enhances performances in other subjects, as if my best clarinet player is going to become a biologist because of Holst’s First Suite. Every time I hear about how math and music are conflated, I just about burst a blood vessel. Math and everything are conflated. That’s what math is. Counting in 6/8 doesn’t get you any closer to mastering Calculus.
Music is important because of the things that don’t make it math: expressivity, emotion, understanding teamwork, building friendships, and establishing human connection. If I got to rename my classes, I’d call Orchestra “Showing Up and Being Accountable.” I’d call Choir “Courage.” I’d call Band “Applied Emotions.” To me, music is little more than a vessel to bring out a broadened spectrum of emotion expression. Through it, one learns responsibility, inner peace, the value of hard work, how to have fun, and so on and so forth. When I teach music, I teach catharsis.
And yet, being a teacher, especially at an underprivileged school, is really about none of that. Many of my students are from group homes, or foster care, or have fathers in prison or mothers chasing men in far away states. Some come from situations of abuse, or from parents who had them as teens themselves, who, unable to care for them, dropped them off with a reluctant aunt or grandparent. One of my students found out his estranged father died in the middle of my class. Another has a neighbor who raises my hackles because I’m legitimately afraid he’ll harm her if given the chance. Some cut. Some abuse drugs. Some just cry in the middle of class, for no reason to which I’m privy, but for perhaps all of the weight of existence on their shoulders.
Of course there are more. The stories are endless. They are all in good company.
I am not just a teacher. Perhaps being a teacher is the least important of my duties. I am a stable adult. I am a role model. If this dysfunction is how you come into this world, if this is what you see when you open your eyes to the light of existence, then you assume it’s normal. It’s just how things are. It’s my job to say: “What you know of as normal doesn’t have to be. You don’t have to be the vicious cycle. You have the power to define what normal is for yourself, and it doesn’t have to be destructive.”
But I’m not just a role model either. I am also a confidant. I occupy a vague and ambiguous space between father figure and bureaucrat, between authority and friend, between avatar of the state and a fellow human being just trying to make it in this world. And these roles are by no deed of my own, but are merely because society declared that I should exist, and so I do.
Yet, I am neither father nor friend. At 3:00, I wave goodbye. I go home to my apartment, cook myself a meal, check Facebook, and await the next day when I can fulfill key learning objectives based on California State Standard 2.4 and counsel someone through their breakup, or their crumbling home life, or a death in the family, or whatever else decides to get thrown at them that day. Music is a tool, life is the learning objective, and teaching life is more about listening and empathy than anything.
And quite frankly, I need my students just as much as my students may need me. Perhaps even more so, for when they are outside of my classroom, they have other classrooms and other teachers, or they have their friends, or some sort of family life. I, as a new teacher, am struggling to figure out how to navigate this day to day existence, still without any idea as to how someone working as a teacher could also raise a family, or spend time with friends, or date, or even have hobbies. At this point, my students are my social life, although they can’t truly be so, for they are first and foremost my students, my professional associates, and my interactions with them can only remain within that context. At the end of each weekday, I can ignore this social disconnect as I unwind from exhaustion and enjoy the relative silence of my apartment, feeling good about whatever impact I have and whatever my students might have achieved that day. But on Saturday afternoons, the specter of loneliness begins to rear its ugly head once again.
Anyway, I imagine, like most forms of social work, or any career I suppose, you can talk about it all you want, but nobody is truly going to understand it unless they’ve been there. So why bother?
So when someone asks how teaching is going, I often say, “It’s exhausting, but I enjoy it,” or “It’s a mixed-bag,” or “I’m still getting used to it.” But those are just empty mouth noises, a replacement for a loss of words, or at least a whole lot of gibberish.