March 29, 2011

Exploding the ÔHeroic Teacher’ myth

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<B>Exploding the ‘Heroic Teacher’ myth</B> Everybody knows the story: brave, heroic teacher enters a tough school, faces seemingly insurmountable difficulties and finally earns both the distrust of the stuffed-shirt administrators and the trust of the tough-but-tender students. At the end, the unlikeliest of all the students gives a heartwarming speech and/or the students spontaneously break into song, and everybody cheers, sways to the music, and leaves with a tear in their eye and a lump in their throat.

It’s a pretty good story. The only problem is, it isn’t my story. My story, like the stories of most teachers, is a lot messier. Yes, I did start teaching in a tough school, and yes, I did encounter some heartwarming success, but I also encountered stomach-churning failure, and sometimes I failed at the exact thing I had succeeded at the day before. At the end of my first year, nobody made a heartwarming speech, but I did leave with a tear in my eye: I got laid off.

I got another teaching job, and once I reached the point where I was succeeding more than I failed with the students (this kicked in about year four), I had to wrestle with the question of how or why to continue doing this job year after year. The Heroic Teacher Myth never mentions this. Yes, the students inspired me, but some classes also drove me crazy. Yes, I worked with some wonderful, admirable people, but they were outnumbered by cranks and burnouts. Just when I found myself at a fork in the road, with one road leading out of teaching and the other leading to the Land of the Burnouts, I ducked the longevity problem by switching schools. And then I switched schools again, finally landing in an urban charter school, where, despite the fact that I was working really hard for embarrassingly low wages, I felt like I was finally home, like I had finally found the place where caring colleagues and a sensible administration would sustain me. After eight years of teaching, I felt like I had finally come to the end of the beginning of my teaching career. Having just sold my first book, <I>It Takes a Worried Man</I>, I thought I could now write a sort of counter to the Heroic Teacher Myth. I thought of it as The Lucky Teacher Story: the story of how a flawed but caring teacher could find happiness by eventually finding the right school. I started to write, but it was slow going. It was fun to remember some of the things that happened to me early on, but I didn’t feel much urgency about it, so I wrote irregularly.

Then, suddenly, the school where I worked got a new administration determined to remake the school in their own image and, in a stunning success, they transformed the school almost overnight into an ugly, unpleasant place.

This was horrible for me and my colleagues, but it ended up being good for the book. Suddenly, what had been something I wanted to do became something I <I>had</I> to do. The story became urgent. Writing this book was no longer about telling everyone how great I had it. Instead, it became about figuring out whether I was going to continue. I had to tell my story, not to supplant the Heroic Teacher Myth (probably a hopeless task anyway), but, rather, to figure out what the hell I was doing in this profession that kept breaking my heart. I quit my job at the charter school and spent the summer writing. Ultimately, after reviewing my entire career up to that point, I decided to keep teaching. My rationale feels embarrassingly sappy: in spite of the loss of my idealism, in spite of the transformation of my dream school into my nightmare school, in spite of everything that I complain about, I love working with my students too much to give it up. So maybe the whole lump-in-the-throat thing is not as artificial as I thought. I am, however, still waiting for the big, heartwarming speech from an unlikely student, or maybe for my class to serenade me with a few choruses of a touching song that causes everyone to link arms and sway.

Well, maybe next year. <I>Brendan Halpin’s new book,</I> Losing My Faculties: A Teacher’s Story<I>, chronicles the joys and challenges of his teaching career. An earlier memoir,</I> It Takes a Worried Man<I> (2002), depicted his wife’s struggle with breast cancer. Halpin lives in Boston with his wife and daughter and continues to teach high school English.</I>

Losing My Faculties: A Teacher’s Story
By Brendan Halpin

ISBN 9781400060832

Brendan Halpin

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