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Yesterday, I did something I am not very happy with myself for, and I don’t know what to think of it.  

Yesterday, I let a girl lie to me and get away with it.

Specifically, I let a girl lie to me about the work she had and had not done.  We’d been around this particular track a few times already this term.  She’d come up to me before or after class and demand to know what her grade was up to this point in the term.  I’d givee her an honest answer–about a D+–and then point out that she’d only handed in three of the five required papers.   She’d have a screaming fit that she’d done all that, she’d given me the work, she remembered doing it right there, etc, etc, etc.

The only problem with that, of course, is that I have an excellent memory, and this particular girl had been on my mind for weeks.   I also have a nearly foolproof system for ensuring that I don’t lose papers.  Any paper that comes in goes immediately into the left hand pocket of a particular folder.  When I’ve graded it, I put it into the right hand pocket.

Of course, there’s always the chance that, with a lot of papers to grade, I might have forgotten to record the grade in my book.  But that shouldn’t be a problem, either, because in this class, students were supposed to keep all their work in a portfolio to hand in on the last day. 

So, when this person would pull this particular stunt, I would say what  usually say–fine, bring me the portfolio, show me the grade, I’ll be happy to record it.

And, of course, the portfolio never came in.  Because she hadn’t done the papers in the first place.  Because I would have remembered if she had, because she was worrying me, and therefore on my mind more than most of them were.

I find myself, suddenly, in a place where I simply do not want to get shouted at any more.   And I do get shouted at.  A lot. 

What’s worse, I think, is that I suddenly feel as if there’s no point in fighting it.  When I started doing this, the way in which kids in remedial classes–especially the kinds of kids who end up in the kinds of remedial classes I teach–were allowed to bluff and bully and ignore their way out of learning anything at all really bothered me.

It still bothers me.  Most of the kids in these classes have learned exactly one thing in high school–that there’s no point in doing any work at all, because if you’re just loud enough, aggressive enough, threatening enough, or passive enough, you’ll get a “good” grade anyway.

Of course, just a little while ago, these kids hit a all called the SATs, and the result was that, “good” grades or not, not a college in the country would touch them–except ours.

But we did touch them, and they don’t know enough about education, or the system as it operates in the US right this minute, to realize that they are not going to “college” in the same sense that, say, soembody at Harvard or Vassar or Johns Hopkins is. 

The level or work thee kids do would not be acceptable for a remedial class at any third tier school, never mind a first tier one.  These are eighteen year olds still struggling to produce standard page and a half, five paragraph essays–the kind of ting their peers at good schools have done in about seventh grade. 

Their reading levels are worse than atrocious–and ‘ve got one this term I’m beginning to think can’t actually read at all–but their writing is astonishing in its complete and utter failure.  Most of them don’t know what a sentence is, don’t know what the basics of grammar, punctuation and spelling are, and can’t think their way out of paper bags.

The one thing these kids need, and I’ve known it from the very beginning, is someone who will not compromise standards. 

They need that first because, if they’re capable, they need to know what we teach so that they can make decent lives for themselves.  And I’m not talking about the Canon here.  I’m talking about dveloping skill levels high enough to be able to function competently in jobs above the intellectual level of ditch diggers and convenience store clerks. 

The other reason they need somebody in their lives who won’t compromise standards is that they need to understand what those standards are.  Without such an understanding, the whole system seems to them to be a gigantic scam. 

Since they don’t know that people at Harvard are doing work that is actually more demanding and accomplished than what they do, they assume that the only difference–the reason why people from first tier schools get better jobs after graduation–is, well, you know.  Something evil.  Like money, or maybe race. 

They’re sure they’re just as good as those rich white people, but those rich white people are rich and white, so they get everything. 

Of course, some of them are white, too, and some of them are reasonably “rich,” but there are variations on this theme to fit different circumstances. 

When I started doing this, I was determined not to buy into the fundamental cynicism that underlies so much of the teaching that goes on in these places.  I would say that a good two thirds of the people I  have taught with in these programs over the years did not believe that their students were intellectually capable of doing doing even good-quality high school level work.

And they had a point, up to a point.  A lot of our kids do not have the intellectual ability to do much m ore than decent junior-high-school work, for thee same reason I will never sing at the Metropolitan Opera or play with the WNBA.  Talent is real, and so is the lack of it.  Some of us just don’t get the luck of the draw.

But here’s the odd thing:  our mania with maintaining the Official Line, that hard work is the only thing that matters and that anybody can be anything he wants to be, actually prevents a lot of these kids from doing anything at all.

The ones who buy it too often end up believing that the system is rigged against them, so implacably rigged that they might as well just give up.

The ones who don’t buy it–who know that talent counts–tend to be trapped in a mind-freezing panic of denial, because they’re also convinced that they have so such talent. 

One way or the other, everybody is angry all of the time, and since I’m the one in front of the room, the official representative of the whole unholy mess, I’m the one they’re angry at.

Yesterday, I realized that I’m just not capable of doing this anymore.  I love teaching, when I get to do it, but mostly I don’t get to do it.

I don’t love fighting people in order to help them, or taking abuse because I need to get them past that in order to do them some good.

And maybe I’m no longer convinced that I’m doing them any good.

Written by janeh

December 9th, 2009 at 10:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Burnout'

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  1. Finals week just started here, and I have been inundated with requests to turn in papers “just one day late.” These are students who do have a solid D in my classes – late papers won’t really help. However, two students came to me yesterday and said they liked my classes enough to register for another semester of classes. I feel a little more hopeful.

    After sixteen years of teaching English comp classes, I switched subjects. That helps a lot with the burnout. A common saying on my campus is that teaching low-level communication skills is a soul destroying job.

    To solve the lying student problem I collect papers digitally. I talked to the online director and got an “online classroom” through our course management system. I post the syllabus and schedule so no one can say “I lost it” or “I didn’t know what the assignment was or when it was due.” And I make my students submit digitally – it places a time/date stamp on the paper and never gets lost. You can do the same thing with sites like Turnitin.com if your college subscribes to it.

    I stay with the job not for the students who won’t succeed but for the students who will. It’s difficult; my list of intentional plagiarism stories keeps getting longer. I try to shrug it off and focus on the students who clearly get it.

    I suspect you are doing good and have affected lives – look beyond the liar. At least one of your students is going to succeed because of the effort you made to teach the class.

    This year my students have had a rush absences for claimed out of town funerals. My favorite this semester is the student who took two weeks off to attend her grandfather’s girlfriend’s funeral.


    9 Dec 09 at 11:23 am

  2. I had one who had to go to the funeral of a relative of her boyfriend. Said relative had spent her entire life in an institution in another town, as far as I know without visits from the now-grieving family, much less their girlfriends.

    What with local scandals and tragedies and the onset of the commercial Christmas madness and the usual work piling up, I’m not feeling the best myself, but at least I’m not teaching, which is a really comforting feeling whenever things aren’t going too well.

    If it’s really getting to you, get out of the job. It’s not worth a breakdown; nothing is.

    On the other hand, if you’re just frustrated and fed up and stressed out, you might feel better after a rest at Christmas (does anyone rest at Christmas?) or maybe as Gail suggests, teaching something else for a while. There is nothing like the thrill you get when you actually reach someone – but only you know if that’s enough to keep you going.


    9 Dec 09 at 11:48 am

  3. One thing some of my professors did in college which might help was to put examples of good papers on reserve in the library for us to look at. Usually it was done when they wanted some new format or something for a paper or project, but if these kids don’t have a clue, maybe you could just put ordinary papers there (or have them available somewhere else if your library doesn’t do that.) Say, this is an example of a paper which got an A in this class. This is a B. If you felt really ambitious, you could include, this would be an A at our state school…this would be an A at Harvard. You may have to write them yourself, but still…

    If you’re *really* burned out, it might be better to move on to something else. Librarians get the yelling, too, since we’re obviously in cahoots with their teacher to assign this stupid paper! I can understand refusing to put up with it anymore, especially when it seems pointless.

    Good luck with whatever you decide.

    Lee B

    9 Dec 09 at 12:12 pm

  4. I don’t teach, never have, never wanted to. I am less introverted than I was for awhile but it’s still there and I don’t like talking for long periods of time. That being said, I have, in the past, helped numerous students working on assignments who were at the library to locate sources and understand the differences in, say, reviews and criticism, and that just because a source doesn’t say word-for-word exactly what their teachers told them to find, it does indeed mean that. High school students often aren’t to an intelectual level to where they can understand, say, Northrop Frye’s analysis of William Blake. I think the same can be said of students in remedial classes who daydreamed their way through high school and later woke up and discovered they don’t have the skills to advance themselves above physical labor jobs. Whoever is to blame is not the point. Maybe they need to go a step backwards from remedial classes and learn first grade skills that they never mastered. I mentioned in an earlier post that I read the book PUSH, that the current movie PRECIOUS is based on. Fiction or not, it seemed very realistic to me that the girls in the pre-remedial class learned the basics that they didn’t at the beginning of their school years. I would find your situation extremely frustrating. If other classes are available for you to teach and you still feel the same way about the remedial ones when the end of term comes, go for it.


    9 Dec 09 at 12:42 pm

  5. Nobody deserves to be yelled at for doing their job. Teaching people (particularly not terribly bright people with a sense of entitlement and a dreadful fear that they are indeed not terribly bright) that you won’t be yelled at isn’t easy, but I suspect it can be done, particularly if you announce that raising one’s voice will result in your marking them absent for the day. Or some similar punishment.

    I like Lee’s suggestion of example papers. If they think Harvard students are turning in the same level of work as the remedial classes, let them see the difference. Of course, they may not be *able* to see the difference. My first journalism professor used to grade based on where an article we wrote could appear. A local weekly paper got a C. A large metro paper got a B. The NY Times (the standard in those days) got an A. Most of the students dropped out before the end, but those of us who stuck it out were very proud of our B+’s. Sticking to your standards is going to frustrate those who will never see the benefit of doing the work, but trust me, for those few who can benefit, years later they will value your persistence. I certainly look back and admire, and thank, those teachers of mine who pushed me and challenged me, and yes, failed me when I wasn’t good enough.

    Burnout in any job sucks. Until you see a way out, the trapped and hopeless feeling is dreadful. Take a rest, change your subject, stop teaching for a semester. There is no shame at all in recognizing that your emotional batteries need recharging and that, for a bit, someone else has to take on the legions of the remedial.


    9 Dec 09 at 1:03 pm

  6. While Janeh’s situation is frustrating and doesn’t achieve its goal, still, the real losers here are the young men and women in the remedial classes. Expecting young men and women to accept and realize standards (of education as well civilized behavior and willingness to try) when they may not have been made aware that those standards are necessary to achieve any gainful employment is like expecting
    bird-watching pigs to fly. They don’t have wings and don’t know how to get them, and don’t see why they should have to have them. Or something like that. I can’t believe that denigrating the “legions of the remedial” and scouring around for punishments for their inabilities and poor attitude is going to help the situation. Anger and aggression may be what they have observed as they way to get what they want. Not that it’s an excuse but it is a reason. Maybe meeting them where they are instead of where they should be–teaching them the basic first grade skills they saw no reason to acquire–would help the students that fail remedial classes. It would, also, require someone accustomed to teaching basic literacy rather than the standard composition classes for remedial learners.


    9 Dec 09 at 4:09 pm

  7. I know where Kipling falls in your assessment of poets, but take five minutes despite that to read the “Hymn of Breaking Strain.”
    Then don’t do anything irrevocable until you’ve slept without setting the alarm and eaten a good meal someone else has prepared. Many of my worst decisions were made when I was too tired, and anyone who can sleep through a catfight is in serious need of rest.


    9 Dec 09 at 5:06 pm

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