This semester has had several unmitigated professional plusses: (1) my schedule is now ELL, trig, algebra 2, and pre-calc. (Cue Sesame Street.) Last year, I briefly (and oh so irrationally) considered resigning because I only had two preps. Four is better. (2) I’m actually helping the school out in a pinch by taking this ELL class. Feels noble and self-sacrificing….(3) well, no, scratch the self-sacrifice, given the 33% pay bump for the fourth semester in a row, with next semester the fifth. You would be shocked to learn how much I make extra a month. Score. (5) I’m getting a new professional experience with no risk.
On the other hand, I’ve set a new benchmark for exhaustion. Work rarely tires me out. But for the first time in memory I’m mentally zonked by my schedule. Enjoying it, yes. But not only am I finding myself thinking longingly of Saturday and sleep, but I’m often teaching my fourth block from a chair. I’ve been puzzling over the cause, because nothing about four preps should in and of itself be so draining (for me). As I wrote this, I suddenly realized that club adviser should be added to the list. Then I’m an induction mentor. And oh, yeah, an administrator voluntold me to co-lead a science/engineering after-school program, which is getting kind of ridiculous. I don’t do science.
The after-school program gave me some insight into my state of mind. I’d been MIA for the first few meetings, for good reasons. I’d done the several hours of weekend training, met with my co-lead (also my mentee), but had just not gotten dialed into the weekly sessions. I’d been mentally shying away from even thinking about that two afternoon commitment, on top of everything else. But once my first meeting started, I was hooked and charged, working with the kids.
I suddenly realized that this is how I’m facing every single class, every obligation (save the induction meetings, which take place at a local liquor store with a great beer bar): mentally shying away from each instance until I’m in the moment, when it’s an electric shock of fun and joy. Which, for me, is a sign of incipient burnout. I have cancelled one road trip entirely over Thanksgiving, and am rethinking the best way to achieve two others. I may even fork out plane fare, which is a big concession. Semester two will be better, just two preps.
Yesterday, Friday afternoon, just minutes from beer and sushi, I was waiting for some pre-calc students to finish a test when in walked
“Hui! My lord, I haven’t seen you since…” and I stopped there, just jumping up to shake hands, because the last time I’d seen Hui, nearly three years ago, he’d been choking back tears as he told me his SAT scores.
Hui had been a junior in my first pre-calc class, where he struggled. (Based on my results with him and other similar stories, I slowed down instruction dramatically in subsequent precalc courses.) He wasn’t a student I was particularly close to, but the next year, he stopped by and asked if I could give him advice about the SAT. I wasn’t sanguine. He tested terribly in math, and he spoke, read, and wrote English at perhaps a fifth grade level. A top state university was his goal. Asians with impeccable scores and transcripts face routine discrimination by college admissions staff; the notion of an underprivileged Chinese lad whose abilities weren’t best captured by standardized tests simply does not compute in that world. I tried as gently as possible to prepare him for this likelihood, but didn’t push the issue, and twice a week, he came to my classroom after school for half an hour or more, steadfastly working through test sections and trying to make sense of the questions.
After his test date, Hui asked me if I’d look at his personal statement. I gave him several tutorials in self-promotion. Hui’s weak English suddenly became a remarkable achievement when considered in the context of five years in America and two parents with limited education and less English. He was reclassified quickly (probably too quickly), which allowed him to take a normal schedule and qualify for admission to a state campus. Play up that achievement, I told him, and put your scores in context. Hui had started a new draft when he came to my room one day, devastated: he’d received his SAT scores and they were as low as I’d feared.
His despair has remained a memory I flinch from–although at least in this case the recoil wasn’t for my poor handling of things. I didn’t try to console him, didn’t point out the local community college was very good (it is). Hui accepted my heartfelt sympathy as best he could, nodding tightly, eyes filled with tears. He left my room, and I don’t remember another conversation, although I’m sure we ran into each other in the hallways.
“So how’s college?”
“Good. I want to get a degree in economics. I’m planning a transfer, getting everything in order, and…” Hui paused.
“Oh, hey. You didn’t just come by to say hi!”
Grin and a ducked head. “I’m want to apply to the same school as….. as last time. Could you look at my personal statements? They are short answer questions, so it won’t be one big essay.”
“Sure! You’ve got a good shot at transferring. I’m glad you’re trying again. You want to mail the responses?”
“They’re on my Google Drive. Do you have time?”
I sighed. “I do, but only until these last three are done with their tests, because then I have beer awaiting.”
I flipped through the short passages. “Hey, your writing has improved tremendously.” That wasn’t empty praise; his writing was still obvious an product of an English Language Learner, but the deficiencies now were….well, not infrequent, but not constant, either. Far fewer grammar errors, allowing me to focus on style issues.
Passage one needed a complete rewrite; Hui focused entirely on describing courses in his desired major. I told him to branch out. Passages two and three were nicely done, with only a few grammar and style edits. Passage four….
Passage four, in response to “what significant obstacle have you faced and how has it affected your academic progress” or something like that, was a lovely little explanation of the struggle he faced as a child who came to America at the age of ten, with two parents who still, to this day, speak no English. Not just vague assertions, either, but entertaining, brief comparisons of verb tenses and articles that presented tremendous challenges to Chinese speakers, and finishing up with his constant efforts to remedy his gaps with books and films.
I looked over at Hui, who was watching me closely, and don’t tell anyone, but I was choked up. “You kept my notes from last time.”
“I didn’t need to. I remembered them. They really helped to think of my English as…something I’d achieved, rather than just something I do really bad at.”
“You should finish with a sentence to that effect.”
He left after wangling my phone number out of me, but promised to try email first. A student finishing up his test said “So can I come back to you for college admissions help after I graduate?”
I tell this story for two reasons. First: I write quite a bit about Asian immigrants , the corruption that China is introducing into US college admissions, the continual obsession with grades and resumes with little interest in underlying knowledge, the pressure the parents put on the kids, and the my concerns that they’re not here to become Americans, but to take advantage of a system not set up to defend against them. Inevitably, someone takes offense and argues that “they aren’t all like that”. Yes. Even the ones who are like that….aren’t. I know that better than most.
But I tell this story in large part because I didn’t instantly think to write it up. I was just sitting around last night thinking of the three posts I have in the hopper, and trying to get the energy to finish one of them, when the events of the day popped into my mind and I thought it might make a good story. Then I realized it made a great story. Then–in the moment of this essay’s title–I realized the reason it didn’t instantly present itself as a great story is because this happens to me all the time.
A month ago, I was sitting in a Starbucks when I noticed the kid sitting next to me was a trig student from last year, now attending a graphics arts program. We were chatting when his pals showed up, all past students, and they sat down for half an hour and told me about their lives, exchanging funny stories about my classes. Two ex-students came back just this month asking for some help in their college math course. Every year, a few students make coffee dates, just to chat. Still others just stop by my classroom and say hi.
What a tremendous, amazing job I have. Teaching feeds my love of drama, my ability to think on the fly, and my love of intellectual challenges–and gives me tremendous independence. Then, it turns out, I live in my students’ memories. I am Chips, not Browning.
In Clan Teacher, pay is substituted in part with ego gratification–and don’t think it’s not a fair trade. I’m a cranky introvert–you don’t think it matters to me that I send kids out into the world with Memories of Me? Good memories, of course–and yes, like all teachers, I worry about the damage, the memories I might cause through a careless word or ill-considered retort. But I don’t demand perfection from my own performance. I am satisfied. I can try to do better.
So I’m not telling this story because it revived my flagging spirits, reversed my burnout. I’m telling you about Hui because it’s a glorious part of business as usual.
Which means I have to rest up, take this mild burnout seriously. Maybe take next summer off. (Yes. Laugh.) Get home earlier, particularly when I feel too tired to get up from my desk.
Because I never want to lose the sense of joy I get when remembering they actually pay me for this gig.