It’s 4 pm on a Tuesday, two weeks into the summer term. I crawl out of the car, barely making it to the couch. I pass out in front of the World Cup. When I wake up 3 hours later, I don’t know whether it’s 7 am or 7 pm, and I can’t remember how I ended up where I am. I am just exhausted. It’s this new course: it’s knocking me out.
People who know me from my workhorse days at the TDSB might find this a little strange. Then, 30 hour teaching weeks were not uncommon, plus marking, plus planning. Now, I have 9 mostly compliant students, and I’m teaching 16 hours a week in an air- conditioned room. 16 hours? that’s not even really full time.
I’m trying to figure out what is making me so tired. Yes, this a new program, but I’ve done new programs before, and they haven’t worn me out. The fact is, I went into ESL lazy. (Somehow, the world of graduate study had not inculcated a particularly strong work ethic.) In those days, the Holy Grail of teaching was finding a TOEFL exercise long enough that I could sneak out and make a phone call in the staff room. In fact, I’m not quite sure why my contract was renewed. I guess Jan and Keith saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.
Even when I became a little more conscientious, I found that I wasn’t working as hard when I started a new program. When I was studying for my TESL certificate, a more experienced fellow student said, “The better I get at teaching, the harder I work.” At the time, I looked at him in horror, but now that totally makes sense to me. A beginning teacher is a bit like an incompetent swimmer: no amount of thrashing around is going to get you where you want to go. It’s only when you feel at home in the classroom that you can really implement all your teaching skills.
Maybe that’s where the difference lies: it’s a new class, but in some ways it is already familiar to me. It a module that I have developed over the course of six weeks, planned down to the last sentence. There is no thrashing around period here: every exercise has been specially tailored to this particular group of students. The goal is clear and specific, and the stakes are high. I need to deploy every weapon in my arsenal if I am going to do this.
And yet, I don’t feel tired when I am in class. The four hour sessions feel shorter than the three hours I am used to. The teaching seems to come more naturally, and even the difficult moments feel like part of a larger plan. When I teach, I am in the moment and I could do this forever. It is only when the class ends that I sag lifeless into the nearest chair.
It is a gift, I think, an unexpected mitzvah, to feel so consumed by what one is doing. When one’s energies are so attuned to each other that they all contribute to that one classroom moment, and when one feels those energies reflected back in the students’ responses — that is the stuff of those inspirational posters that teachers put up on classroom walls. Not every teaching experience can be like this, and not every one should be — we need our gritty realism as well — but when they happen, these are moments to be savoured.