Teacherpants Empathy Part 2 Coming soon
So* I’ve been reading a post by a fellow blogger about how taking an academic course generates empathy in us for our students, and I’m thinking, “Yeah, tried that once.”
Last year, I created a reading blog to follow my students in their extended reading program. I read a novel in French as they read theirs in English. Did I experience empathy? Well I found out what it is like to read really really slowly. By obsessively examining my reading practice, I discovered that I was marginally less proficient in reading French than I thought. But did I really develop empathy for my students? No, I was having a good time. Reading and self-obsession are my two favourite hobbies (well besides #catsofinstagram) (And let’s just say that there’s a fine line between reflective practice and narcissism; in fact they are part of the same Greek myth.)
To really mimic their experience, I would have to be kidnapped, transported to a place halfway across the world where the time was always 12 hours wrong. I would then be forced to read books I didn’t want to read and have to pretend I liked them. To receive credit, I would be compelled to join an organization that was illegal in my own country and participate in an activity as potentially addictive as online gambling or crystal meth.** So no.
So what is empathy really? Empathy is when students cry and you cry with them, and it sucks because it’s really tough to teach separable phrasal verbs with mascara running down your face. It scares the students and makes them feel bad for disturbing you.
True empathy is a dark primal emotion***, as volatile as lighter fuel. It’s not necessarily something you want to have around when you’re teaching. In fact, perhaps we are more effective without empathy.
I think Malcolm Gladwell makes a similar point about surgeons, but I don’t acknowledge his existence any more after that obnoxious article he wrote about being a jackass at his best friend’s wedding.
Before I started working in settlement, I had a kind of awe of anyone who had led a life of suffering. I felt that they were somehow ennobled and not to be judged by conventional moral standards.
That all changes when you get a class full of people who — well let’s put it this way: very few people leave their jobs and uproot their families and get on a plane because they are so happy with their life that they want to spread the joy.
They all come from some kind of suffering, but suddenly they are not so noble. You don’t judge them exactly and there are all sorts of things that you take into consideration, but even so, a teacher soon realizes that some students are better at getting along with each other and contributing to the community than others****.
If you encourage the behaviours of those students, you’re going to have a safer and more collaborative space for everybody, and they might even learn more. So you can either melt into a puddle of sorry or impose some norms on the classroom.
And so yes, one does have to turn off one’s humanity to a certain extent. It’s surprising how quickly this surgeon mindset takes hold.
I remember the first time a student cried in front of me, the first time a student told me of a friend being killed, the student who told me of her children being taken away by social services.
There were times when I lost it*****, but more often than not, I would hear my own voice saying, “So tell me what happened; tell me what I can do.” Often I was shocked by my words. How could I not be destroyed by this terrible story I was hearing? It was as if some mechanism had malfunctioned in my brain. But had anything been lost? Would I have been a better person had I stayed connected?
Let me give you an example. Back in the days before cellphones, daycares used to call the main school phone if there was a problem with the child. The secretary would then page the parent on an all-call throughout the school. Then the parent would have to go to the office to take the phone call. Once when a woman was paged, she asked me to walk with her. As we made our way down the stairs and along the hallway, I could see that she was terrified. I walked calmly beside her, keeping my steps even so as to encourage her body to slow its pace. Would I have been a better person if I had empathised, if I had imagined feeling that terror for the safety of one of my children? Perhaps, but I would never have made it down the stairs, and then what good would I have been?
There are times when the best thing we can be is a mirror that reflects back a person’s emotions, but sometimes that is not what is needed. If we both feel our knees buckle, how can we keep from falling?
*Yeah, yeah, yeah, I read that banned words article. Not going to change, though.
**I know — I am also participating in this addictive activity, but it’s different when it’s voluntary. It’s the difference between becoming a heroin addict through one’s own actions and that episode of Starsky and Hutch.
****George Monbiot articulates this phenomenon nicely here: “I have seen people undergo astonishing trauma and emerge scarcely changed by the experience. I’ve seen others thrown off balance by what look like insignificant disruptions: the butterfly’s wing that causes a brainstorm. We cannot expect a system as complex as the human mind to respond in predictable or linear ways.”
There’s a kind of watershed when it comes to memory. Too close to an event, you can’t really process it; too far, and you start to lose the nuance of the experience. I feel that I’ve come to that point in my memories of Overland. I’m finding ways to articulate things better than I could when I was immersed in that world, but I sense that if I wait any longer, I will no longer be able to truly capture the experience. It’s already starting to happen with the Overland Heyday stories. My semantic memory of that time is pretty good, but the episodic is becoming vague and generalized. I can write about how Overland made me feel, and I have done so here and here and here and this whole series. However, I can’t really capture what it felt like to teach a particular class. That teacher is so different from the person I am now that we can’t even talk to each other.
I became aware of the fading of these memories as I wrote this article. The story is set in the Later Overland era, but even so, I realized that the scene was already slipping away from me, and that if I was going to write this, it should be now.
This originally started as a set piece that I was working on for a very pragmatic reason: I needed something halfway serious to do while I was supervising a test. In other words, I didn’t want the students to see that telltale shade of blue radiating from my screen. It’s a response to the imagined prompt: Talk about a lesson that you are particularly proud of. This is actually a series of lessons leading up to a pizza lunch, although the pizza lunch itself was distinctly underwhelming.
Two events precipitated this series. There was a famine in East Africa, and schools around the city were raising funds for relief efforts The TDSB had offered to match any funds raised. Around the same time, TIFF screened the documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc , which articulated the first quiet suggestion of criticism of the breast cancer awareness campaign.
I used an audio clip from a radio interview with the producers of the film and located some print background material. The class compared the different resources and discussed the ethics and practice of charitable donation. I was so impressed with the interaction, the level of sophistication and engagement, that I decided to extend the conversation. It seemed like an ideal lead-in to a fundraising activity.
So I devised a series of lessons in the course of which the students would to choose a charity to donate to, publicize the cause and the event, and then perform the actual fund-raiser.
Students worked in groups. The first task was to identify a cause that they considered important. They then researched the aid groups that targeted that particular group or problem.** Students worked together to prepare an information sheet on their chosen organization and its mission. Through discussion, they identified the arguments for and against choosing the organization as the recipient of our funds.
Each group shared their information with the class. We then discussed the relative merits of the different programs. There was a real range of knowledge and experience: some students were thinking critically about these issues for the first time; others had experienced directly the situations at which the aid was directed; still others had worked with the NGOs we were discussing**.
The students worked hard to determine the group that best matched their values, and ended up choosing MSF. Key factors were the effectiveness of their programs, the absence of geographical restrictions, and the transparency of their mission.
The next step was to create the print publicity. We discussed the basics of poster making and the need for balance between attracting attention and relaying information. We talked about how to make the content appealing and accessible, and about why it was a bad idea to copy and paste chunks of material from the internet. We then negotiated the logistics of getting access to the only colour printer in the school, and posted the documents.
In the week before the actual day we broadcast the information over the PA system. Normally strong, confident speakers volunteer to read an English script. It is challenging, but it is very valuable experience, especially for students who plan to undergo the ordeal of the TOEFL Speaking Test.
Earlier that term, however, one of the other teachers, Glenn, had experimented with bilingual broadcasts (Spanish and English) for soccer team announcements. We decided to take it one step further and provide announcements in languages that reflected the school population. There was a discussion as to which languages should be used; then strong speakers were chosen from each of the dominant language groups. They decided on the key details of the message and then wrote out two versions, in English and translated. They worked with a partner from the same country to make sure that the translated version was smooth and accurate.
Watching the delivery of these PA messages was fascinating. When the students switched into their native languages, it was as if they had slipped on new clothes. Their voices were stronger; even their body language became more assured: it was yet one more reminder that these students had really been persons of stature in their original countries. I enjoyed watching the reactions of the students from other classes: that slight double take when they realized they were hearing their mother tongue. The announcements generated inter-class discussions: comparisons of the sounds of the different languages, and the dialects and accents within individual languages, and suggestions that other languages be included.***
The pizza lunch itself was, as I said, anticlimactic. The scheduling made it difficult for the students to be involved in the actual serving; other events had made the day unusually chaotic; and well nobody really likes pizza that much anyway. Later on, I was told that we had missed the deadline for the fund matching, but ours would not have been matched anyway because we had not chosen to earmark the funds for East Africa.****
So as an actual fundraising event, this was not an amazing success. However, it’s one of those moments I come back to when I want to remind myself of the enormous wealth of talent, intelligence and experience that I encountered every day in the Overland classroom. It keeps me humble , at the same time as it strengthens my belief in the benefits of an open immigration policy.
When I look back on that, and notice what year it was, I realize that I was already halfway out the door at Overland, but I didn’t see it at the time. Sometimes a peak experience like this gives us renewed vigour for our job, but it can also be bittersweet. When you realize that yes this is as good as it gets, no matter how good that good is, it may be a signal that it’s time to move on.
* Students often became aware of an asymmetry between need and services, sometimes because a problem did not have a clear and coherent solution, sometimes because the cause just was not as media friendly. The essential unfairness of the marketing of the more glamorous causes at the expense of others became a key consideration in our discussions. This was one of the factors in our decision not to choose an event-specific charity: we wanted the organization to spend the money where it was most needed, not where the media attention was most focussed.
**For example, one student was a former member of Veterinarians Without Borders, which in not nearly as cute and cuddly as you might think.
***There was an interesting contrast among the language groups. Some students were quite eager to have their language represented. In contrast, one language was fairly widely featured at Overland, but its speakers were hesitant to present it as one of the school languages. There was no obvious political reason for this: it was more a matter of the particular character of the country in question. If you speak the language yourself, you might be able to guess which one I’m talking about.
**** As part of our decision was based on avoiding ear-marked charities, I can’t say I really regret this.
So I’m looking for a good junk food book to burn off the stress generated by end of term and all the other activities I seem to find myself caught up in, and I end up reaching for Voices from Chernobyl. ( I know , eh? Usually it would be totally the other way around.)
I’m reading it with this soundtrack of THIS IS A NOBEL PRIZE WINNING AUTHOR blaring in the background, which makes it a little hard to focus on the actual literary text. Anyway, there will be a Goodreads review about that sooner or later* — probably fairly soon, as the book is short and surprisingly readable given the subject matter.
But the Chernobyl stories have their own special resonances for me because I was pregnant with Em in 1986. I was here in Toronto. My parents were in Greece. They were phoning me: be careful; don’t go outside. We were just waiting to see whether the wind from Eastern Europe would blow upwards and over the North Pole.
Later, I would have chance to meet mothers who had also had children in 1986 — and weren’t as lucky in their location. But their stories aren’t mine to tell, and anyway I can’t tell them without crying.
Part of the book is about the workers who were sent in to clean up after the explosion. The speakers are quite specific about the heroism of these young men: they knew that there was a strong chance that they would die from the radiation, but they also knew that without their actions, the deathtoll would be orders of magnitude greater. They went willingly because they knew their country needed them.
I had a student who had worked clean-up in Chernobyl. I asked whether they were given any protective equipment, and he laughed a little (because he was a funny guy) and said, “There was no point.” I don’t remember laughing.
He was around Overland for quite a while because it took him a really long time to find a job in his field: Canadian employers are somewhat wary of applicants who know a little too much about certain topics. However, last thing I heard he had a career-related job, and I assume he is still healthy.
When I think about this, I feel so fortunate. In the obvious kind of way, to have had the luck to be able to raise my children in Canada. But there’s also a more personal reaction: I’m grateful to Overland for giving me the chance to hear these stories. Sometimes there were so many stories that I felt my head would burst. They were shocking, heart-breaking, but in their own way they were beautiful. The dignity of the speakers gave human meaning to what had been incomprehensible newspaper headlines. It was an immeasurable privilege to be allowed to bear witness to them.
* and here it is
update: this came up; it seems relevant somehow — US vs. Soviet heroism perhaps?
I’m not going to apologize for crying over Paris.
And yes, I did hear of the attack on Beirut. When I read the story on the 12th, I remember thinking, “That’s an awfully high casualty figure for a country that’s not technically at war.’ And I wondered whether our refugee family was ok.
And yes, we mourn the loss of life in both places. But how can one truly grieve death in such numbers when comprehending the loss of a single human life is enough to tear one’s soul apart? How can a person do that and still get up in the morning, hug one’s children, open one’s heart to strangers, fight to spread light amidst the darkness?
So we do our best, but we grieve imperfectly.
But this is not that. This is the same gutshot feeling that swept over me as I read about the destruction of Palmyra.
Paris is our city.
I’m sure that 3 million still-feisty Frenchmen and women just bristled at that, but as I watch the Facebook profiles of my Canadian friends flicker into red, white, and blue, I know it is so.
As much as Mesopotamia or the Yellow River, Paris is a cradle of civilization.
Cradle of civilization — we bandy around the cliché so carelessly, but we forget that a cradle is a sacred space. A cradle is where we place what is most precious to us — a newly created life.
In cradles we shelter these beings that are entirely powerless. Under our care, they become autonomous and eventually outstrip us.
A cradle of civilization is a human location that has created an environment capable of nurturing a new spirit. At first, this idea is new and vulnerable, but it grows into a spirit that spreads across countries and civilizations, a spirit that survives long after the human bodies have perished.
At so many times in history, Paris has been a nursery for these spirits, spirits of beauty and creativity, but also spirits of freedom and democracy.
These spirits have become part of who we are, even those of us who have never opened a French book or travelled to France.
These spirits are present in the stories I tell and the language I use, but they also determine how I hear a piece of music, how I see colours, how I taste a cookie, how I perceive my body as I move through space.
Paris is part of who I am and Friday’s massacre was an attack on the essence of Paris itself.
A human force deliberately set out to erase these spirits, just as deliberately as it erased the human lives.
And this is why I am crying for Paris.
- thanks for the inspiration to T Dilworth
- After I published this post, this article popped up on my newsfeed. I love the way the organized presentation of data helps me understand a little but of what I’m feeling.
— let go of all that no longer serves you– says the wise yoga teacher
So, as I explained in the previous post, I’m doing my blog audit. I’ve got rid of all the nasty harsh visuals and it’s looking nice. Then I get to the header, the strip of pant ankles. I don’t hate it — it’s got a nice flow. It’s distinctive*, but not gimmicky. But still “let go of all that….”
Let’s backtrack a little. Teacherpants started as a name rather than an image. There was a lot going on there — an extended Facebook conversation about pants, the epithet “smartypants” that may or may not have been slung at me in my youth, and of course the epoch-making Bossypants , but I didn’t really have a clear image in my mind. When I was putting the visual parts of the blog together, I googleimaged Teacher pants, and got a sea of extremely unflattering garments, the business casual equivalent of Mom jeans.
Well fair enough, I’m sure we all have a pair of those, a pair of pants that we can throw on with just about anything, reasonably comfortable, nothing too tight or too trendy, probably black, probably some kind of capris. They are the sartorial analogue of the go-to-lesson that supply teachers have ready-photocopied and filed in their schoolbags**, there waiting for those days when you have to be in a classroom at a minute’s notice.
These teacher pants seemed to confirm a certain preconceived notion of teaching as a kind of default profession, a safe, suburban, uneventful job that smart people did if they couldn’t think of anything else to do.
Well I didn’t see teaching that way, and I certainly didn’t want the blog to contribute to that view.
So …. not those pants, then.
So there was a new Google image search for pants. I found a shot from the catwalk of a fashion show, cropped it so that it fit into the header dimensions, thereby also removing the part of the pants that revealed the bodies underneath. So the pants were presented purely as garments, the most impractical, luxurious examples I could find. It was ironic, and I hoped a little subversive. ⇒ What you mean when you say Teacherpants, is not the same as what I mean.****
And it has served me well, but I think it’s time to move on. Teacherpants isn’t really about that any more. Or maybe it still is about taking risks and heroism, but I no longer see that as something I need to prove. I feel that the Teacherpants voice has developed a degree of autonomy: through my writing, I have defined my pants.
The header on my current page came with the WordPress theme I know it’s a bit of a Robert Frost-y cliche, but it’s a pretty shot and it does capture a little of the spirit of the blog, the introspective journey, the moodiness. I’ll leave it up for a while. Probably something more apropos will come along eventually, but I’m not going to force it.
I’ll let go when it no longer serves me.
*although perhaps a little too much like this
**well ideally — I don’t know whether I personally was ever that conscientious
*** and also
**** probably if you were really clever, you could do something with Roland Barthes here, but all I remember about him right now is that he was run over by a car because he was reading while crossing the road
in which the blogger shamelessly appropriates a trope from a popular movie to help explain why the blog looks different
So there was a point when I actually had a little too much free time.
Coincidentally, this was the time when WordPress’s Blogging 201 online course started. I signed up, thinking that this could be a way to make the blog better, and at the same time give me something to blog about. After each online lesson, I would write a post in which I both commented on the new information and implemented it.
And yeah that didn’t happen. I started a couple, but they are still floating around in the drafts folder.*
It’s partly that the free time evaporated, but I think there was a little bit more going on. I just wasn’t comfortable with that degree of self-examination in a public forum. This might sound strange to some, as self-examination seems to be the whole theme of Teacherpants, but I guess there is a limit; it’s also important that this self-revelation be on my own terms.
One thing did stick, as you can see. One part of the course was a blog audit lesson. I realized that it had been a long time since I had done anything with the visuals, so I decided to do my homework and take a critical look at the physical aspect of Teacherpants. I actually hadn’t looked at the blog that much, as I spent most of my time on the Edit Post pages. So when I switched to the public site and looked at it honestly, I was a little perturbed.
It was painful. Not in the sense that it was embarrassing or naive, but literally: it hurt my eyes to read it. The dense text was surrounded by black borders, and the background image featured horizontal black and white slashes representing the branches of an ice-covered tree. The harshness of the image and the way the lines clashed with the rows of type did not make it easy to get through the long narrow paragraphs of educational exploration.
My blog didn’t always looks like that. My first background was a green Japanese print that I stole off Google Image. It was soothing and unobtrusive, but it gave the blog its own feel. The problem was that the image wasn’t particularly personal to me, and I wasn’t even sure where it came from.
Then the icestorm of 2013 happened, bringing with it amazing photographic opportunities. I ..um … adopted the new background image from a friend’s photograph**. I found the consistent colour scheme and wintry feel somehow satisfying. And perhaps it was.
But then I kind of forgot about it, and it stayed there, for a year and a half. In fact, it’s probably the only background image that most of my readers have seen. Maybe it was time to acknowledge that the ice storm was over.
So now, I thought, it was really time for a change. Once I decided to remove the background image, I thought about changing the theme altogether. The black borders were kind of oppressive, especially when they surrounded posts of over 600 words. I wanted people to read my pieces thoroughly, right? Why was I making it so hard for them?
A lot of the best blogs that I read are quite minimalist, Spartan, even. I wanted to move in that direction, but I wasn’t quite ready for that degree of simplicity. For one thing, I like a bit of flash, and for another, I don’t have the typographic skills to make that 0-style thing work.
So I’ve chosen the new theme that you see now. It’s simple, but it has its own character. The layout suits the way I’m feeling right now. For one thing, there’s a nostalgic element. It looks a lot like an old broadsheet, and, even more, like a student newspaper. I spent some time working on my college newspaper — not long, but I remember those hours fondly. For another, the busy-ness on the page somehow mimics the slightly attention deficit way my mind works — I like the way everything is laid out together, making it possible to flit from story to story.
I’m not 100% sure about this theme. For one thing, this open layout makes tracking difficult. One click to the homepage reveals so many posts. How can I tell which ones they are actually reading? I can always put in a “Read More” tag. This would be good for metrics, but it feels a little coy and mean-spirited. It seems to say, “Okay, if you want anything more, you have to do this for me.”
Also, I’m missing the menu features from the old theme. I spent quite a few hours this spring painstakingly dividing my posts up into different categories. Now the category listings are gone. What if you want an Overland story and you end up with a conference review? How will you find your way? Maybe that’s something I can tweak.
Anyway, welcome to the new Teacherpants. May you will find it more accessible. On the other hand, perhaps you really liked the icy shards that seemed to stab into your eyes as you tried to read. Either way, please let me know in the comments.
* Interestingly, this great post by Anna appeared in my reader just after I finished the first draft of this. We can learn a lot about ourselves by looking at the posts that didn’t make it.
**Still stolen, but less anonymous
Check out the link below! I did an interview with local clothing store Fresh Collective. They do great work supporting local designers and sustainable manufacturing processes. Plus they feature clothes that actually fit real people. And let’s get real here, I’m always happy to get myself in the media.
Watch this space, there’s a new Teacherpants post coming up really soon.
Then there’s the Union. This is a ticklish one. I was raised Socialist the way some people are raised Catholic. In light of this, I’m going to choose my words extremely carefully, and even so, I’ll probably screen my calls for the next little while. So first, I’d like to say, “I know.” I know the union is the reason that we were making $45/ hour when some private schools were offering minimum wage. I know that it’s good to feel that there’s someone who has your back if you are being treated unfairly. I know and I’m grateful, but still… It’s not that the union shelters bad teachers (I’ll leave that argument to my colleagues on the right.) It’s that it has difficulty encouraging good teachers. I’ll try to explain why. Union collective agreements enshrine our right not to do more than we are hired to do, and that makes sense. The problem is that policies like that tend to create a sense of the lowest common denominator. Let’s take the example of DM, one of the Overland legends. DM would sing The Red River Valley with his class before afternoon break. https://youtu.be/z1-QLr6aBaw At the end of year picnic, he would travel to the event in his handmade canoe and then give students rides around the island.
Now, if there were a policy passed demanding that we all provided those services to the students, it would be absurd. We of course would be up in arms. As for the students, if I tried to replicate either of these it would be disastrous: the first would merely constitute cruelty, but the second would definitely expose me to legal action. There is no way to make those sessions part of the standard syllabus. Still, I have a feeling that the Canadian folk songs and handmade canoe represent where Dennis lives as a teacher.* What I’m saying, I guess, is that a collective agreement standardizes job descriptions while the things that make us who we are as teachers lie outside that standardization. I suppose it all comes back to the at school/at the school conversation. The most controversial product of the collective agreement was the seniority list. Teachers originally asked for this, and it does make sense. Otherwise, long-standing teachers lose their jobs when a class closes. Nobody wants a flood of fortysomethings released into the job market, especially if they have few transferable skills (unless someone wants a quick active/passive sentence transformation). At the same time, there’s no denying that it is demoralizing for newer teachers (and the hiring policies have created a situation where people stay new teachers for a very long time). I salute those guys, who keep on doing what they do from year to year, never knowing in June where they will end up in September, building up their rapport with the class, only to be moved on if a more senior teacher applies for the job. So for teachers, I guess it comes down on the side of a necessary evil: it’s probably the system that keeps the maximum number of us employed for the longest time. For students, though, the bumping system is definitely unwelcome. As I have said before, the big centres have powerful institutional memory: friends tell friends about such and such a class; a teacher’s methods and idiosyncrasies become part of the lore of the immigrant communities. When the established teacher doesn’t return in September (or sometimes even vanishes in the middle of the year), students are confused and angry. And why shouldn’t they be? Nobody has consulted them. Often classes get together a petition and bring it to the site manager or program officer, but he or she is unable to take their wishes into account. This further highlights their sense that student needs are not considered important. Frustrated and resentful, they are not primed to be receptive to their new instructor, and they often drift away from the class, and perhaps from English lessons altogether. So yes, unions do make things fairer, and they do create a sense of equality, but standardization can negate the individuality that makes a teacher shine. What’s more, when teachers are reduced to Tetris pieces in staffing model, we lose track of the needs of the students, who are, after all, the most important elements of this endeavour. *There’s probably only one reader who would realize this, but this is a Tina Torlone line; please consider it homage rather than plagiarism.