Psychic Distress in Education

school doorsThe sheer JOY of talking about something you love described by Donald Hall (and called “teaching”) in the essay “Coffee with Robert Graves.” (And I’ll admit that this is what has drawn me to the radio and interviewing authors and experts.)

Everyone who loves teaching has the same experience: Someone asks a question; it’s something you never thought of, but the moment you hear the question you know the answer. Ninety percent of what you say is something you didn’t know until you said it. If you are teaching the best literature…you spend your working hours increasingly intimate with the art you love. You learn by teaching….Whatever I taught, I prepared not by note-taking and preparing questions–once I got over my terror–but by reading the text again, closely, making check marks in the margins. I taught best when I did not prepare a lecture but trusted the flow of the moment. I read aloud to the students with excitement, and improvised explanations for my pleasure. I counted on my passion for the work, stimulated by the presence of the listening faces in front of me. Then I answered questions….My gift to students was not information but demonstration of engagement.

And yet, in the very next paragraph Hall describes what makes teaching the hardest work there is.

Every term the department gave me a section of freshman composition. It is the hardest class to teach. Twenty students are twenty different sets of difficulty and the difficulty is only partly with writing. My freshman were away from home for the first time…and struggled with loneliness and liberty. In their essays they expressed or evaded their confusions. Language explains us to ourselves and conceals us from ourselves. Teaching prose style became exploration of the psyche, and I went home from conferences and office hours vibrating with the discomfort and distress of my composition students.

I taught high school English for two years at a private Catholic school. I was a very young, ignorant, man-boy (an “emerging adult” in current parlance)–and what I remember most is not teaching but struggling. Preparation became irrelevant as the kids would come to class full of their own concerns: cruel parents, new “love” or first sex, explorations of drink and drug, the stress of other subjects and other teachers (some full of their own troubles), etc. In one class, a “D” track (given to a first year!), I was confronted by kids characterized as both “learning disabled” and “behaviorally disabled.” Together. In the same class–twenty-plus kids who were always unprepared, unfocused, uninterested and sometimes bearing the marks of self-abuse, bandages covering knife marks. Often, quite angry.

I know literature CAN reach anyone. I know the power found in the security and safety of story–of being elsewhere even while you are in the worst place in the world. But you have to be able to read. If reading seems a secret code and you are uninitiated there is only defeat and the words stand as sentinels to keep you out.

But even when there was brief joy, when someone found his way into a book, he would still have to go home, go out into the hall, sit among the agitations of hormonal aggression during lunch, expose their physical vulnerabilities in locker rooms.

I arrived by 7:30, had coffee and steeled myself to this and to the assessments of their and my success or failure and “getting it” amidst the constant and uncaring noisiness of growing up. I could not help myself from starting the day by reminding myself of its ending, that a bed and a 2-hour nap was my reward for enduring this psychic sinkhole called school. And pizza. Lots of pizza.

We often become “bad” teachers out of desperation, ignoring the neediness of children, in order to to protect ourselves. It is hard to feel for others when you feel under attack yourself.

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