Monday, October 11, 2021

I Tried to Teach

I could not be a teacher. Not today, not ever. 

Not that I didn't try. Back in 1994, I decided to apply to substitute teach. I was having migraines and had quit my job as a legal secretary, because so many headaches in a month lead to an inability to think properly. 

Why I thought substituting would be a good idea I do not recall. Perhaps it was the promise that I could say "no" on the days I didn't feel like working. Perhaps I thought to see if I enjoyed teaching, and thus then would pursue a teaching degree and find a place amongst the English teachers at the high school.

Whatever the reason, the school board approved my application. There was no training, aside from an admonishment that I could not discipline. If I had a problem, I was to send the student to the principal's office. The fact that I had a BA apparently meant I would know how to handle any situation thrown at me.

I did not.

I recall a class of 4th or 5th graders at Eagle Rock Elementary who simply paid no attention to me at all. The teacher had left no syllabus, and I had no clue where they were in any subject. Finally, I read to them. And when I finished that book, I told them local history stories. I told them about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson being in Botetourt County. I told them about the author Mary Johnston, who grew up in Buchanan and became rich and famous. Most were bored but it did quiet them. I was happier than they were when the bell rang.

Then there was a class of 7th grade special education students that I was expected to teach for an extended period as the teacher had had surgery. That did not go well. I had no training with special education students. They basically ran wild and I simply let them because I had been told I couldn't discipline them. I believe I sent every single one of those students to the principal at one point or another, and he simply sent them back. I finally told someone I could not do that class anymore, and they found someone else.

A math class, also in the middle school, stymied me completely. I administered the quiz the real teacher had left, but when asked for assistance, I could offer none. Despite passing algebra and trigonometry in high school with straight As, I had no clue what this "new math" was about. When one student asked me why I didn't know, I simply replied, "I majored in English."

Finally, I remember a high school English class. This I could do, except high schoolers were about as well behaved as the fourth graders. I had to take some kind of gizmo from some boy, who pouted that the real teacher let him play with it. I gave it back to him after class. Fortunately, at this level, the classes rotated in and out and so I could give the same quiz over again and I had some idea what they were doing in an English class. It was the only time I felt like I could do it, but the teacher has also left me detailed notes. I had but to follow them, and I did.

Were there other classes? Yes, but those I've written about stand out as my big failures and the one I felt I was most successful at. They all felt more like babysitting than teaching. I did not substitute a second year. I may not have substituted a second semester. Maybe that all happened in the space of a 1/4 of a year. I don't recall.

After I obtained my masters degree, I had thought to teach at the college level. Maybe I could manage people who were almost adults. I started out teaching non-credit classes through the community college, expecting to mostly bring in older adults. I wanted to see if I could make it work, figure out this new world of education. My plan worked well. I taught two courses on how to keep a journal. They were well received. Then the college asked me to teach a summer course on "writing."

Four weeks into that class, my gallbladder went bad. I remember going into class a few days before I had surgery, and one of my students, who was a nurse, took one look at me and said, "You are sick." By that time I'd quickly dropped about 10 pounds because I could eat nothing. I took two weeks off to recover from surgery, and then had to return to finish the final two weeks of class. While the students gave me good marks for the course, I did not feel it was my best work. How could it have been, when I was so sick in the midst of it? And the two weeks I went back? I was still recovering and who knows how much that early return (insisted upon by the college) cost me? Is that why I have chronic abdominal pain today? Because I went back to work too soon? I don't know.

So standing in front of a class and teaching is not my forte. I know the schools are hurting for substitutes, but unless they offer a training course in substituting, I would never attempt that again. I wouldn't do it during a pandemic anyway.

However, I tried to teach in another way, and that was through my writing. Every story I wrote I considered a lesson of some kind. This is how government works. This is why it works as it does. This is where tax dollars are spent. This is why they are spent that way. This community is not a town, this is a town but not a community. These funds may be spent on this project but not on that. This person is noteworthy because he or she showed extraordinary courage. This person is a historical reference because he or she did thus and such. This land is being rezoned because of this reason. A hotel is going up across the street from where you live; be aware.

Today I see now that none of my efforts, my 35 years of writing, taught anyone anything at all. I see angry people accosting school board members about things over which they have no control. I see angry people not understanding that the county simply cannot take money from the state that's slated for roads and use it to build a building. Mostly I see angry people who do not understand the framework of their government, and who believe they understand the US Constitution without having a clue about it, much as Christians spout off chapter and verse of some Biblical passage when they really have no idea what they are saying. I see things taken out of context and put in places where it was never meant to be.

I wasted my life trying to teach through my words, to make people understand that Eagle Rock is a community, not a town, and therefore has no taxing authority. I tried to help them see that the school board can't raise taxes, they have to ask the county for money and accept what the state gives them. And the county can only tax what the Virginia legislators allow them to tax, because we're a Dillon Rule State, and I tried to explain what this means, too. (It means that localities only have the powers vested to them by the legislature, they can't simply decide to tax green beans, for example, if the state hasn't said they could.)

Looking at the things I see going on locally, and looking at the people who are behind most of the craziness - people who I know read those articles, because they're about my husband's age, and they read the paper and talked to me about it, and they should know better now, but they are people who are bigots and fascists and can't see who they are because they're too busy calling "the other side" bigots and fascists and socialists because they don't know what the words mean - I see only that I failed. Nothing I wrote sunk into their tiny brains. They did not get it then, and they don't get it now.

What is the point of trying to teach, if no one is listening or reading with comprehension?


  1. "If you waste your time a talking
    To the people who don't listen
    To the things that you are saying
    Who do you thinks gonna hear?
    And if you should die explaining how
    The things that they complain about
    Are things they could be changing
    Who do you thinks gonna care?"

    from To Beat the Devil, by Kris Kristofferson

  2. You can't reach everybody. It does not happen. I bet there are many that you did reach, though, and they're not the ones giving problems. Just imagine if those you did reach were also giving the problems? It could be so much worse.

    Whenever I proctor a quiz or test and a student asks for help, I just reply with, "That's what you're being tested on". That is not the time to help. (I have had so many failure days. Teaching is a process.)

  3. You write so absolutely beautifully. I think you are really hard on yourself. Of course you have taught people through your writing. They aren't going to come and tell you and yes, they have learned, so they aren't running their mouths. You will never know how much of a difference you have made on this earth while you are on it. I have learned a lot from you just reading your blog.
    I am a teacher, but I would never substitute teach. The lessons are made by the teacher and that is why they know what they are doing. They have had a lot of training in their discipline. Some teachers do not leave good lesson plans and that is why you felt like you failed and also like I said...I would never sub. I like to know exactly what I am teaching and how I am going to teach it. I am betting you are the same way. It sounds like you did a great job though. Have a nice week! ♥


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