I want to comment on something that used to obsess me when I was a younger teacher. I wanted to be a great teacher. Yep, nothing less.
Now that I have almost 20 years behind me, I see that great teachers cannot exist in our time.
My great teachers smoked in front of the class and talked in oblique riddles. The greatest of them all, Dr. Bill Durrett, used to say, “Now what is the word I have in my mind right now?” OMG, we all worked to match that word. One time I did just that. He said, “I am thinking about what being Victorian would mean to most people and have one word in mind.” I said “prude” out loud. I was right. I was 19 and right. Oh, how glorious. We all know that doing this is a huge pedagogical no-no.
My great teachers took us to their houses for dinners. We can’t do that safely now. What would happen if one of them had an accident? We would never escape the lawsuits. So all the staring I did at their artwork and books—my students can do this only if I post pictures.
We drank with our teachers. What can I even say about that? Goodbye to a job, that’s for sure.
One great teacher even taught me to play poker. Even mentioning this 30+-year-old memory to an administrator at my school brought a rebuke.
My great teachers asked me great questions in the hall. Dr. Randy Patterson said, “So, Miss Hammons, are you a Democrat?” My affirmative answer got me a job in his office in later years, which led to another job in Washington, which led to traveling all over the country—heady stuff for a naïve idealist. But what would I have become without Randy? I now tell my students that admitting to being a Democrat is akin to admitting to being a Communist when I was in school. They laugh but take notice.
Ok, now you’re saying that teachers still talk to students in the hall, still invite them to dinner, still drink a beer with them at local bars when all is legal. Sure you do.
I don’t. Can’t. Wouldn’t. I am not brave, but I have reason. I have been eye to eye with a petty, abusive system. I know the consequences.
Besides, most of us don’t have time to talk in the hall. We have at least 30 students to hustle out of the classroom, papers to retrieve, laptops to put in the cart, and another bunch of students on their way inside the room.
My great teachers were rushing 15-20 students into and out of their comp classes. I just heard of a teacher in South Mississippi who has seven classes and 350 students. She can’t worry about being a great teacher; she’s busy surviving.
Now I know that I can settle for being a good teacher and that being a good teacher is, indeed, not settling. Some days I am even a very good teacher. Today was a very good day. In American Lit I, I tied in a family story about my alcoholic relatives with a paragraph about a profane young man in Bradford’s history to illustrate how cheap human life was, even later into the 20th Century. In Comp II, we went over some essays again and edited the smack out of some so-so paragraphs. They kept nodding to the others in their groups and saying, “I told you that needed changing.” Good, good day.
I am still not ok for letting go of the great dream. It’s just that since I relinquished it, I have become a better teacher. I concentrate more on what they can do, instead of what I want them to do. Consequently, I am nicer, calmer. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it’s aging. Maybe I am finally listening.