A THEME OF DESPAIR (Teachers Talk About Themselves)
“Teacher and Child: a Book for Parents and Teachers”
by Dr. HAIM G. GINOTT, New York University
A group of teachers met to discuss life in the classroom. They were young in years and experience but already disillusioned. Some of them thought of dropping out and quitting the profession. Others decided to stay on but quit caring. All of them vented their feelings with authenticity and vigor. They pulled no punches.
ann: After one year of experience, I’ve decided: I am not fit for my job. I came to teaching full of love and fantasy. Now, the illusions have evaporated and the love has gone. Teaching is not a profession. It’s slow murder, death in daily installments.
BOB: Welcome to the club: “The Postgraduate Dropouts.” If I told you how I hate my job, you would think I am crazy. I am a music teacher. I love music. It’s my life. But I dream of burning the school and playing the fiddle at the fire. I detest the principal, I despise my supervisor, and I hate the system. I want to get out fast and alive.
clara: I am so sad I could cry. I am disappointed and disenchanted, because I expected so much. I wanted to do good. I wanted to change the child, the school, the neighborhood, the world. How naive! I smiled at rattlesnakes and they bit me, and now I too am full of poison.
doris: I thought I loved kids, especially the children of the poor. I was aching to plunge in and give them my best, make up for their deprivation, convince them that they are smart and worthwhile. Instead they convinced me that I am dumb and weak.
earl: I had no illusions, so I’m not disappointed. I knew the kids were rotten and the system corrupt. I never expected my efforts to make a difference. You are all so heartbroken: you wanted to empty the ocean with a broken ladle and you found out: mission impossible.
doris: Why did you become a teacher?
earl: It’s a job. If you don’t take it to heart, it’s not that bad. I like short hours, long vacations, and fringe benefits.
clara: God save us.
earl: Don’t get sanctimonious with me. I’m not the one who hates his job. I know the system and have no false hopes. It’s a racket. I don’t like it but I don’t fight it. I live with it and get all I can from it.
florence: Every day I come to school full of energy. I return home half dead. The noise drives me mad. It drowns out everything: my philosophy of education, my theories of learning, and all my good will. It stupefies me and blinds me. And all the time I am aware that I am under surveillance by Big Brother’s probing eye and ever-present ear.
grace: Every day I say to myself, “This is going to be a peaceful day. I am not going to get involved. I am not going to be provoked, lose my temper, and ruin my health.” But every day I lose control of myself in the classroom and return home depressed and disgusted with myself. Like a computer, I follow programmed instructions, I obey coded commands: “Yell your heart out. Get hysterical! Go mad!”
harold: I want to educate children to work for peace. The irony is that I am continuously embroiled in battles with them. It just doesn’t make sense to me.
earl: Are you trying to be rational? To make sense? It’s a mad world. School is a perfect preparation for this world. To approach the system rationally is like trying to kill yourself by rules of reason.
doris: I work in a poor neighborhood. People are prompt to take offense. They suspect you are slighting them. I have learned to listen and nod my head. I’m afraid to talk.
Ann: I tried to be fair to all children, but I soon found that attitudes are stronger than intentions. I could not stand the bullies and the wise guys. I suppose they too needed sympathy and guidance, but I couldn’t help them. I felt more like killing them, and they knew it.
Earl: Strange, I like assertive children, but I can’t stand the weak and meek and runny-nosed. I get angry at their whining. “Why don’t you wipe your nose, stand up and fight?” I want to say.
harold: The gulf between knowledge and practice is almost unbridgeable. An ancient philosopher said, “Authority allied with affection is more powerful than that founded on force.” Yet we use force and instill hate. Our principal says, “Let them hate you as long as they obey you.” But we all know that children do not learn readily from a teacher they hate.
grace: Perhaps I didn’t teach the children much, but I’ve learned a lot about myself. I never knew I was so middle-class. I never suspected I had such strong needs for order, neatness, and quiet. I was confronted with wild kids, much more energetic than I. After a while, I couldn’t stand the yelling, the fighting, the profanity. I felt embarrassed and humiliated. And I suffered anxiety and panic. This was my autumn of anguish, my winter of discontent, my spring of despair.
bob: You are a poet. No wonder the system kills you. It murders anything decent in us. There is no place for sensitive people in public schools.
grace: I could not get used to their language and conduct. The wanton destruction, dirty messes, and four-letter words! For some of my children “mother” is only half a word. Most of the year I was on the brink of a breakdown, fighting my anger and panic. I used to pray each morning, “Please, God, don’t let me go mad in front of the children.” The battle for self-control exhausted my energy. It left me drained, emotionally and physically. I agree with Bob and Earl: teaching belongs to the tough and to those who don’t care.
clara: I didn’t fail teaching. It failed me. Every day I prepared my lessons and was eager to teach. Every day something happened that disrupted my plans. It takes only one clown to infect a class, one smart aleck to ruin a lesson. Hell, I hate these kids.
IRA: Your trouble is that you entered the field of education –
clara (interrupting): You are damn right.
IRA: with missionary zeal and a rush to the rescue. You “adore” little children and want to save their poor souls.
clara: What’s wrong with that?
ira: You make a lousy teacher. You are easily hurt. The children activate your own past pains, and you melt in your own misery. The first requirement of a teacher is strength. Then you can be good. If you are weak and good you only engender sadism and invite attacks.
earl: I agree with you. I have seen teachers oozing love and creating hate.
doris: Isn’t our love good enough anymore?
ira: Loving is a complicated process. Children accustomed to rejection are frightened by love. They are suspicious of closeness that is forced on them. They need a teacher who is willing to remain at a safe distance.
BOB: Thanks for the mini-course in child psychology. But you do make sense. I too have noticed the failure of overeager, over involved teachers. They are enmeshed in stormy relations. They are distressed if a child feels unhappy and overjoyed if he makes progress. Teaching is their personal pursuit of happiness. They use pupils to gratify private needs. They often go from too-intense positive to too-intense negative feelings. The child gets confused.
doris: I notice that we have moved from discussing our feelings to talking about other teachers. What about our attitudes toward teaching now that we have had some experience?
ann: I look back in anger at the last year – the wasted time, the listless hours, the long conferences, the futile talks. Our principal loves vagueness and adores ambiguity. He delays decisions and postpones life. Whenever he is pressed for action, he retreats into more words, which become more and more abstract. Talking to him gives me the sensation of drowning in a sea of words.
harold: I visited a prison last week, and I came back bothered and burdened. I can’t escape thinking about my responsibility as a teacher. Every adult murderer was once a child who spent years in school. Every thief had teachers who presumably taught him values and morals. Every criminal was educated by teachers. Every prison is a dramatic demonstration of the failure of our system. We need to take a good look at the landscape of our responsibility.
DORIS: I remember how teachers taught us dishonesty. They never accepted a simple truth. They insisted on a lie that was both believable and interesting.
HAROLD: Education is a lost cause. There are solutions but they’ll never be used. Effective remedies require a fundamental change in the system. The bosses will never allow it.
earl: The whole system of education is built on distrust. The teacher distrusts the students. The principal distrusts the teachers. The superintendent suspects the principals, and the school board is wary of the superintendent. Each authority sets up rules and regulations that create a prison atmosphere and an implicit charge that everyone in the system is dishonest or incompetent or irresponsible.
doris: That’s how students become con men. They learn to figure out what the teacher wants and give it to him. The teachers dope out what the principal wants. For instance, my principal is not interested in how I teach or what kind of person I am. If the records of attendance and grades are in order and on time, he is satisfied.
ira: Your stories sound so depressing. I wonder why millions of teachers keep on teaching year after year. They can’t all be confirmed masochists. Are there no satisfactions in our job?
doris: You tell me, if you can.
ira: I certainly can, but I’m not sure if it’ll convince you.
doris: Go ahead, try me.
ira: O.K. I have difficulties just like you. But I also enjoy feeling needed, getting to know what makes children tick, and learning to understand myself better.
earl: You have it down pat, don’t you?
ira: Sorry it sounds pat to you. To me, it rings more like an agonizing appraisal.
earl: Any more words of wisdom?
ira: Plenty! But I’ll share with you only one truth: There is no place for cynics in elementary school. The young need protection from adults with stone souls.
karl: Bravo. Bravissimo. That’s the spirit, Dr. Spock.
Bob: I freeze every time the principal enters my class. This cold fish tells me to be warmer with children. I’m too somber, he says. I need to be more alive. With him around I feel dead. He has sympathy for the poor children, he says. Well, I am poor. Why doesn’t he show some sympathy for me? Why doesn’t he demonstrate warmth? Right now, I myself could use some warm words.
HARold: My supervisor loves books and papers and research. Only people he hates. He knows all about education in ancient Athens and in medieval Rome. But how to supervise a live teacher—that he doesn’t know.
ann: Our faculty is full of people killing time, waiting for retirement. They are old at middle age. They are bitter, going nowhere and crying over their spilled lives.
doris: One old teacher keeps giving me advice: escape while you are young. Look at me and run for your life. Teaching will kill you. It’ll murder your spirit, drain your energy, and corrode your character. The daily battles with children, the constant complaining by parents, the ceaseless carping of the A.P.—what do you need them for? Choose yourself a respectable career.
harold: I became aware that college failed to prepare me for my job. Teaching children takes at least as much skill as flying a jet. In college they taught us to drive a tractor, while telling us it was a jet. No wonder we crash every time we try to take off.
doris: How true. My professors talked about children’s needs, parents’ needs, and society’s needs. I wish they had made me aware of my needs. They made me believe that children come to school with a terrific thirst for knowledge. All I had to do was to quench their thirst. Now I know better. Children come to school to make my life miserable, and they succeed.
bob: We all feel deeply disappointed, because our initial experience is not what we had expected. Teaching is like taking a plane to a tropical island and landing in the Arctic. It’s quite a shock to expect sunshine and to face a long, cold, polar winter.
clara: Is there no hope at all for education?
earl: There ain’t. Get it through your head, girl, and you’ll live longer.
IRA: If there is no hope for education, there is no hope for humanity. I can’t accept such nihilism. I have faith in our ingenuity and inventiveness. Solutions will be found in education itself—in better education, in different education.