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Thursday, August 21, 2008

On Staying Positive in Academia: A Raving Lunatic Manual

If you think that teachers are exempt from the corporate-style office politics syndrome you may be out of the loop about the ins and outs of today's academia. The sad reality is that for as much school administrators want to promote a "positive environment" and a "place where it is a pleasure to learn and work," the distance one has to travel to arrive at that "promise land" is full of tar pits and obstacles--often placed there by teachers themselves. I wish I could say it's just about the office politics, or the numbers/percentages of "nay sayers" versus "go-getters/doers," but I suspect I would be over-simplifying a great deal--it is about much more than just that simple dichotomy.

I am an "okay" teacher. I don't think I want to be a "great" teacher; the title strikes me as egocentric and self-centered. A "good" teacher seems appropriate, especially because I've met a number of them and they strike me as the most effective in the classroom. Despite the fact that I'll probably get bombarded by responses saying something to the effect that "it's not right to use terms like 'good' and 'bad' when talking about teachers, the reality is that there are in fact good and bad teachers, and to shy away from that reality would not only detract from this argument, but it would be censoring ourselves for the sake of not offending. But again, that dichotomy is just the surface problem, the "sugary sweet top" covering up a larger problem. This is not a purposefully apologia/qualification aim at seeking sympathy, although it may sound like one. I am an "okay" teacher, really... I am not happy with it, and I am constantly trying to improve my skills. Rather than trying to measure how "good" a teacher I am by 1) begging for bread crumbs of gratitude and validation from my colleagues, 2) making it all "about me" in the classroom, and 3) shunning students in order to get "my point" across first, I will aim to let my work speak for itself. If that makes me an "okay" teacher, then let it be so. I refuse to be the loudest just to draw attention to myself. More about this later. Hypothetically, what I want is to work in a positive educational environment where most teachers are "better" teachers than myself. In fact, I think there would be a better outcome if there was a larger number of teachers as opposed to the only lone "good" teacher. Think about it: more students would benefit from having a higher number of "good" teachers than just a handful; I would be constantly striving to do a better job to become a "better" or "good" teacher. It's a "win-win" for all involved. Have I made my point already, or do you need me to continue being an agent provocateur? A close friend from high school who later went on to play for a Major League Baseball club that "recently" won three World Series in a row once commented to me that after winning so many World Series titles, everything afterwards tasted of "anti-climax." A "good" teacher wins the title, but continues to struggle to better herself.

Okay, now that I got that out of the way, I will now write about what I mean by building a positive educational environment. I had a great thing happen to me this past May. It was late in the semester, but early enough before summer break to know it was not just the fact that 2.5 months of relaxation awaited me. The best way I can describe it is that "I've been giving birth to the Buddha every morning" without really understanding why. As a result, I've never been more positive or happier about my life in general. And despite the fact that I've had my moments since, and my raving rants, my deep melancholia, I'd like to think that I've found a new path for myself and that life will be healthier from this moment on. I never really considered myself a weak person, but my experience in the last couple of days has been a kick in the pants, as if to say "wake up... there's no way you can give birth to the Buddha every morning... get over it." The last two days made me realize how easy it is for me to fall on my ass when encountered with this all-enveloping "fakeness" and "negativity." The 'blah-blah-blah" of how much they want to do this and that turns into empty rhetoric. And that is what I am trying to avoid. I don't want, however, to criticize for the sake of criticizing, but it seems to be that we (as a faculty) are all staring at the same thing, and we can't "tell the forest for the trees." The "positive attitude of the administration," the "sharing of ideas," and "interconnectedness" we should all feel as a member of the faculty quickly gives way to the "look-at-me" effect that make these so-called "great" teachers. The pattern of questions during these administrative meetings seems to be always the same: those in the faculty that have the most tendency toward ownership/proprietary inclinations are the ones talking the most, monopolizing the most, asking common sense questions that are simply aimed at displaying "how much they know" about the very same topic they're asking about (long-standing librarians seem to be prone to this the most). In other words, they ask and proceed to answer the same question they just asked because they want to be "in the limelight" or appear "engaged." I suppose I could be the same way. But I've become so "ego-conscious," trying to detach myself so intensely from "the self," that when I see it in other people I am intimidated--intimidated by the people who claim levels of ownership of something and are "verbally aggressive" to defend their position until the end--especially if the confrontation becomes illogical and unreasonable. That fact scares me, yes, but not as much as the fact that this "combative/I-need-to-win-and-have-the-last-word" is passing for what we call intelligent discourse/dialogue in both academia and the mainstream world.

Of course I realize I am over-generalizing, and that is one logical fallacy I should not engage in at all. But to turn it around and say, "oh no, that's not what is happening here!" is also a hasty generalization in and of itself. Again, my limited point is this (at least for this educational environment I deeply love and believe in), we are all staring at the same thing but we can't see "the forest for the trees." How do we fix this? How do we make teachers spend less energy illogically fighting the so-called windmills the administration "sets up as obstacles" and turn that same energy into action inside the classroom? My belief is that any amount of energy we can put to good use is productive. The rest is just wasted. Let's seek less validation and spend more time trying to be anonymous. Let's allow our work speak for itself--if you are a "good" teacher, then it will show that way. I want to spend less time seeking the minuscule gratitude from above and planting good seeds below. This is what I want to do: Say less, and work more. Whatever I do, I won't announce, but I'll put it on the website (quietly and without pomp) so that there's a record of what I am doing. I think I want to do this because I don't want my "silence" to be equated with "not doing anything." As my dear father used to say: "The dog that barks the most is the one that bites the least." Let's listen, be quiet, sit still... after all, we need to be good.

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At 9:36 PM, Blogger Suzan Abrams said...

I'll have to come back and read this all properly but just wanted to say how very happy I was to hear from you.
And all the more exciting that you're coming out with a book. About time.
I'm so happy for you, will readily give your book a plug-in and look forward to that time.

Keep in touch and do write once more about your favourite reads.


At 8:53 AM, Blogger Stefanie said...

I work with people like that too. They always have to be right about everything and it completely shuts down the quieter people who actually do have the good ideas. And I don't even work in academia! Best of luck with your new plan. You'll be a good teacher before you know it!


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