The Persistence of Teaching — Needle Butt Colleague

Last night I dreamed I took over a junior high class. The teacher? Well, a former colleague, the kind of person that a more raunchy friend said didn’t have a broomstick, but a needle.

My body was trying to wake me up, I think. My brain often sends me “bad” dreams when it really IS time to get up. Beats an alarm clock. ANY-hoo, this teacher was unable to inspire any interest in the subject at all — the subject being a little introduction to philosophy. She said to me, “If you’re so smart, you teach it.” She stood behind her lectern, on a podium, like an old-time preacher. I did teach it. It was an absurd curriculum, but I did what I could.

At the end I said, “How many of you can name a philosopher?”

“They can’t do that,” she said, “class dismissed.” It was thirty minutes before the class was supposed to end. I asked her why. I said I thought my lecture was going well (I judged this based on the interest I suddenly saw reflected in their eyes. Even the loud girls in the back — who were under the whip control of a teacher’s aid — started to pay attention). I had decided to start with the idea that religion is philosophy. I drew a preacher on the board — a Puritan such as I was sure they’d seen in pictures.

The “real” teacher said, “What is that? That’s not in the curriculum. I’m glad you can draw, Martha, but what’s the point? They can’t understand that.” I was perplexed. They may not have understood it, but it was clear from their faces that they wanted to. However, the teacher had a curriculum laid out in front of her and a set of learning outcomes. My drawing, and the excitement it was inspiring, were NOT on her list.

The thing is, I believe that it is the teacher’s job to help students understand new things. She told me I wasn’t serving these students best interests, they had an exam to pass, and she dismissed class. I found myself in a strange town and then in a swimming pool, swimming.

My needle-butt colleague is the kind of person I need. In the world of teaching, she  might NEVER need me (she would be very unlikely to see what I am and where my strengths lie) but in the bigger world, she can proofread and she CARES about the details (that I can’t even SEE). She might be lacking in imagination and a big-picture perspective, but she will see all the points from A to Z. I won’t.

The best combination possible for me is someone like my needle-butt colleague, but one who is as aware of her limitations as I am of mine — and one with a sense of humor. Right now I’m planning an interstate move and a new home purchase. I don’t want someone like me in charge of that. Fortunately, I have two awesome women on my side whose skills and perspectives complement mine. They have a good grasp of details, know how to negotiate, understand the rules and how they apply to my situation. I value them very, very much and, I believe, that is mutual.

I seek out people like this to help me with my writing, too. When I’m done with a manuscript and KNOW it’s got errors I will not see, I send it to my friends who SEE commas, transposed letters, repetition. These friends want to read a good story; they won’t write one. They are excited to contribute to the realization of a creative idea and I’m extremely grateful for their willingness to help me overcome my own short-comings.

In the world of teaching, however, this type of person was always more adversary than ally. This type of person can be an excellent teacher, but, I’m afraid, not an inspiring teacher. These teachers work according to quantifiable objectives, and the ability to inspire others is not measurable. My philosophy as a teacher was that the most important thing I could do to help my students learn was to infuse desire. There are many ways to do this but central to all of it is having enthusiasm for what I am teaching. Enthusiasm is contagious, but not measurable. Then is the ability to present a challenge combined with a clear willingness to meet students half-way on their road to meeting the challenge. Again, not a measurable “skill” and partnership with students is NOT top-down education. It’s cooperative learning, again, at odds with quantifying “achievement.”

The absence of imagination in the needle-butt teaching set is its big failing. My guess is that many needle-butt teachers, because they are incapable of being inspired, don’t believe in inspiration. It’s too bad because we two types of teachers need each other; students need both of us, too. The inspiring teacher can demonstrate to students WHY something is important; the needle-butt teacher can, once the inspiration is invoked, show students step-by-step HOW to accomplish it.

Anyway, I’m out of it now and glad to be, but I know the teaching dreams will persist, maybe forever, and the needle-butt teacher was always my nemesis. But in the world outside of teaching, these people are some of my best friends. I’d be lost without them.

6 thoughts on “The Persistence of Teaching — Needle Butt Colleague

  1. Thank you for this. I am the needle-butt. My friend who blogs here has been encouraging me to also blog, but I am not the writer. I am the proofreader and editor. I am glad I finally realized this and stopped trying to think up something to blog about.

    • Why not just take a deep breath and write? You might discover you like it. You don’t have to write War and Peace or something. It can be a great pleasure (even for a needle-butt) to discover self-expression just as learning strategies for proof-reading (I’m dyslexic) from one of my needle-butt friends really improved my life and showed me ways to do what I do better! Give it a shot! No one’s looking (and no one cares). 🙂 So you know, every day I give thanks that there are needle-butts in my world.

  2. That sounds remarkably like my real life substitute teaching experience. It’s no wonder kids don’t like school. They aren’t supposed (apparently) to like it, just pass standardized exams and move on.

    • Yep. I’m afraid that’s what it has come too… I’m sorry this dream has a basis in anyone’s real-life experience, though.

  3. Yes, inspiration and enthusiasm are vital to get children on the right track. I’m sure you’ll be remembered by many of your students, an invaluable gift! 🙂

  4. In this whole post the most catchy line to me was – “my brain often sends me ‘bad’ dreams when it really IS time to wake up.” The same happens with me I noticed. But now as I was reading urs a line rang in my head- so when I/we do bad stuffs in this world it probably is time to sleep/wake up in a new realization:)

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