Steve Schertzer

Finding the poetry

English teachers, Sonny's outcry, and finding the poetry

In his book, "HELP: The Original Human Dilemma", (HarperCollins Publishers, 2004), teacher and theologian Garret Keizer talks about Kathy B, a drifter and vagabond whom Keizer befriended. Kathy B had spent decades requesting the assistance of others, much to the detriment of those who chose to help her. One evening Kathy decides to move to a remote campsite deep in the Vermont woods. It's November and it's cold. Keizer and his friend Sonny put her gear in a pickup truck and decide to take her there.

They spend hours driving through fields and dirt roads, finally ending up in a clearing at the edge of a cedar swamp. This is where Kathy B wants to get out. At this point Sonny is about to explode. He looks at Kathy and says in an exasperated voice, "Girl, you got to have a better plan than this!"

With these ten words, this outburst, this sagacious outcry, Sonny just about summed up what is wrong with humanity. "You got to have a better plan than this." You've got to come up with something that leads you to a better place. In fact, you must come up with something that takes you from point A to point B efficiently, effectively, and to the extent that it involves as few people as possible. Very few things in this world get more people into more trouble than a lack of planning.

Which brings me to the many thousands of foreign English teachers across Asia. Governments and Immigration officials in various countries, including South Korea and Thailand, are finally starting to crack down on English teachers who have proven themselves to be less than desirable. These new Immigration polices are not just for those who have committed criminal acts, whether in their host or home countries. These polices should also be implemented for those teachers who are deemed incompetent in their jobs, lack respect, responsibility, planning skills, and refuse to take a leadership role in and out of the classroom.

I don't want this to sound like a rant against foreign English teachers. After all, I am one, and I've been fortunate over the years to have worked with some very talented and creative teachers; teachers who deserve respect and admiration from fellow teachers, administrators, supervisors, and Immigration officials, but, in the end, got very little of anything. Most of us know who these special teachers are. Most of us also know who the slackers are, and it is these people that are spoiling it for the rest of us who truly work hard and desire to make a positive difference in the lives of our students.

That there are schools, whether language schools or public schools, who do provide for their teachers a curriculum is both helpful and admirable, especially if the teacher is young and has just started working in the teaching profession. But there have been, and are, older and more established teachers who berate the system for not providing foreign English teachers en mass with a set curriculum from which to abide. Rather than "step up to the plate" and show leadership by planning their own curriculum, these teachers look for any excuse to criticize others for their lack of planning. It is far easier to criticize others for their lack of planning than it is to take the initiative by showing leadership. To expect the school or the school district to plan English lessons that the teacher himself should be taking the time to plan is both foolhardy and irresponsible. I can hear Sonny's voice: You got to have a better plan than this! In other words, it's not enough to simply show up for work.

I'm also fortunate in the sense that I have complete creative autonomy in the classroom. After almost 11 years in this profession, I wouldn't have it any other way. But with creative control comes responsibility. And it's a responsibility I take seriously. My main concern, vis-a-vis the students, is to make sure that they learn something. Having fun while learning is nice too, and there are times when my students have fun. But having fun is not always necessary, and, at times, it can become a distraction or an impediment to the learning process. A large part of my responsibility as a teacher is to set goals and guidelines. Goals to enhance the probability that my students reach their potential, and guidelines to ensure their success by following my classroom culture of cooperation, mutual respect, and responsibility set out for them beforehand.

Few things upset me more in this profession than lenient teachers; teachers with no goals, no rules, no guidelines, and no responsibility. Teachers who so readily lower the bar. Teachers who are afraid to teach and who just want to be liked by the children. Nothing wrong with wanting to be liked, but when being liked is the overriding emotion or endeavor of the teacher to the detriment of the students' learning, then there's something definitely wrong indeed. Children have been known to act out against lenient teachers. Keizer puts it this way:

"This is why kids respond to demanding teachers and despise those too ready to lower the bar. They suspect, not without reason, that an abundance of compassion betrays a dearth of confidence." (HELP: The Original Human Dilemma. HarperCollins Publishers, 2004. p. 110.)

An abundance of compassion betrays a dearth of confidence. Those teachers who are not comfortable being teachers, those teachers who, for whatever reason, refuse to take the responsibility needed to teach effectively, those teachers who lack confidence in their ability to teach will compensate for this by playing too many games and handing out copious amounts of candy. Then they'll wonder why the students are acting out and misbehaving. There is something pathetic about these kinds of teachers, something very sad. Maybe it goes back to something in their childhood. These lenient teachers are certainly not helping the students. In fact, they are helping to bring the whole education system down. That teacher training programs can't seem to find a way to weed this out shows how the vast majority of adults are failing children. Personally, I don't lower the bar.
I don't raise the bar either. I don't have a bar. I got rid of the bar a long time ago. That way, the sky is the limit for my students.

It is unfortunate that the drop-out rate among foreign English teachers is so high. There are many reasons for this. Young and naive teachers whose unrealistic expectations are not being met; young teachers who just want to travel; teachers who are here for a short time to pay off a student loan; young, irresponsible wanderers who just want to party; or those who are looking to escape the rigors of a demanding professional life back home. There are almost as many reasons for wanting to teach English in Asia as there are teachers.

There is another reason for the high drop-out rate among foreign English teachers, a reason not talked about very often. It is this: A lack of success. If there is a universal truth concerning the teaching profession, or any profession, it is that success begets love and love begets more success. Those who love their work tend to be successful at it, and those who are successful tend to love their work. In fact, they may not see it as work at all. Those teachers who love teaching and are good at it, tend not to quit. Simple as that. Once again, Keizer states this point eloquently if not metaphorically:

"The ultimate dismissal for a given line of work is not to say that there's no money in it but that there's no poetry in it." (HELP.
p. 100.)

Many teachers quit because for them teaching has lost its glamour. Forgetting for a moment whether teaching should be glamorous, many teachers either forget or have never known that teaching is a metaphor. A metaphor for what? Well, according to Keizer, Socrates the teacher saw himself as a midwife. Each teacher has to decide what metaphor he or she wants to use. "Part of the social value of a profession", Keizer insists, "consists of its usefulness in analogy."

Once teaching begins to lose its poetry, its beauty, we begin to ask some serious questions. This is natural and something people should do. It's not asking questions that's the problem. We must ask the right questions. And it's not asking the right questions that should frighten us. It's the answers.

So teaching has lost its poetry. Now what? (Or should I say, so what?) Quit? Go back to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, England, the U.S? Become like Kathy B, a drifter and a wanderer? Go back to telemarketing or stacking canned goods at the local supermarket? Now there's poetry! You got to have a better plan than this. Teachers who are disorganized in the classroom tend to be disorganized outside the classroom.

I like to think of myself as not only a teacher in the classroom, but also as a conductor. I often say that I'm not teaching a class as much as I'm conducting a class. And with 35 young teenagers in each room, it helps to hear a symphony. Keeping things in harmony is important with that many people in the room. As for poetry, there's no shortage of that in my classes. Oh yes, I have my share of miscreants. What teacher doesn't? But there's poetry when a student finally learns something. And there's poetry in a student's laughter. And there's poetry when a lesson plan takes shape. And there's poetry when a problem student finally jumps on board and participates. Poetic moments in the classroom may be rare, but they don't have to be. They're there if we choose to see.

Poet William Carlos Williams said that people "die miserably every day for lack of what is found." People live miserably every day too for that same reason. If not finding the poetic moments in our job and in our life is something akin to living in hell, then my poetic lunch today was a wonderful glimpse of heaven.

As I write, I'm beginning my winter break from middle-school. I'm off from December 29th until February 11th. I came in today, December 31st, to finish this column. In school with me are a few of my favorite students, studying hard and cleaning the school. I promised to take them out for lunch. Nothing special. Just burgers. But there was poetry on those faces. Poetry when they ate their burgers and fries. And poetry when they tried to talk English to me.

There's also poetry when they shyly huddle around my desk to see what I'm doing. Poetry when they give me a candy. Poetry when I give them chocolate. Poetry when they tell me I'm handsome. And poetry when they smile and say thank you. These smiles are sincere coming from 13 or 14 year olds. Tragically, this sincerity is something they'll lose in a few short years once they start studying 15 hours a day to pass college entrance exams. Give up on teaching because there's no poetry in it? I'm not sure that's possible for me. To give up on teaching is to give up on children. And how many of us can afford to do that?

As for Kathy B, she too gave up. She killed herself. A troubled woman who didn't see the poetry. As for teachers who don't see the poetry any longer; who, to quote from the famous song, "lost that lovin' feeling", maybe it's time to go. Perhaps it's time to move on. Time to make a choice.

As for me, I'm basking in the memory of lunch today with a few of my favorite students. Their genuine emotions were a joy to behold. I treasure their company and am grateful for the poetry. The same poetry that makes me want to care about them. The same poetry that makes me want to become a better teacher. The same poetry that makes me miss some of my students when I'm not teaching them. The same poetry that has sustained me all these years in Asia. The same poetry that keeps me in love with a profession in which so many others have given up.

You got to have a better plan than this! Yes you do. Sonny is right. Coming to class prepared to teach so that you can take your students where they need to go in life is one way of having a better plan. Seeing the poetry in teaching; now that's essential. Experiencing the poetry in teaching; that's absolutely necessary.

Just as I was about to end this column, I received a text message on my cell phone from one of the students I had lunch with today. It reads, "I had a great time. Thank you, Steven." Now if that isn't poetry, then there's no such thing.

No, sweetheart, thank you.


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