Every year I tell myself I am not going to do it.
This will be the year when I don’t work myself into a frenzied state of irrational dissonance from which it is impossible to recover until mid-June. This is the year I will not morph from impassioned teacher to a raving May worrywart. This will be the year I transform my teacher-self into a cool sophisticate of quiet contentment: think Zen confidence interlaced with a strong dose of Stoic wisdom. No more late nights. No more whining and complaining and thrashing about. As AP test season arrives in mid-May, however, I find myself in a familiar cocoon. And the reality becomes all-too-familiar: the butterfly I had hoped to become is a fiction for yet another year.
In the aftermath of disappointing AP results the teenager within grasps for any and every excuse: the students didn’t work hard enough, many of them had never taken an AP test before, there is just too much to teach, they miss class all the time for this activity or that game or because they decided to sleep in. At some point their performance becomes their responsibility, I reassure myself. And yet, a lot of students passed their AP exams. That didn’t happen on accident. Why don’t I celebrate the successes and ignore the failures as long as I know I did all that I could do?
This would be a healthy outlook, I know. It would save me a lot of heartbreak and insure that I never quarreled with my senior AP students. But I wonder: would it make me a better teacher? I have watched Dead Poets Society and Stand and Deliver to excess and the consequence has been a nagging but exultant residue of high expectations for my students and me. Couldn’t Jaime Escalante get these students to pass even if they did miss a lot of class? If John Keating could get students to stand up on desks, surely he could light a fire that resulted in a prodigious work ethic. Doesn’t an excellent teacher find a way to reach and inspire those students who were previously untouchable? I want to be one of THOSE teachers.
But the results seem to suggest otherwise.
Last year in the wake of disappointing results, my extraordinary coterie of fellow AP teachers and I undertook the process of reinventing ourselves in the image of technology aficionados. Instead of bemoaning our students’ manic obsession with their cell phones and social media standing, we decided a renaissance was needed. Further still, instead of standing tall as pedagogic mountains and demanding our students come to us, we decided we would embrace the current zeitgeist and create Twitter accounts, YouTube pages, and place more multimedia in our classroom routines. In short, we decided to go where our students already were, calculating that if they already mingled in the sphere of social media, perhaps our entrance into this world would encourage them to spend more time on subjects of an academic nature.
I write these very words in an empty classroom as my students take an AP exam. It remains to be seen if our efforts have been in vain or if they have spawned a new era of student-teacher interaction. But whatever the outcome, I must admit I have enjoyed watching my YouTube hits reach 10,000 views (who knows how many of them are actually my students). I enjoy sharing fascinating articles with my students (who knows if the students actually read any of them). I have enjoyed learning the parlance of the social media as I learn to “Re-Tweet” clever quips, “like” insightful articles, and “share” pictures and videos. It’s nice to have “followers,” even if I am certain to be “un-followed” the moment they walk across the graduation stage.
But despite the new bag of tricks we have wielded this AP season, I am reminded that nothing can take the place of the most timeless strategy of all: genuinely caring about the well-being and potential of my students. Twitter and YouTube and whatever is next will never supplant or replace the most essential act of teaching which uses the magic of the classroom to introduce our students to a broader and richer world within which to construct lives of passion and purpose. At most, technology is a delivery system of exposure, not a replacement for that which we hope to teach.
The better version of myself—the cool, confident me—is convinced that I can wait until August to look up my AP results. Delaying the gratification of knowing how my students performed, however, feels like a medieval form of self-flagellation. It also feels like self-deception. Who am I kidding? I do care; probably too much. But I get a nagging suspicion that the students who didn’t need a new bag of tricks, who have always relied on diligence, curiosity, and ambition, are the same ones who utilized these new tools to their advantage. And the students who failed to do what was necessary in years past will be the same ones who didn’t watch the YouTube clips or follow the Twitter announcements.
But whatever the result may be, I should resolve to be honest about who I am. Failure hurts. It will always hurt for a good reason. It is a potent reminder that as much as I want to soar as a teacher, teaching is closer to a hunt for a perfect recipe than it is an act of transcendence.