Last fall, I read an article in the Washington Post about a teacher who had gone back to school as a student. (If you haven’t read it, you should do that first; it’s great.) My first thought after I read it was, “Wow!” My second was, “I want to do that.” Yesterday, I had that opportunity. I shadowed an 11th grade student for a whole day — we met at the beginning of her bus ride at 7:00AM and parted ways at the end of the bus ride at 7:00PM. In between, I got to go to homeroom, French, English, Economics, Pre-Calculus, Debate, Environmental Science, and finally debate practice.
Thank you to our principal who eagerly supported this project, L’s teachers for letting me observe for the day, and especially L herself for putting up with me for 12 hours. She did an incredible job of “translating” school for me — whether literally in French (I took Spanish) or more figuratively in the lunch line (“Okay, you have to be ready to grab a bag and get what you want fast or the people behind you will get grumpy.”)
Before I attended school with L, I had to make sure I was ready for class. I knew I couldn’t even hope to approach the learning she’s been doing all year, but I also didn’t want to be totally unprepared. Here’s what I did in advance:
- English — Read Heart of Darkness and Chinua Achebe’s essay on the book, “An Image of Africa.”
- French — Nothing. I knew I’d have no hope in this class.
- Math — Reviewed sigma notation on the bus to school.
- Science — Talked to L about Hydrogen fuel cells (her presentation topic for the day). Renewable energy is a perpetual topic in debate, so I was pretty prepared already.
- Economics — Reviewed the principles of monopolies, monopolistic competition and oligopolies.
To be clear, I have nothing more than some tentative conclusions about the day. I saw one day, with one kid, and I know my presence may have subtly changed the classes in ways that I can’t anticipate. But, in no particular order, here are my thoughts:
1. School is exhausting.
I’ll confess: I barely made it through the day. I got home, did my math homework while mindlessly eating dinner, and immediately went to bed. I’m pretty sure L was not in bed by 9:00 like I was — she also had to study for an English test, do Economics reading and practice problems, write a French dialogue, and do that same math worksheet. Oh yeah, and prepare for the state debate tournament on Friday.
So: school, tiring. But why? I agree strongly with Alexis Wiggins (article linked above): “Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.” So much of school is sitting, and passive sitting at that. Even when engaged in the material, the corresponding activity is usually taking notes. I wrote eight full pages of text during the school day.
The analogy I gave at lunch yesterday still rings true — it’s like going to an airport and waiting six hours for a flight. Why am I exhausted after that? I have no idea. I was just sitting there and reading, or people watching, or day-dreaming. Yet at the end of the day, I’m exhausted.
2. The process of school is hard even when the content isn’t.
No thing that I did during the day was difficult. I’m not saying that classes aren’t hard enough—a lot of the differences between my day and L’s (no grades, I’m an adult who learned a lot of this at one point or another, I’m only doing this for one day and don’t have to take the test or write the essay) meant that I was under a lot of less pressure than she was. But for me, no individual class was difficult. Yet the day itself was incredibly difficult. The process of school was hard, even when the content wasn’t. Sitting all day? Hard, see above. Taking notes all day? Also hard. Moving from place to place at precise times and switching subjects every 55 minutes? Very hard.
3. Interesting things can become boring when repeated over 8 hours.
I was impressed by L’s teachers. The individual classes were engaging. The teachers were kind, thoughtful, funny—everything you’d want in a teacher. If I got to visit any one of those classes again, I’d snap up the invite. At the same time, a lot of the day I was bored, not because the class was boring but because I had simply reached my limit. By the time I made it to my own class (5th period debate), I just sat there and stared into space while L and the other kids worked on their research assignments. I was totally burned out.
Teachers can make classes interesting and engaging and still have students not be engaged — because they’ve reached their limit on listening.
4. The pressure to multi-task is immense.
As a teacher, it drives me bonkers when a kid is doing their history or physics or Spanish homework in my class. Yet by 6th period, I was doing the same thing — my precalc worksheet was out next to my notebook. “If there are 2 minutes between each presentation while the next person opens up their PowerPoint, that means I can get 4 problems done during class. That’s almost half of my math homework!” A lot of the behavior that frustrates us in our students is actually pretty rational — if I fuss at a kid for doing other homework in my class, but it means they can go to bed 15 minutes earlier, who is making the better choice?
5. Lack of control is unnerving.
I’d never thought of teaching as a particularly freedom-filled profession. Creative, yes. Exciting, yes. But teaching is also like a game of hide-and-seek. You know, “ready or not, here I come”? Third period students come in at 10:27am expecting to learn whether you’re ready or not.
And yet, the amount of freedom as a classroom teacher is infinite compared to that of our students, something that I felt very strongly over the course of the day.
Sitting down to teach and decide you’d rather be standing up? You stand up. Oh, now you’d like to sit down, you say? Look at that great teacher chair at the front of the room to sit in. Students have none of that freedom. Even in classrooms without assigned seats or with clearly very strong student-teacher relationships, it’s clear who is in charge. Which, of course, also means it’s clear who isn’t: the students.
I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Actually, the rooms with the clearest rules and the most “teacher control” were also in many ways the most calming or comforting — it was clear what the students were supposed to do and what their role was. But it was noticeable — as an adult, I can’t remember the last time I had to ask someone if I could use the restroom. I am 31 and in my daily life, it’s assumed that I can make that decision all by myself. Students, not so much.
6. I wish every teacher got to do this.
All in all, I loved my day. I got to see a world that I never see. I got to see one of my students in many totally different contexts than usual, I got to see some of my best colleagues teach, and I got to experience a small bit of what my students experience every day.
I’m also a lot more empathetic when the students say they’re “stressed.” I’d say more “burned out,” but I get the message — school is overwhelming, and even the best and most invested students get tired and bored and stop listening from time to time.
I’m so glad I got to do it. Thanks to all.