As a middle school teacher, I am constantly plagued by “the smell of student”. The phrase has since become a colloquialism that I use with myself (if that even constitutes as “colloquial”) every time I need to conjure up a scowl (or sneer, or look of fury, or horror, or disappointment) for the students. And it’s far from an exaggeration. Pubescent teenagers who don’t shower for a week straight smell awful. And it lingers. They are not allowed to enter my room for longer than five minutes.
One of the hardest parts of this job (particularly as a mega introvert) is learning how to live with the students—and seeing them sometimes up to five hours a day. It’s not usually very pleasant and it’s pretty much singed away anything warm and fuzzy in my exterior. That being said, I fucking love my students. So much, that I will say whatever hurtful, jolting thing is needed to be said to keep them on track, I will hate them after class just to cope, I will wire an “on/off” switch onto my smile (and I will turn it off), and I will feel so proud of them for the tiniest bits of improvement.
I was really hesitant to take this job because I felt like who I am is not the best fit for the classroom. Yet, I have realized more and more that teaching is not about who you are, but rather about how the person you are can contribute to the person you need to be. In private life (because sometimes every class is a battlefield and you’re a damn soldier), I’m lenient, I’m overly nice, I soften my harsh harsh opinions to keep my social life from exploding into flames. This does not work in the classroom (at least not in a class of 60+ insane teenagers).
To survive in class, I have to plan in advance. Yes, lesson planning and all of that—but, more importantly, I have to plan how to show my fury. In some ways this is actually me learning to be more real. I am not good at showing anger so I tell myself, “this class, they will make me furious and I will need to throw something. My options are: A. textbook B. blackboard eraser C. box of markers. I choose B. blackboard eraser.” So, during my hellish evening tutorial, I take a deep breath after confiscating a shard of glass a student was playing with and slam an eraser on the floor.
"You think playing with this is a game? You think you’re still kids and it’s ok to make mistakes? If you hurt yourself—if you hurt someone else with this weapon—that’s on you for life. (You fucking assholes.)"
It’s not that I advocate for violence but I do advocate for clear, unequivocal messages. Students need to know what is NOT ok. This is not to crush their creativity or joy or anything; this is to keep them alive. To keep them accountable to themselves and to others. To give them purpose for being in school. To show them that someone is on their case and will call them out on it if they lie or cheat or waste time in class or give up on themselves or lose sight of their future.
The reality is, I often have students stand for a whole period of class and then I tell them afterwards, “if you don’t want to be here, then get out. Don’t come to school. Spend your time somewhere else. Don’t try. Think about how you’ll tell your parents this. But I think you’d be wasting your potential because the truth isn’t that you can’t learn, it is that you’re not putting in the effort. The only person who can do anything about it is you.”
I want them to know with clarity when I approve and —more importantly—when I disprove. It’s not fun. It’s emotionally draining. Every day, you have to the fight the monster of Indulgence. Students who indulge in their own failure, their belief that studying is pointless, their belief that not caring is the best defense mechanism. And I get so much shit in class. Students who laugh in my face. Who use humor to avoid their inability to answer a question. Who show disinterest on purpose. Who tell me, “yeah, I want to fail.”
I turn them around and force them to face the wall—sometimes pushing their head into the wall—and I tell them, “I don’t want to see your face.” Because I’m furious and because I understand that all this lying and cheating and attitude is just an elaborate, idiotic defense mechanism that makes my job immensely difficult in the moment. Because I know if I talk to them privately, they’ll turn into sad little fawns and I know they want to improve. Because I know I’ve done the same as a student.
On a daily basis, I probably repeat “evil children” to myself and other people an average of 10 times. I regret none of it.
I often ask students, “Do you have eyes? Do you have hands? Do you have pens? Then there is no excuse not to take notes. Any excuse you make is a lie you make to yourself.”
Sometimes I wonder if, when written out in semi-brutal detail, people will have problems with my pedagogical methods. But really, I don’t care. This is expository and not meant to be persuasive. The strategies I use in the classroom are constantly in flux and, really, when I receive comments on the terror of my teacher face, the only honest answer I can give is, “It was molded by the students.” I do what I can to survive and to earn the meaning that teaching can offer you.
Not all teaching is meaningful, I really do think you have to earn it. And sometimes no matter how much work you put into it, it still makes you feel like absolute shit. Nevertheless, I’m attracted to how much the job emphasizes commitment and an unwavering message. Like a —perhaps sloppily written—but forceful essay, teaching emphasizes a constant thesis statement.
The other day my neighbor said to me, “The most important job we have as educators is to prepare students to face a dark and cruel world.”
You can’t write “Students will be able to face a dark and cruel word” into a lesson plan, but you can repeat over and over ad nauseum that this world has values and you have value. You can forsake neither. If you break a value, if you devalue yourself, I’m going to hunt you down and make you pay for it.
The classroom is perhaps a foil for that awful society we sometimes live in.
And that is perhaps the crux of it all. No matter how awful students can be, they are, at the core, honest and forgiving people. They demand honesty of you. They demand you to let them know when they’ve fucked up and when the world has fucked them over. And perhaps the best way I can prepare them to face this shitty world we live in is to see the beauty of the world they currently live in. To enjoy school and to appreciate this place of values—and where they are valued and cared for. To recognize that this is already a part of society and the rest of society need not be so different.
On the weekends, a campus without students is a wonderful thing. It is quiet and peaceful and still. But a campus with students is what makes a school and it is loud and smelly and a battlefield and infuriating and difficult but also so full of life and potential.
How is it that you can feel battle-hardened but softer at the core than ever before? Crazy kids.