This month marks one year since I started teaching in a high school in Germany. This new chapter follows one of 12 years teaching in various universities in France and Germany, and a few other work experiences as well. I have learned a lot this year, and have yet a lot more to learn.
Teaching in high school is very challenging and very interesting; it has something of the ultimate human experience in my eyes. My personal mission is to do things that translate into interesting stories to tell later, and my professional mission is to be doing something meaningful as part of at team that shares the same values. Being a high school teacher fulfills the first of those, and working at the Internationales Stiftungsgymnasimum Magdeburg fulfills the second.
I am teaching math and physics to 7th and 9th graders (13 and 15 year-olds). The job has many facets. Dealing with group dynamics. Dealing with beings who are self-constructing and socially anxious. Dealing with deep emotions, in oneself and in others, every week. Working through locally-prescribed curricula in globalized disciplines. Having to change work modes every 30 minutes. Changing classes three times in a day, each time re-adjusting fully. Caring for emotional and physical safety. Consciously remaining cool-headed, and especially, consistent. All of this as the basis on top of which some amount of academic learning can happen, and some amount of fun can be had.
Most of the work is, of course, about the social and emotional conditioning of students that must occur so that actual learning can happen. Depending how your head is built, this can be hard to cope with — as an introvert, I find that too much of my energy is drained by the constant interaction, regardless of how much success I am having. It is the aspect of my job upon which I most want to improve.
In terms of pedagogy, I think I am doing well. I am certainly doing a better job than my high school physics teachers were, and that is a good metric to go by. There are still some unresolved tensions, however. One of them is, in class management techniques, how to conciliate the need for consistency (not accepting or ignoring behavior that is not acceptable) and the fact that some pupils, in a confrontation, only know how to escalate. There is a gap in my skills here: I have slid several times right into a dead end, taking the class with me, and am missing a good approach to avoid that.
Another resolution I am searching after relates to authenticity. I strive to be authentic when I talk to the class, when I discuss the relevance of the material (“this is important, but that is not”), when I deliver criticism or praise to individual pupils. It’s hard to describe exactly what this means because it involves bringing my personal self into what I am doing, without at all moving away from professionalism. Authenticity always requires some level of vulnerability, because some part of oneself is exposed (and relatedly, enabling authentic participation of the pupils requires having built a safe social and emotional space beforehand).
However, this strife conflicts with the need to respond to challenges to authority in the classroom. Simply put, a class and its individual students will test you, repeatedly. It’s always annoying, often disappointing, and sometimes upsetting; but it remains a completely normal and natural component of school life. This is because, firstly, classes have a life of their own (they are more than the sum of their components) and are on a slow but always active search for the behaviors which are accepted as the current normal. And secondly, the teacher is the only adult in the room, and the teenagers, who are told exactly what they should do and how all week long for years on end, are experimenting, sometimes even unconsciously, with boundaries. Luisa is allowed to wonder what happens if she does not actually work on the assignment today, or if she goofs off while I talk, and there is really only one way to find out.
Therein lies the difficulty: the only way I know how to respond effectively to such challenges is with the opposite of authenticity: prepackaged answers, unfazed body language, gradual consequences, and rock-solid consistency. To be effective, response must cost as little energy and self-involvement as possible. Your favorite pupils are actively destroying the activity you lovingly and joyfully crafted for the class today: fine, don’t get angry, deliver consequences and move on.
So, the joy and guiding ought to be genuine, but the conditional iron curtain is there ready to fall at any time. That’s a difficult state of mind to maintain and the switch is a gymnastic that I don’t quite master.
There are many such contradictions and balances to be struck. Overall I find the daily dive into social and emotional mechanics of high school to be exhausting, if rewarding. I am still not sure that I will stick with this profession, but whichever the outcome, I will have no regrets having tried.