Thursday, September 23, 2010

Master Teacher

Year seven.

Among teachers, year seven is an unofficial "turning point" - your time and experience has transformed you from a neophyte into a battle hardened veteran. You've survived the first year trial by fire and weathered years of bureaucratic indifference; against the limitless hordes of wild, hormone driven teenage larvae you've proved yourself to be more durable, more resilient, more seasoned. Almost nothing surprises you, even the most obnoxious and difficult student leaves you unfazed.

Wannabe gangsters, hyperactive adolescents, outraged rebels, attention starved hecklers, the emo who wish they were vampires - come one, come all - their classroom antics mean nothing. A sharp glare, a stinging rebuke, the no nonsense frown - one by one they fall into line.

By year seven the art of teaching has been programmed into your neural hard drive, you operate not on conscious thought but instinct. You are a psychic savant, intuitively predicting outcomes and neutralizing trouble with an enchanted sixth sense. Like a magician fooling an audience, you are seven steps ahead, you know where to push and when to pull back - you are the foreman, the manager, the drill sergeant, the boss - except you don't have the authority to "fire" anyone. Nor can you write a "ticket" or make an arrest, you have no badge and you have no gun.

All you've got is a mouth and attitude.

On the second floor of the B building I spot two semi-circles of students standing idly in the hallway. Like a sea captain who can spot a typhoon on the horizon, I tack into the midst of the crowd, stopping between a pair of boys glaring at one another.

"Boys," I state calmly, eyes squinting, "I need you two to move along. You can't fight here."

There is a long pause, the onlookers holding their breath in anticipation. A second later one of the boys shuffles down the hallway, glowering fiercely at his rival. The crowd begins to dissipate, the typhoon has been averted.

"Awww...Leiken, you ruin all the fun."

"Aye," I reply, "That be true."

In U.S. history I give a brief lecture about individual rights versus state rights. I radiate energy, pulsating with enthusiasm and humor as I hook the class into the lecture, seizing their attention like a virtuoso performer who cannot be ignored.

At lecture's end, they applaud.

I give a guest lecture to a World History class about colonization and slavery - they're riveted. By the end, they applaud.

The following day I am working with a group of 11th graders, encouraging them, pushing them, expounding the importance of believing in yourself. "I don't teach you, ladies and gentleman, you teach you! You may not be the next Shakespeare, but that doesn't mean you can't graduate! Everyone can make the team!"

And they applaud.

I've paid for that applause, earned every single clap minute by sweat driven minute, crossed the River Styx on a boat of gravel and grit, my paddle an increasingly sardonic sense of humor.

No document or credential can create a "master" teacher, no amount of training or books can adequate prepare any individual who wishes to cross the River Styx to teach in an inner city school. It's a journey each teacher must take alone, an odyssey of restless evenings brimming full of nightmares followed by anxious mornings filled with silent dread; long months of being quietly petrified at the thought of having to face down class after class of unruly, mean spirited students.

The master teacher is born not out of the classroom but a journey crossing a thousand moments of uncertainty, guided not by conviction but doubt as they ask themselves the same question, over and over: "Could I have done it better? With just a little more effort, could I have nudged that student in the right direction?"

There will be no trophies, no awards, no medals, no ribbons; your reward is to inspire others.

Hey, Mr. Leiken, I just wanted to tell you I got into Polytech! Mr. Leiken, did I tell you I entered culinary school? Mr. Leiken, you're awesome, history isn't boring at all. Mr. Leiken, thanks for encouraging to save up my money and go to Hong Kong, it was like the best trip ever! Hey Leiken, you were right, I started my own moving business. Hey Leiken, are you going to run a comedy club again, we want to be funny like you. Mr. Leiken, I hope one day I can be a teacher, because you like make learning fun.

And to think that seven years ago I went into teaching for the money...

It may be true that you'll never obtain riches teaching, but its taken me seven years to learn that a master teacher is never poor.