January, you suck

I know I have taken a longer than usual hiatus from blogging these past few weeks.    Sorry about that!

Life happens, and it has been happening a lot this month.

Stress is stress, regardless of the cause.   Sometimes it is hard to remember that good things can still be stressful too.   This season has had its ups and downs.   So here is what I’ve been contending with:

The Good:   My work and relationships have been both good and busy!   I’m teaching at two different schools I have learned a lot from my new school.  Also, the extra work I’ve gotten has allowed me to be out of debt for the first time in my adult life.    I also have amazing friends and relationships.   My partner and me have decided to move in together and have started looking for a new apartment.     So I have had some wonderful hours looking for apartments with her, and trying to coordinate the puzzles of our lives optimally.

The Bad:   Looking for a new apartment has some extra motivation recently.   My current apartment has been … damp.   This has been an unusually wet Winter, and my apartment has flooded multiple times.  My landlady is nice, but I’m tired of the underannounced workmen who show up, and occasionally coming home to find puddles in my hallway.    Also my recent apartment hunting turned up some issues that I had to deal with in my credit!  (Lets just say it was some residual fallout from a nasty breakup a few years back).   I managed to fix the issues… mostly.

Also, kidney stones are no picnic.

The Ugly:  Taking care of yourself is important, but sometimes even the best efforts don’t work.   Depression and insomnia are things that I periodically have to contend with in my life, and it has made starting teaching this quarter a bit difficult.*   I also have some very dear friends going through some hard times.   I can listen and sympathize, but there isn’t anything I can do otherwise.   And then there is dread… I’ll just say that I’m hoping to avoid PTSD triggers this quarter.

The Usual:    Teaching is a wonderful thing, but it is a lot of work.  Patience isn’t always easy, and it is a necessity for teaching.     I love my students, and I love to teach, but it is a rare week when I don’t have a three-inch stack of grading with me on my weekends.   Teaching is a job that will take all the time and energy that you give to it.   And there will always be more to do.

I also shouldn’t be allowed to listen to politics.   Ever hear the old saying:   if you like laws or sausages, never watch either being made?   Yeah.   I look at American politics and can’t decide whether to laugh or cry.

And that has been my life.   Sorry I haven’t been posting/not sorry, because I can’t really feel bad for being a responsible adult.

February has some more promise in it.  I’m hoping for less drama, although moving friends (and possibly ourselves) is likely to be happening.   January, you are hereby voted out of 2016.

 

* Just to let you know, I’m okay.   Still weird, and feeling better at this end of the month.

Finals Week Playlist 14

Another term’s final has passed.   This has been a good quarter if a somewhat difficult one.   My personal difficulties involved flooding followed by incompetent plumbers, a busier schedule than I have ever had, and a fantastic relationship.

In class has involved teaching several new classes, the usual host of students (enthusiastic students, students with issues, and the indifferent students).  This quarter I have personally worked through five red pens.  Contemplate that for a moment.  Five red pens.

In any case, here is some of the music that graded to.

  • Mathematical Music (Just for the awesome video)
  • Johnathan Coulton – Chiron Beta Prime (Tis the Season… for robots)
  • The All-American Rejects – Gives you Hell
  • Professor Elemental – All in together
  • Oingo Boingo – Only a Lad   (Dedicated to a special someone… who I hope to never see again)
  • MIA – Bad Girls
  • P!nk – So What?
  • Tank Girl – Lets do it  (Dedicated to a special someone who I am moving in with…)
  • Limp Bizkit – Break Stuff
  • Rob Zombie – Demon Speeding  (Why don’t you ask me what it feels like to be a freak?)

 

Now we get to take a vacation.   And by vacation, I mean I get to sleep in and hang out with my family as I plan my classes for next quarter.   (Unpaid overtime!   Woohoo!!!!)

Now go forth and use your powers for whatever the hell you want to.   They are your powers!

Donald Trump

Dear Donald,

I was going to start this letter with the request that you shut the fuck up.   Instead, I think I want you to keep talking.   You see, the more you talk the stupider you look.   I want to say that you represent the worst of America.   You have money to spend, and yet you are morally bankrupt.   You are a hateful and bigoted man, and your jingoist speeches highlight your attitudes.   I was briefly concerned about you, now I just pity you.

Willful ignorance offends me.   I think that your profound lack understanding of complex issues would be a disaster for this country.   I’m a teacher because I want to fix ignorance, while you seem to celebrate it.

Don’t expect me to address anything else to you.  I don’t care for adolescents of any age.

Sincerely,

Colin Leetham

Founder of the Evil League of Teachers

 

P.S.  Donald, I changed my mind.   Shut the fuck up.

As a reminder:  The views expressed by the Evil League of Teachers do not reflect those of our employers, friends, family, or any other membership organizations.

Whelmed

Being a teacher is more than just a job.   Teaching will take every erg of energy you throw at it… and no matter what, there will always be more that you can do.

But teachers are human too.   No matter how we try to be super-teachers, we have lives that sometimes get … complicated.   This may seem like a lead up to an apology for posting sporadically over the last month.   If that is what you thought, then you are right.  I have been overwhelmed and I haven’t kept up on posting.  Sorry.

Among other things, my apartment flooded. After a very damp and squishy night keeping the waters at bay, I had the usual complement of students to care for, classes to teach, and stacks of grading to do.  Self care took a back seat for a while, which was a mistake.

The world never stops, no matter how much we need a break.

After things calmed down, I had planned to write about the attacks from ISIS on Paris … but my friends asked me to wait, to post something fun, but my brain was blank.   I know it is illogical, but I wish I hadn’t waited to post in light of the mass shooting in San Bernardino.   Perhaps they were right, it was too depressing.  I don’t like to admit it, but I have limits and I was reaching mine.   My voice isn’t that loud in the world, but I hope it is heard by some folks.

I *will* be posting on those touchy subjects in the weeks to come.   I’m even happy to give you a preview of the content:   Resist.   Talk to the Muslims in your life, and let them know that they have your support.   Bad people can do horrible things in the name of what you believe in. That doesn’t mean that they represent you or your beliefs, even if they do share a name.   Don’t play to the narrative that Daesh has set up.   And do not give up your freedoms.   It isn’t for love of Mohammed, or Allah, or anything – giving up your freedom is losing.  Living well is the best revenge.   So keep talking, keep exchanging ideas, and pity the fools who think they know the mind of god.  Good ideas can stand up to questions.   Bad ideas cannot be supported, and only violence can carry them forward.

… {later} …

Being a teacher is a job that never stops.   I have good students who want to better their lives, and bad students who need to learn life lessons in order to better themselves (before math lessons can be learned).   Students who need help, and family and friends who need me too.   And I need them just as much.

Being a teacher is more than a job. It is a labor of love.   And I won’t ever stop, because as much as my students need me, I need them too.

Next week I will be on to cheerier subjects, like music to grade finals to.

Fish and Porn

I was standing in line chatting with some people when the topic of fish came up.   “You know that they have made the category so broad that either everything can be called a fish, or nothing can.   They’ve stopped using it.”    The thinking was that they were trying to come up with things that unified the idea of ‘fishness’ in order to classify them, but the factors named were either so broad that nearly nothing was excluded or were so narrow that almost everything was.

Something very similar was said about the fuzzy definition of pornography:   I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I see it.

While it sounded plausible at the time, I admit that it seemed a little … ahem… fishy after the fact.   When I went in search of citations, I found some lively debate by many amateurs.   Interestingly enough, there is some ongoing taxonomy debate regarding what can and can’t be regarded as a fish.

This is one of the reasons why I am careful when I use the words “always” and “never” with a student.   It makes their life harder when they have to change their perceptions again.   One of the things I do say frequently is that there are almost always exceptions, but they depend on the context of the situation.    “Hard rules” will change when the situation changes.   And there is almost always more than one way to look at a math problem.    Or aquatic life… or erotic photography for that matter.

Hmmm…. “I know it when I see it” can look like a pretty good definition.    But critical thinking isn’t just about thinking about categories and definitions, it is thinking about broader context.   At its core, critical thinking is thinking about your quality of thoughts.   Which means that you can NEVER settle on a hard definition.   It all depends on context.   Whether it be how to solve an algebra problem, or figure out how to deal with complex numbers, or even what counts as a fish.   Or what qualifies as porn.

Experts know when conventional definitions don’t work, they need to reexamine the questions.   Those are the questions that are interesting, and worth asking.

From Simpsons, Season 7 Episode 19 - "A fish called Selma"

Stay curious.   And don’t be afraid of asking questions about what qualifies as a fish.  Or porn.   Fish-porn is too weird for my taste, but I won’t judge you.

Midterm Misanthropy Madness!

It is the middle of the quarter, and I have already burned through 3 red pens.   3.  Red.  Pens.

Imagine the number of comments, mistakes, and the sheer volume of … creative … math that I have had to wade through to go through that much red ink.    This is just the grading portion of teaching this quarter.  I’ve also had a bumper crop of over-participators, students who feel that a calculator is a right rather than a privilege, and a few folks who defy description.

Midterm misanthropy has set in.

Now don’t get me wrong.   I love teaching and I love my students, but there are a few things that would improve my mood.

  • A big red stamp that just says “NOPE” that I can use on repeated mistakes.
  • I need a mute button for some of my over-participators.
  • … and my younger students who don’t understand this isn’t high school.
  • … and my chatty students who don’t realize that when I’m lecturing, they need to stop relating drinking stories.
  • … and the people on the ferry who asked me if I speak “white”  (True story.  It didn’t end well for him.)
  • Maybe a cattle prod instead of a mute button.
  • More red pens.
  • A set of stocks* as a teaching tool to get people to stop trying to add denominators together.
  • “Force choke” the next person who asks me to teach them the ENTIRE lesson of the day they were absent.  (My sympathy is with Darth Vader at this point in my life).
  • Banana spiders.   For educational purposes.
  • Access to all of the student’s Junior High School yearbooks.

Petting zoo

I will not kill my students and wear their skin.  I will not kill my students and wear their skin.   I will not kill my students and wear their skin…

 

*  Not the financial type of “stocks”.   Think old-time village square “stocks”.

Worry

Being a good teacher means a lot of things.   Good teachers have a couple of traits in common, passion for the subject matter as well as caring for students’ lives.   It goes beyond just a job, it is personal.   There are a myriad of things that will trigger concern for your students.   Failing grades, absences or unexpected lateness, or changing personalities.

Remember the expression about the road to hell?

Pressure

You can’t help everyone.

That care for students can cut both ways.  Caring for students gives a sincerity and a fire that they will recognize and appreciate.  Students will try more for someone who will try for them.   Caring also can be a ticket to neuroses and burnout, if you start to feel ineffective.    The downside of things can be worry, and while it is useful to identify what/who needs your attention it is also good to have boundaries.

It would seem that “not caring” would be a solution, but then you lose a valuable tool.   But this is one of the paths to burnout…   you don’t always get a choice in what you feel, and trying to divorce yourself from care isn’t really an option.   Giving up on the students just reinforces the underlying feelings of ineffectiveness.

So how do you solve the conundrum of caring for students?  The only way out, is through!   Caring is only the first step on the road.     Communication and action are the next steps… which empowers both the teacher and the student.   Working on solving the problems (above and beyond how to “solve for x”) is good.

You don’t have to have all the answers.  Who does?   Well, being a good teacher also means being a good researcher.   And someone who can interpret and guide people to the appropriate resources.   If the student has some ideas already in mind, even better.   A lot of the time students have ideas but no idea how to follow through.   Whether it is support or accountability, teachers can provide.

And I like getting thank you letters from students who got into the schools they wanted, or passed their class even when they lost their house, or ….  whatever.

You can’t help everyone, but you can help a few.   And being able to reach out to those few will relieve the worry.   You aren’t powerless.

Teachers are always in the fight.

The Credo of the Evil League of Teachers

Several years ago I asked an artist friend of mine, “What is art?”

She was thoughtful for a minute, then answered “Art is something that remains beautiful even after it’s stopped hurting.”

Pithy as it is, I like this description of art.   Creativity is an itch that people scratch not necessarily because they want to, but because they need to.   The acts of writing, painting, sculpting, welding, acting, or whatever medium is used because it is preferable to not expressing the idea.   Better the imperfect act of creation  – than to let their ideas die.

Artists create because they have to.

“It isn’t whether they pass or fail, but how much they suffer along the way.”   – Evil Teacher’s Credo

In some ways I wonder if students are artists by this definition.   Students have a desire to grow, to become more, and they work towards that goal… if so, then their life is their art.   And teachers?   We want to make minds better.   We demonstrate, we lecture, we teach because it is necessary to us.   The students are our canvas, and after they pass on from our classes what they learn remains beautiful.

I think that not every painter, singer, sculptor, dancer or writer is an artist.   For some people, it is a job.   There is no desire, no passion, or no vision behind making something.   I think it is easy to say that not every teacher is an artist…

… but enough of us are.

Teaching isn’t easy, long hours, hard work and low pay.  There are sacrifices we make in our lives because we need to teach.    We don’t need to “suffer for our art,” but we teach because it is an itch that must be scratched and there is no other way.

For me it isn’t whether they pass or fail.   Did they learn?   Did they take the easy path, or the right one?

Heartsore

I want to know who he shot, to honor their memory.  I don’t want to know his name.   I just know how these stories end.

Let me back up.

I was driving to teach a class when I heard the news out of Oregon.   A shooting at Umpqua College, in Oregon… reports were unconfirmed, and the numbers kept changing.   Ten dead, twenty injured… then seven dead.   They said they had the shooter, then we hear that he was “neutralized” (whatever that means).

My commute is long.  I heard a lot of this.   I was out of sorts teaching my class that afternoon.

By the evening, people stopped reacting to the tragedy and tried to do something with it.   Parents were being interviewed, telling secondhand stories.  Commentators were already trying to make sense of the shooting and speculating on the shooters motives.   By the morning, politics had entered the scene.   People for and against gun control, people who want to paint some agenda on the shooter.

I want schools to be safe.   They should be.   They need to be, if anyone is going to learn.   They need to be so we can outgrow this crap.

Here is what I know is going to happen:

  • There will be gun control protests.
  • There will be gun rallies (not likely in the town, but in the capitol).
  • Christians will claim they are being persecuted, regardless of the religious identity of the shooter.
  • Both presidential campaigns will talk about the shooting extensively, using the outrage and sympathy for their own goals.
  • Students from the school will be endlessly interviewed, and asked to relive that day.
  • There will be a TV special about the “heroes” of the day.   Eventually, they will be revealed as humans with flaws.

And a year from now not much will have changed.   We will have new tragedies to mourn, and a presidential circus to distract us.   And the Olympics.   And… and… and…

…and I don’t want to know about the shooter.  I want to know who he shot.   Simply put, there is no sense to be made of this:  celebrate the lives of the fallen, and mourn them if you need to.   Mourn the twisted mind of the shooter who decided this was how he was going to make his mark on the world.

I’m a teacher.   I mourn the loss of those students, of their hopes, of their dreams, and of the loss of peace on campuses across the US.

Now, I’m just exhausted and heartsore.

Fall Frenzy

It begins.

Fall term is starting… the air is crisp in the morning, hinting at cold days to come.   Already, all of my Summer attire is put away.   What has taken its place is an incredible crush of last minute revisions to classes, syllabi, homework, and trying to finish up Summer projects!   Amid the training sessions,  onboarding meetings, and early fall celebrations, it pays being organized and taking out some time for self care.

Which is unfortunate, really.  Where did the time go?

The beginning of every quarter always seems to have a tidal wave of work attached to it, but Fall quarter especially so.   Why?  Perhaps the shorter days?  The crop of new students?  The implementation of new programs or policies (often well-intentioned, but not always useful)?  Whatever the cause, Fall term is crazy.   There is a lot of hustle and bustle during the first few weeks, with a lot of work to take care of before things start to settle down.

16-Tons

That’s all right, I didn’t need more than 5 hours of sleep regularly anyway.

So far, classes have been good to me.   My classes seem to have good personalities, and my grading pile is small.   I only have 13 things to plan and write before Monday.  Plus proofreading.  Plus photocopying.   Plus 100 new names to remember.

Pleasure reading?  Oh yeah, I can add things to my fun reading pile.  Maybe I’ll get to them after finals.

Oh by the way, unemployment decided to mess up your claims for the past two weeks before classes.    As an adjunct, I won’t get paid until mid-October.   I have at least 2 weeks of 14 hour days planned, before things will start to smooth out and calm down.  But in the meantime, my bank account is getting thin.

I love my job, but parts of your psyche twist under these pressures.

I love to teach.   The rewards are incredible, watching people learn.

I just know that I’ll feel better once I collect my first paycheck.  I also remember why I’m evil…

I’ll also be plotting the downfall of mankind.    In all of my ample free time.