On Being a Student/Teacher

I don’t think I’ve ever had a semester of university where I’ve felt so conscious of how close I am to the actual responsibilities of a teacher, and yet been so acutely aware of my student-ness at the same time. It’s been the first semester where I don’t have a single class under 110 minutes (the person who thought that was a good idea obviously forgot what being in those classes was like). It’s also the first semester that I have made a conscious effort to start doodling in some of my classes, just to help me get through the class. At the same time, this is the first semester that I’ve gotten to step into a real Canadian school (since eighth grade).

My journey back into junior high has been an interesting one. So far I’ve only spent a few Fridays observing in classes, but it’s been enough to remind me of what high school is like. I’ve found that while lunch break in a junior high can look a lot like a zoo with all its enclosures open, there’s something uniquely calming about walking through that zoo a head taller than everyone else. Because as I walk through the sea of noise and bits of food or wrappers left after a messy feeding, there’s a degree of safety that comes with wearing the zoo-keeper clothes.

Of course, it’s not all crazy. One of the joys of being with junior high kids is the constant variety — the smiles as well as the snarls. It only took one boy and his brief spell of acting like a cat to bring back memories of my own junior days — when hissing at a new teacher might be thought of as a good idea — for a moment. The thing is, I remember. I remember the tangle of peer-pressure and social anxiety that junior high brought. I remember spending most of a math class colouring every other square of my page in my notebook, invoking an angry outburst of passion from my normally placid teacher in the process. I remember the joy of writing something that got that cherished praise in red pen. And I remember trying impossibly to keep up with numbers that became increasingly invaded by the fringes of the alphabet. I can remember spending whole classes drawing pictures on a graphing calculator by arranging 1’s and 0’s. I can remember filling pages of notebooks with the beginnings of stories and ideas for would-be books. I can remember what it was like to spend reading time with popular science magazines instead of “real” books, and I can remember the long hours that I spent making stop-motion powerpoint presentations that had nothing to do with school.

And now I’m here — drawing pictures in the margins of university handouts and stretching the coffee breaks as long as I can, walking back to class slowly with friends, dreading the next hour of lecture. In some ways not much has changed. I’m still that same boy. I still get tired of sitting in a chair for more than an hour at a time, and I still like talking to my classmates as much as teachers will allow. I still work harder on poems and blogs that have nothing to do with school than I do on assignments or exams — even in university.

For two more weeks I am a university student. But my place is changing. More and more often I find myself standing at the front of the classroom. Soon I’ll be the one handing out work and trying to get kids to have some interest in the lessons I’ve planned. I’ll be the one trying to convince them that school is worthwhile and that bringing a pencil to class should be a fairly routine task. A part of me is terrified — terrified that I might face students like myself, or like my classmates, when we were in junior high. But at the same time, I’m excited too, because I know. I know what it’s like to be in boring classes, and I know how fun the good ones are too. I know that most people (myself included) have things that they love and care about, which usually aren’t worksheets or homework assignments. I know these things now, and I just hope I continue to remember them. It may not make teaching any less like working in a zoo, but it just might make that zoo feel a little less strange — a little more normal.

So as I walk this strange no-man’s land between teacher and student, I hope I can see what it’s like on both sides — to remember what it was like being an animal in a zoo, running through the halls, so that when I’m the zookeeper, and I’m the one despairing over spaghetti smeared onto the floor, I can smile at the sloths slouching against the walls and remember what it was like to be them.