A Teacher’s Dilemma

By Michelle Lindsey

Growing up  I had very realistic aspirations. Princess, space cowgirl, superhero, even a doctor, was never on my radar. I knew I wanted to be a teacher from a fairly early age; shocking, I know. To be precise, because, let’s face it, math is not needed in the real world, I wanted to be an English teacher. Lo and behold, I am.

Often times I get asked to describe what is like to be a high school English teacher. And, oftentimes, I don’t know how to answer. When posed the question, I zone out a little because I recall certain moments in my career and I can never quite pinpoint a suitable explanation. I search deep within my soul trying to find a superior maxim to spew out to placate my audience; yet, I can’t deliver. Quite honestly, my inability to perform lies in the fact that I can’t accurately describe what it’s like to do my job in a sufficient, yet small description because, honestly, the people asking don’t really care and I really don’t’ care to carry on a conversation about work. People only pose this question because it would be impolite to ask: “You don’t make any money; so, why teach? Why teach high school? That must be awful, what is it like?”. However; my interest triggered, I need to have an answer, even if it is just for myself. A poorly written Hallmark card  would include a line indicating the heart of teaching is wonderful because teachers get to have a positive impact on the many lives of young adults. But, is this this the case? Sometimes, I suppose. Unrealistic on a daily basis though.

Instead, the realist within me wants to shock my audience with the harsh reality of my job. Don’t get me wrong, I love it; however, the humble notion of changing lives exists only in movies produced by Disney. Because my daily dose of teenagers produces a different philosophy, I prefer to answer in inevitable question in a personal anecdote.

 Trying to encourage a room full of 25- 16 year olds to read, and dare I say, even like, a novel is like forcing a large dog into a small sweater; it’s a battle. For some reason, I try to teach The Life of Pi. Reading a novel in class is a risky gamble. It’s one of the few scenarios where the either/ or fallacy applies. Either the kids will be OK with the idea- never thrilled- or they will descend into a level of anarchy that’s slightly terrifying and powerful to the point where a teacher decides to discontinue the book. I have been lucky so far. Perhaps it is my dazzling personality that gets them through the book. Or, it is the promise of watching the movie version upon the completion of the book that does the trick. The latter is probably a more accurate conclusion. I do find that saving the novel for the final Quarter of the year has helped. At this point, all necessary skills have been taught and now the students only need to apply those skills- in theory. This current school year, last week actually, I posed a question to the class while reading:

“What literary device did Yann Martel just employ in this particular paragraph?”

This should be a quick and easy Q and A. I try to engage the students while reading with questions. This should be a quick and easy digress. However, there’s only silence. This moment might just be a teacher’s plague. The wait. The Wait. The Wait doesn’t need an announcement. The students are all too familiar with The Wait. The Wait tells the students when the teacher wants the class to settle down, to begin working, to get their attention, to stop misbehaving, or, in this case, to answer. This silent call to action is a teacher’s best weapon. A weapon that needs fine tuning, however. The Wait is a minute, yet dangerous tool. Improper use can spark serious self doubt and it can backfire rapidly. So, being the brave soldier that I am, I wait.

5 seconds pass

Panic starts to creep in- along with a hint of self doubt.

            They should know this…

            We’ve done this all year…

            Well, not the 2 weeks of Christmas Break.

10 seconds

            Maybe they needed those 2 weeks, I broke them, I let them down.

Breaks are for the weak.

We should have pushed through. I should have assigned something. I ruined them.

15 seconds

They don’t know the answer.

How do they not know the answer? I spent days planning lessons for literary devices,

I spent days introducing literary devices, we spent days practicing. We spent days!!!

They begin to avoid eye contact. While contemplating my failure as a teacher, I didn’t realize The Wait was coinciding with an unintentional intense stare down.

20 seconds- which, at this point, feels like 20 minutes.

23 seconds have passed since I posed the question. The class displays varied coping mechanisms. Some are staring blankly off into nothingness, some are pretending to look at notes, and some are avoiding eye contact.


Wait, maybe they didn’t hear me.

Perhaps these sweet angels just didn’t hear the question.

            These precious kids didn’t want to be rude. I will repeat the question!

            Surely this is the issue.

“What literary device did Yann Martel just employ in this particular paragraph?”

I smile at them for encouragement. No one smiles back.

25 seconds

            They still don’t know

26 seconds

             I’m a terrible teacher. They don’t know the answer. I should quit. This is ridiculous.

            They aren’t even trying. YOU AREN’T EVEN TRYING! I’m tired. They make me want to take a nap. Why do I put myself through this day after day? I want a pedicure and I can’t even get one. I have to choose between groceries or my mortgage payment and they  can’t even remember a simple literary term.

The shuffle of a butt in a seat interrupts my internal soliloquy of self loathing.

30 seconds

They. Don’t. Know. It! They aren’t even bothering to look through notes anymore!

Joseph isn’t even on the correct page in his book! Beth is staring at her nails!

I                      will                    not                 be                      ignored!

32 seconds

“Guys, think about the answer to this question. For 12, consecutive sentences Yann Martel begins them with the phrase: ‘The sea’!”.

The sea…..the sea…..the sea……good lord, people.

“You guys can do this! You know this!”

They can’t do this and they don’t know this.

38 seconds

Anaphora. Someone say ‘anaphora’. I will even take ‘alliteration’. It is wrong, but at the least the beginning letter is close!

Someone try!

“Someone at least try!”

I can feel my disappointment and frustration subside and anger begin. It builds in the base of my stomach and usually spews from the mouth- never making it to my brain. This time, however, The Wait is intense; and, I don’t like to lose. My stubbornness will not allow me to fold. May the odds be ever in your favor, children. I smile at them one more time. I smile- and I wait.

45 seconds

no one moves- my smile is unwavering

Man, I am good at this.

I hope I don’t get a walk-through by Administration…

53 seconds

Suddenly, there is movement! Is that- yes! I think it is! It appears to be an arm rising out of the abyss in which my career has so desperately plunged straight into! My hope is beginning to resurrect! Ah, Ashley, my shy, yet brilliant, beacon of hope. Your scrawny arm serves as a lighthouse to guide my despair and I can anchor my thoughts back into reality! Sweet- sweet girl! Ashley will rescue me from my occupational- suicidal thoughts!

            She always was my favorite.

I knew I could count on her. She is the reason why I teach.

            Why I get out of bed at 4:00 in the morning is for students like her.

My sweet student.

Her hand is up, but only partially. Bent at the elbow to indicate her hesitation.

            That’s OK Dearest Ashley. I will help you answer this question. It doesn’t matter how far off you are from the correct answer- I will guide you and praise you!

I smile and straighten my posture for the big moment. The moment that I have been waiting for the longest minute of my life.

            This child is getting extra credit…..

                                    and candy!

This is it

60 seconds

“Yes, Ashley?”, “Go ahead” I say nodding enthusiastically like a complete moron.

“Um, Mrs. Lindsey, Can I go to the bathroom?”


This anticlimactic anecdote is the epitome of what is like to teach. The praise, the self loathing, the denial, disappointment, pride, and uncertainty is exactly what it is like to teach. This job is not glamorous and it certainly isn’t worth the money. However, I love it.  Even though Ashley ruined my entire Q and A with her teeny-tiny bladder, as a class, we laughed, I told them the answer which was followed by “oooooooh”s heard throughout the classroom, and then we moved on with our lives. Not every second (or minute) is going to be monumental and memorable. Those kids still probably don’t know what anaphora is, and, well, that’s ok. One aspect that I thoroughly enjoy is the fact that these kids are human. And, humans are fallible creatures. These follies are what help make the job interesting and worth doing.