Secret Lives of Teachers

My Secret Life

January 12, 2019

           In The Secret Lives of Teachers, the anonymous author uses vignettes to portray the teacher as an isolated figure, one who exists in multiple roles simultaneously. In these interactions, where the teacher must show to or withhold from each group of people involved in education a different side of himself or herself, I recognized my life at Gilman. While I found his frequent references to the physical attractiveness of girls and women with whom he interacts callous, something I must mention, the author compellingly speaks to the myriad challenges of teaching at a prestigious independent school. As he documents the hardships of being a teacher, he regularly returns to moments of triumph, ones that affirm dedication to the craft. Connecting my world to his, I see an opportunity to add teacher identity and anxiety to the narrative of the secret life, something he readily admits to lacking in his references to his own whiteness. Ultimately, this book affirms my approach more than it will change it, as it speaks to the great power of the teacher to make a difference by connecting with students.

            In seeing my profession through new eyes, I found myself drawn to his discussions of family and money. From taking the department chair to positioning his relationship with summer break, the author’s live is configured in large part by his family and their financial needs. As a young teacher living on my own in a city where I do not know many people, it is easy to forget what others must prioritize. My decision-making can defer to my own happiness and success alongside that of my students. Privileged with no student loan debt and yet unburdened by the need to support a family or pay off a mortgage, I fundamentally lack what many of my colleagues have atop their list. In being reminded about the “fairly quotidian details about [the author’s] financial situations” that “peers just don’t talk about,” I better recognize now the chief obligation of my colleagues to put those needs above their classroom lives (2015, “Compensations”[1]) . By taking coverage for faculty with sick children, in offering to chaperone a trip that might take someone away from family, or even through surrendering money-making opportunities such as SAT tutoring to those who need it more, I can be a more compassionate teacher. In addition to better understanding the needs of my fellow faculty members, I take from the author a sense that I need not stress so much about having favorites. When he casually mentions “my favorite kid, Wilhemina Sperry,” I was struck by the ease of that admission (“Romantics”). For I have long harbored great guilt at knowing there are students whom I favor more than others. While faculty should aspire to connect with everyone, and should combat perceived favoritism, it is ultimately human to forge tighter bonds with some than others. Students who linger at the end of class to tell me an anecdote, and those who come by just to say hello and ask about my weekend earn their way into my heart in ways not all do. Easing this guilt seems much healthier than fighting it, though I must not to let that affect my developing relationships with the other students, as each students deserves the same care and attention.

            While I learned plenty from the author, he might also learn something from me and my disability. In ways that remain largely secret to all, my life at school constantly revolves around the anxiety of food. Surrounded by hundreds of students who generally do not know the ease with which they can harm me, I sit in the cafeteria and walk the hallways often terrified of the accidental spill that could send me to a hospital. With each homework that I collect, I hope that my students have not left traces of peanut butter for me to touch. Thinking too much about the risk can be paralyzing. But I must forge on, hoping reminders to wash hands can absolve me of that unwanted stress. While that makes my life more challenging in most ways, it also allows me to build stronger relationships with kids, as my vulnerability can lead to impactful discussions about disability and a neat inversion of power that lets students care for me. Though the author desires not sharing too much personal information with students, I have never felt better about being a teacher than I did when I recently told them the story of an anaphylactic reaction over winter break. The collective response, “Mr. Faust, what can we do to make sure that doesn’t happen?” exposed a level of mutual care that can both benefit my well-being and my students’ development as people. I was deeply moved.

            Truthfully, I do not expect my classroom to change after reading this book. In ways described above, I see how it can affect my interactions with colleagues and my grappling with internal favoritism. But in my interactions with students, I feel affirmed by this book. Among excellent educators, ones who can make lasting impressions, the author includes those who “tease, scold, cajole, even touch students and have it seem natural, and they can self-disclose with unselfconscious ease” (“Name Games”). While I do not yet have the mastery of the classroom down, people at Gilman have repeatedly pointed out my immediate strength in this regard. These interactions come naturally to me with students I teach, coach, advise, or see in the hallways. Reading about the author’s struggle to learn names, and about his hesitation to reveal himself, I recognize my developing gift to connect easily with each boy, even those that I have never taught. As I grow as a teacher, I hope never to lose that inclination to first build relationships. Moreover, the author talks about his faith that something will linger in the student’s mind from their time together that “will be transubstantiated into an act of leadership – or, more simply an act of decency – that will bring good into the life of that student and the broader community” (“Progressive Faith”). At my core, I want that lingering memory not to come from a lesson about direct objects, but to live instead inside a bond they have developed with me. And only by making myself vulnerable and by allowing myself to freely forge strong relationships with the boys I teach can I make that lasting impact.

[1] N.B. Due to the Kindle edition lacking page numbers, I cited the short chapter in which each quotation appears as recommended by APA.

 

 

Reference

Anonymous. (2015). The Secret Lives of Teachers. University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.