In his first nine years as a teacher, Brendan Halpin goes from wide-eyed idealist to cynical, heartbroken idealist. Unique among teaching memoirs, Losing My Faculties is not the story of a heroic teacher who transforms the lives of his hardbitten students; rather, it's the inspirational and often unpretty truth about people who choose to get up ridiculously early day after day and year after year to go stand in front of teenagers. It's also a rarely-seen, all-access view of both suburban and urban education, including the ugly truth behind the mythology at a much-hyped charter school.
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Losing My Faculties
A Teacher's Story
By Brendan Halpin
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2003 Brendan Halpin
All rights reserved.
In June 1990, with the aid of some creative credit card use, I go to Taiwan on a bogus "exchange program" through my university. (My future wife, Kirsten, and I are the first and last participants.) The "exchange" is with some English-language institute in Taipei, and the idea is that my university sends them recent grads to teach for a few months, and they send students to the university's ESL program for a few months. Of course, the real idea is that the Chung Shan English Language Institute can put "Affiliated with Ivy League University" on its brochures.
I fell into this because I worked in the International Programs Office, and, being a senior with no ambition or clue what to do and six months before my student loans were coming due, I decided that spending six months in Taiwan would be a pretty cool adventure.
The only downside (apart from the fact that Taiwan in the summer is a bowl of heat, humidity, and pollution that puts even my native Cincinnati to shame) is that I have to work at the institute teaching English.
Well, maybe "teaching" is sort of a misnomer. Most of what I do is work in the children's English classes, which they attend on Wednesdays and Saturdays, when they only have a half day of regular school. There is a Chinese teacher here to run the class and really teach them stuff, and an American teacher to run language games. It's like a very specialized, makeup-free version of clowning. I'm good at it, but it gets old pretty quickly.
I also work the occasional evening teaching teenagers and adults. Here I am the only teacher in the room, and though the syllabus has every class planned out and it's mostly going through lame exercises in the book, it is a version of teaching. Sometimes I veer from the syllabus and actually talk to the students. I find that I enjoy the teenagers the most. I don't know why this is—I think I am just one of those rare and probably defective people who really enjoy the company of teenagers.
It is July, and I have an early-evening class of all teenagers. Years later I will still remember some of them—Julie, Jim, Kellie, and Angle, who pronounces it "Angel" (of course, they have Chinese names, but I never know them, which is kind of weird—it's like your French or Spanish teacher only knowing you as Pierre or Vicente or whatever name you adopted in high school language classes). I've been teaching this group for about a month, and they are finally comfortable enough to start speaking, and the lame exercise in the book evolves into something that very nearly approximates a conversation. Most of the students are speaking, their English is flowing pretty well, and they're asking questions about the grammar point and then using my answers—everything is just working really well. I am shocked when class ends because it feels like it just started.
I meet up with Kirsten, who was teaching across the hall, and prepare myself to leave the air-conditioning and step into the lead apron of swampy heat that is Taipei in the summertime. When the heat hits me, it's like a punch in the stomach. I've been here a month and I'm still not used to it. I immediately start sweating from every pore in my body, but I feel something else too. Something strange. Something I have never felt at the end of a day of work before.
I am happy and full of energy. I feel great—I'm buzzing tremendously and talking a mile a minute as I practically run down the street searching for some kind of cold beverage to save me from imminent dehydration.
"I can't believe this!" I say to Kirsten, who is looking at me "with stranger eyes," as one of our Chinese buddies would say. "I feel great! You're not supposed to feel great after work! You feel like shit, you go to happy hour to try and get happy, you don't get happy just from work!"
I worked the five previous summers in an insurance company and had a variety of jobs in college, and never, even when I watched TV for money in my dorm as a work/study "job," did I feel this good at the end of a day of work.
In my senior year of college I didn't feel very enthusiastic about pursuing any line of work because I just assumed that work was pain-in-the-ass drudgery that you endured until you had a few pathetic hours of free time in which to do what you really wanted to do. It just never occurred to me that work could be something you actually enjoyed. And then I get this glimpse of a world that few people are fortunate enough to know: the world in which work doesn't suck.
Work, it seems, can actually be fun.CHAPTER 2
It is 1992. I live in a tiny, mouse-infested apartment in Somerville, Massachusetts, a small city that borders Boston and Cambridge, and I am about two months into ed school in nearby Medford. I just got through with a year and a half of working at a computer company as a bottom-of-the-ladder, assistant-to-an-assistant mail sorter/photocopier/trash taker-outer. It wasn't horrible (except for one particular day when I was taking out the lunch trash and these bags of unused fish stock exploded all over me), but it wasn't exactly what you'd call fulfilling, and I sure as hell never felt great at the end of the day, so remembering my experience in Taiwan, I decided to go to ed school. So far it's not as horrible as everyone says. I have met some great people. Ten years later I will still be friends with two out of the thirty of them, which is really not a bad ratio. And we do nothing but think about teaching, which, I will find, is something you rarely have time to do when you are actually teaching.
I go to interview at the Boston public high school where I might get placed as a student teacher. The teacher, Gordon Stevens, wants to talk to me before he agrees to take me on, to make sure we can work together. He asks me why I'm interested in urban education. I give him a version of the truth—that this seems like where the real action is in education, the front lines, that if I have any talent for this at all, this is where I should be.
I do not tell him that I don't have a car and that this was the only placement I could get to by public transportation after my classmates snapped up all the Cambridge and Somerville placements.
The whole truth is that I really can't articulate why I feel like I want to teach here instead of in the suburbs. Certainly part of it is feeling like I want to make a difference, like it matters whether I go to work or not, which is something I never felt at the computer company. I remember having a number of really incompetent teachers (along with a handful of superstars) in high school, and I wasn't really harmed by them—basically anybody coming out of my small private high school started with enough advantages to be okay one way or the other. I feel like maybe that's not the case here, like maybe what I do could make a difference, like I would increase my own importance by working with kids who might have their lives changed by me. Yeah, so that's the liberal do-gooder really-out-to-make-himself-feel-important part, which is widely derided (unfairly, I think—isn't that kind of a win-win?).
I don't know. I'd like to say that I'm over that feeling completely now, nine years into my teaching career, but I know that one of the reasons I still love my work is that it feels important.
What I don't tell Mr. Stevens, because I haven't figured it out yet, is that I feel called to urban teaching (maybe a pretentious word choice, but it does feel that way—like somebody's tugging me to get into this, like I can't imagine working in a rich suburb or a private school, even though I never set out to be the Urban Education Warrior) not just because it will make me look big, and not just because I want to try something hard, and not just because it's where the action is. I want to do this because it's mine. Because I have spent my whole life in cities, because I can't seem to get away from the problem of how to live with people who aren't like you (or even people who don't like you), because I was brought up by a single parent in the city, because this is where I live.
Maybe Mr. Stevens understands all this, because he tells me he gets a good feeling from me and is looking forward to us working together. I'm looking forward to it too.
Of course, I'm also terrified.CHAPTER 3
For the first half of the year, I'll be observing Mr. Stevens. I will take over two of his classes in the second semester. He is great at his job. It's not that he holds the class spellbound all the time—that's an overrated skill usually possessed by Cult of Personality teachers who are so in love with themselves that they convince the students to follow suit—he just oozes competence. And I am daunted by what it takes to achieve it. Even after what appears to be a very successful class, he retires to his "office"—by being in charge of purchasing office supplies, he has scored himself a supply closet in the attic and squeezed his desk between the boxes of chalk and paper clips, making him the only non-administrator in the entire building who has space in which to work when he's not teaching—and tortures himself, agonizing over what could have gone better, what he could have done differently, what he will do differently tomorrow. It looks like a lot of work. I don't know if I really have it in me to do this to myself every day.
Mostly I observe him with a class full of ninth-graders. One of whom is a class clown named Trenton. He is obviously very bright, but he's not doing his work and he mostly makes jokes about his classmates. I write a paper about him and show it to Mr. Stevens. He furrows his brow. He hadn't noticed half the misbehavior that I, sitting silently in the back of the room, have recorded. Now he has more stuff to agonize over.
One day I have a big cup of coffee right before class. I will never do this again. Mr. Stevens gets the kids started on some sort of activity and then needs to leave the room—he has to talk to somebody about something, perhaps relating to office supplies. "Mr. Halpin can help you while I'm out of the room," he tells the class. This is my first big moment, my first moment as a "teacher," and I am paralyzed—I wasn't prepared to actually interact with the kids when I left the house this morning! I'm just the Watcher! I watch, and record, and imagine fearfully how I might deal with Trenton or his classmates in every situation of every class. I can certainly handle the activity, but I hardly know these kids' names! What will I do if they misbehave? What do they think of me? Who do they think I am? I know when I was in high school, I probably would have been instinctively contemptuous of somebody lurking in the back of the room, and I probably would have tried to torture that person, just out of that killer instinct that packs of adolescents possess. (At my private high school we didn't have student teachers—they just threw the twenty-three-year-olds with no experience right into the classroom as full-fledged teachers. We did savage some of them.) What if their relatively calm behavior arises only out of their respect for Mr. Stevens? Will this room turn into a scene out of the first half of Lean on Me, before Morgan Freeman starts carrying a bat and Showing Those Tough Kids Who's Boss?
Trenton is having trouble with the exercise, and he calls me over for help. I get right up next to his desk and begin to explain—"Well, you see how the adjective goes here," or some such thing, and Trenton interrupts me. "I'm sorry, man, I don't mean to disrespect you, but you got that nasty Student Teacher Breath."
The class breaks up. I have no idea what to say. I am not yet secure enough to laugh at a joke like this. I probably try to pretend like I'm laughing, when of course I am horrified, so it probably comes out all fake, heh-heh. Whatever it is, I do nothing to save the situation except for not getting angry. Have I passed some kind of test, or failed it? Or both? I never get a chance to find out. Mr. Stevens returns, order is restored, and the class ends soon afterward.
Nine years later I see Trenton at the ice cream parlor in my neighborhood. He looks at me without a trace of recognition, but I know him immediately.CHAPTER 4
At the beginning of the second semester the classes change, so the class of Mr. Stevens' that I will be in charge of is a group of twenty-seven tenth-graders. It is a writing class. I will be able to read and comment meaningfully on all of their papers because I have only two classes. I have no idea how I might manage to do that if I were teaching five classes of this size, which is what all the real teachers here are doing. For the first few days Mr. Stevens is in charge, and we are meeting in a science room with long tables and tall stools, only there aren't twenty-seven stools, so some kids are sitting on the heater over by the window, while others are on the floor. Somehow Mr. Stevens engineers a switch, and we end up in a French classroom that can just barely fit everyone.
On my first day of actually teaching this class without Mr. Stevens present, I get my big Test of the Student Teacher, which I fail miserably. I turn around to write something on the board, and somebody, somewhere (well, I know exactly which table it comes from, but since my back was turned, I do know enough to know I can't point the finger without enduring a twenty-minute debate about how I didn't see and I can't possibly be so unfair as to accuse someone without evidence), throws a piece of chalk. It explodes on the pipe that runs across the ceiling, making a really spectacular noise and showering dust all over the floor.
They have fired the test shot, and I must now define myself. I turn to the class and open my mouth, and this is what comes out: "You know ... that is so not cool."
The class giggles, and right there I have lost them. Some good and even spectacular things will continue to happen in this class, but we will lose the equivalent of probably two weeks of time to disruptions because of how I don't handle this first one. I'm short; I look like I'm maybe sixteen; and, as it turns out, I have no idea how to talk like somebody you are supposed to respect. So the first thing that comes out of my mouth is all Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High—Duuuuude! You're wreckin' my buzz!
Well, after this, the table of kids who threw the chalk decide that it's open season as long as I'm in the classroom. We are on the second floor with windows that open, so when it snows, they reach onto the ledges, make snowballs, and throw them next to me while I write on the blackboard. Spitballs, of course, make an appearance; at one point a basketball is passed around the room like a beach ball at a baseball game. I am surprised they don't actually do the wave. To their credit, I need to stress that this stuff is never thrown at me. Why bother? Throwing it near me is enough to provoke what they're after here—the angry-teacher show. I never again give them "not cool," but I try everything else: stern silence, screaming at the top of my lungs, swearing ("This is bullshit!" comes out after the basketball incident), talking to them after class. Nothing works. I should add that I was told by the woman at the university in charge of placing student teachers that I shouldn't even try sending anyone out of the classroom here. That the last time they placed a student teacher here, she sent a student out of the room for threatening her, and the vice principal sent him back to class five minutes later with a smile on his face and informed somebody at the university: "She doesn't know what she's doing." Well, of course not. She's a student teacher, genius.
When I tell Mr. Stevens what the placement lady at the university told me, he says, "Yeah, I remember that. That kid was nuts. We were all terrified of him." Luckily, none of my kids are what I would call nuts—that is to say, I'm not afraid of them in any real way—they're just making mischief. They remind me and everyone in the school's main office of who's in charge in this class at the end of every period, when they buzz the office intercom on their way out of the room. An annoyed secretary's voice comes on and says, "Yes, 205, what do you need?" and every day I have to say, "I'm sorry, the students pushed the button."
So I am completely on my own in terms of dealing with any kind of disruption. The school has no organized form of detention—I could ask a kid to stay after school, but there are no consequences if he doesn't show up. The school's discipline policy seems to boil down to: don't commit any crimes on school property. To be honest, I am not really sure about that one either. The school has a security guard, a pudgy forty-five-year-old woman who both the kids and I think is really cool, but she isn't really much of a deterrent.
One Wednesday night in our student-teacher seminar, we are talking about discipline, and my friend James, who is teaching in some wealthy suburb, says, "Well, I really didn't want to do this, but they just gave me no choice—I had to start writing names on the board."
Excerpted from Losing My Faculties by Brendan Halpin. Copyright © 2003 Brendan Halpin. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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A Talk with Brendan Halpin
1) First off, why teaching? Why high school?
After I graduated from college, I kind of lucked into this exchange program that sent me to Taiwan to teach. I thought the teaching was just something I had to do in order to see Taiwan, but it was a real revelation to me that work didn't have to be mindless drudgery that sapped my life force. I chose high school because that was the age of student I seemed to connect with most.
2) You write: "I am one of those rare and probably defective people who really enjoy the company of teenagers." What do you mean by that statement?
Well, as you know if you have seen groups of them in public, teenagers can be kind of hard to love. Most people really hate them kind of instinctively. I don't know why, but I just really like them. Given the hostile stares most other adults give teenagers, I have concluded that this makes me rare and possibly defective.
3) Most memoirs by high school teachers tend to highlight a class year that was especially moving, focusing on students that heart-breakingly show the reader why teaching is so important. LOSING MY FACULTIES is not that type of book. Why?
Well, principally, that book seems to have been written about a thousand times, and I was much more interested in telling the story of how you continue to teach for as long as nine years. I think how you make a career of this job is a story that hasn't been told very much.
4) Could you have written the "traditional, uplifting" storyif you wanted to?
Certainly I've had uplifting moments in my career, and I probably could have been a little loose with my facts so as to make it appear that all that wonderful stuff happened at the end of one year that started out badly.
5) Some people feel that "teachers have it easy-workday over by 3 pm, summers off," etc. etc. Having read LOSING MY FACULTIES, I was struck by how much work you actually have to do. How would you answer the critics who don't feel teachers work that hard?
I usually ask them if they have ever made a presentation to a bunch of people at work or if they ever had to run a big meeting. And then I ask them to imagine that they had to do that four or five times a day every day. Also, I remember from my own experience working in an office that there is just a large amount of non-work time in the average eight-hour work day. When I used to work in a computer company, it was unusual for me to have enough work to fill up six hours. So you stop off at somebody's desk and chat, you run out for coffee, you take a really long time at the copier--and this kind of stuff, except at rare times of the year, doesn't happen in high schools. I have many days where I get to work at 7:30 and leave at 3:30 and am basically working flat out for the entire day.
Also, I've always thought that the time off is part of our compensation package. We make a lot less money than other professionals and get a lot more time off, which is a trade-off I am comfortable with.
6) You spent several years teaching at a "Charter School," a politically-charged word in today's world. What are your thoughts on "Charter Schools"-both personally and professionally?
Well, on a personal level, a charter school broke my heart. I really bought into the idea of this place and then watched as the people who created it sold it out. So, on a personal level I feel about charter schools the way most people probably do about a person that broke their heart.
On a professional level, I am profoundly ambivalent about charter schools. They do offer a lot of opportunity to innovate, but they also underpay and overwork their teachers, and, given their high student and faculty attrition, they certainly don't offer a model of public education that's replicable on a large scale.
7) Given unlimited budget and free reign, how would you fix public education in America?
I guess I would start by saying that I don't think public education is broken. Given what public schools are asked to do, most of them do a really good job of it. Having said that, if you just look at what rich people buy for their kids, it's not really rocket science: small classes, small schools, individual attention for the students. So I guess if I suddenly became king, which probably can't happen because my dad didn't appoint any Supreme Court justices, I would do that.
8) At the beginning of LOSING MY FACULTIES, you have a measure of disdain for the teachers who have become bitter and cranky. By the end of the book, you noticed that you yourself were becoming that way. Is this an inevitable side effect of being a teacher?
Well, I am kind of cranky by nature. As for the bitterness, that has certainly subsided somewhat, but I think if you are in this profession because you care about kids, you are going to see people at some level--school, district, state, national, or all of the above, make decisions that you know are not in the best interests of the kids, and I don't know how you can see that without getting somewhat bitter. The trick is to be able to put that bitterness aside when you are working with kids, and some people do that better than others. I think I was pretty good at it this year and not so good at it in my last year at the charter school.
9) You taught at a new school this year. How did it go?
It went very well. I don't want to make any long-term predictions, but I work with some very nice, very talented and intelligent people and an administration that seems neither stupid nor evil, which is an incredible rarity. I feel very lucky to be where I am now.