I cannot teach my soon-to-be-teachers the necessary tone, the proper words, for addressing a student whose performance or attendance has suddenly and inexplicably dropped below any reasonable level of acceptance, just as I can’t teach them the importance of (and difficulty of maintaining) eye contact with baffled or angry or exhausted parents. I can’t teach them to roll with the legal punches when parental anger is focused on a teacher who has done nothing wrong rather than a student who has. I can teach them about learning school policies, the role of department chairs and vice-principals, and the importance of union representatives, but I cannot teach them to overcome the self-doubt that will plague them as individual problems become formal grievances and escalate beyond the classroom into the courtroom.
I cannot teach these young teachers the importance of a handshake or pat on the back to a student who receives praise nowhere other than school, just as I can’t teach them to draw clearly the professional lines between their roles as teacher and mentor and the role of inappropriate, co-dependent friend to a student. I can neither teach them to overcome the horror they will feel when one of their students is beaten, robbed, or raped nor to overcome the bewilderment they will feel when one of their students is accused of (or arrested for) assault, robbery, or rape. I can’t teach them the words to say when they speak to a student who smells of liquor, beer, or pot-or a student whose eyes jump and speech jitters from meth, cocaine, or speed. I can’t teach them safe ways to break up a fistfight, to confront a student spouting racist slurs, to weather the slings and arrows of a teacher’s fortune. There are school policies they’ll need to learn for such situations, but I cannot teach them adequate ways of handling their sometimes-angry and often-frustrated human responses.
So I tell these English Education majors, on the first day of the term, about the units this course on teaching methodologies will cover, and I think about the lessons that it doesn’t include. Every year, I think more about these lessons that won’t be taught, these lessons that no curriculum can include. And I continue to tell them stories, although I worry that my stories won’t help them much, either.
Note: This essay is indebted to James Autry’s poem “What Personnel Handbooks Never Tell You,” from Love and Profit: The Art of Caring Leadership. Had Autry never considered the failings of personnel handbooks, business schools, and “those tapes / you pop into the player / while you drive or jog” I may have never found a voice to describe the lessons I can’t teach future teachers.