Of all the things I’ve learned while under quarantine, none of them have been reinforced with such certainty and finality as this: I am a terrible schoolteacher.
There are many things I can do, and do well, but it turns out being a schoolteacher is definitely not one of those things. A short list of my skills include: writing; cooking; telling a story; talking about sports; being on time; vacuuming; identifying odors; solving crossword puzzles; putting together playlists for a party; keeping the files on my computer properly sorted; playing Trivial Pursuit; making sure all my devices are charged; pacing myself.
And now there is something at which I know I am terrible: Teaching. The thing is, I never signed up to become a schoolteacher. But thanks to COVID-19, I am in the same corner parents around the world find themselves backed into right now: I have a full-time job with responsibilities and tasks, and on top of all of that, I’ve somehow now also been forced to become a part-time school teacher, only without the years of training and education that usually come along with being a school teacher.
When the coronavirus first forced us all indoors, we turned our son’s upstairs playroom into a makeshift classroom, setting up a desk with a laptop for Zoom calls with his class, art supplies, a pencil sharpener, and other stuff.
Sending him to a Montessori school has been a terrific experience, although I quietly curse each time I overhear his teacher tell him if he doesn’t want to attend a Zoom lesson, that’s just fine. Giving a child the freedom to determine his own path is great until it takes away my own freedom. I sit at my “desk”—the kitchen counter, where I’ve been relegated—and try to write a sentence or return an email before I get asked “Dad, what can I do now?” (This literally just happened as I was writing this.) I know when most of my son’s Zoom calls have ended because I can hear him jumping from the chairs to the couch and back again.
My grandmother was a high school English teacher, who edited her school newspaper for decades. I’m sure she would be delighted that I have become a writer and have written for several legendary newspapers. I’m also pretty sure she’d be disappointed at my efforts as a teacher. As a teacher, I seem to have a knack for teaching subjects like “Recess” and “Lunch.” A recent “Art Class” involved us coloring a few blank Disney pages I found on the internet. A special joint “Biology/Gym” class last week entailed me convincing my son to let me jog a few miles while he accompanied me on his scooter, with a stop to inspect a dead raccoon I’d come across on the side of the road. Our “Film History” class has covered several Three Stooges episodes, and in “Music” we’ve just started covering the contributions of Andre Benjamin to the American popular music cannon.
To be fair, my wife has really taken the lead on spearheading my son’s schooling, perhaps because as the daughter of a college professor, she always understood the importance of school. A type-AAAAAA personality, my wife took AP classes and busted her butt to graduate with honors. The main things I enjoyed about school were playing basketball and talking about sports with my friends. I couldn’t be bothered to do most of my homework, and graduated with a GPA that hovered just below 3.0. I scored extremely well on the SAT, however, and got into the only school I applied to, the University of Georgia.
As I try to convince my son that things like subtraction and being able to write in cursive matter, my mind bounces back to all the teachers I had over the years who tried varying tactics to convince me to buy in. I remember Ms. Clark in third grade, who straight-up bribed me with a toy of my choice that was less than $5. (I selected a can of tennis balls, which I used to play baseball with my friends.) There was Mr. York, my middle school principal, who regularly called me into his office to give me stern pep talks. There was the Algebra teacher in high school who threatened to get me kicked off the basketball team unless I could get my average in her class above C-level, even though I was in no danger of being academically ineligible. (I got my average up, but I apparently internalized so much anger from that experience that I have managed to permanently forget her name.) One middle school teacher bumped me out of the “challenge” program, because she felt I wasn’t motivated. The next semester, a different teacher bumped me back into it, because she felt I needed to be motivated.
I realize now that they all just wanted the best for me. There were some teachers I connected with, who managed to get me to buckle down and work. There were others I just didn’t understand, or maybe I felt they didn’t understand me, but for whatever reason they just couldn’t get me to where I needed to be. Which is probably an unfair way of phrasing it: The truth is, despite their best efforts, I couldn’t get myself where I needed to be. I was lazy and didn’t understand why I was doing so much work that didn’t have any real application to my life at the time.
It’s impossible to admit this to my son, but subtraction and being able to properly write in cursive aren’t really all that important once you learn how to do them. I’ve been in the real world, man, and it’s way more useful to be able to type quickly than it is to write neatly. I know how to carry the one and do math, but I don’t ever have to because I have, you know, a phone, which does pretty much everything for me.
What I’ve learned is the important thing isn’t what we are learning, but learning how to learn. We are finding out how to solve problems, how to think differently when necessary. I couldn’t get myself where I needed to be, but I ended up here, which is where I feel like I’m supposed to be. The lessons I learned and didn’t learn all conspired to place me at this point in my life.
I have no idea what we will do when summer comes around and the Zoom classes stop. The worst part about having a first grader is we can’t just tell him to sit and read, at least not until he becomes a better reader. What I’m clinging to is the thought that at some point, schools will be back in session, and I’ll be able to turn the schooling over to a real professional, to someone who can properly teach my child how to think and help him figure out the things he’s good at and not so good at.
My son is irrepressibly curious, which I love so much about him, and I don’t want to stunt that curiosity. (The other day he asked me, “Dada, is the butt the head of the leg?”) But, dude, I have so much stuff to do right now, especially with Grizz Gaming starting this week. Thus, my time teaching his school often ends up being mostly perfunctory. It’s not ideal, but it is what it is.
Being a Dad is a job I’m good at. Being a teacher? I’m excited for that job to one day go back to the real professionals.
(Sorry, my son just got hold of my computer. Looks like it’s time for another “History of Video Games” class!)