on teaching, comics, and mean adolescents

Today was one of the worst days I’ve ever had at my middle school job. As I drove home from work, feeling myself start to cry for the third time in twelve hours, I contemplated talking things over with someone. Usually that’s a good remedy for me but the idea seemed exhausting. Plus I had already called my mom earlier (first cry), and discussed my frustrations with my supervisor (second, less intense cry) at the high school program where I work in the afternoon. Still, I felt a need to process the events of the day, and writing here seemed like a good way to do so.

The middle school where I am an assistant math teacher introduced a freshman cohort this year. It’s an alternative school, full of kids who struggle, and in general there is a greater level of resistance and behavior issues with our kids than with the students at a mainstream school. These freshmen have been especially though. I was having a hard time with them for a few weeks now and today, with the head teacher out, they were really disrespectful towards me. It’s not worth going into all the details. I sent one kid home, sent another to the school counselor. But that’s not even the difficult part; what’s difficult is knowing that one reason they treat me this way is that I don’t send them home enough, I don’t respond strictly enough to their behaviors which, if they keep them up, are going to work against them in their lives. When I left I felt like a totally ineffective part of the school staff, not to mention hurt by the assorted comments of a bunch of angry, insecure fourteen year olds.

When I arrived at the high school it was just my supervisor and I in the office.

"How’s it going?" she asked.

"Terrible," I said, and proceeded to tell her about the events of the morning. She knows this middle school; it’s run by the same association of alternative schools that runs our high school program. She consoled me, told me that she knows how much the whole middle school faculty has been frustrated with the freshmen.

"When I have a day as bad as this," I told her, "I think to myself that I’m not actually any good at working with kids, that I don’t really know how to do this."

"No, no," she said, "just think of how far you’ve come since your first year!"

My supervisor is great and she’s watched me grow in my job and I totally appreciate her support, but all I could think in response to this comment was how in high school my friend Lisa and I used to make jokes to each other about the "most improved" award at our annual academic assembly. "It’s the ‘you don’t suck as bad as you used to’ award," we would say.

Later on we were discussing how another staff member is applying to masters programs for education, and I told her that I decided I don’t want to get a teaching degree anymore. After making sure that I wasn’t just saying that because of my crummy morning, she said to me that even though I’d mentioned wanting to be a teacher in the past, she thought I’d make a really good school counselor.

"Just the way you talk to kids, the way you work with them, is much more like a counselor," she said.

All I could hear was "you aren’t really a natural teacher."

So then I think–ok, I want to be doing some work in education, but I don’t want to be a teacher or a school counselor…what does his leave? And then I think, what is it that made me want to get into education in the first place?

Well, in high school I started to develop the idea, based on what I was learning in my classes as well as my own positive experiences in the classroom, that education had the potential to empower people. Anyone can get an education, I thought–anyone can learn ideas and skills that will put them on fulfilling life paths. I also thought that I related to people well, that I would be good at working with kids and young adults. But it wasn’t as much about wanting to teach as it was thinking that the education system would be the best place for me to effect change. So in college I spent a semester studying at a progressive graduate school of education, doing student teaching at a public school in New York City. And about a year after I graduated from college I got a job with this alternative school, supporting kids who haven’t always received adequate support. I love my job, I love what I have learned there, and I love working with the students there–I am extremely lucky to be able to do so.

But then, I think of the week-long summer camp that my high school program runs every year. It’s intense for kids and staff alike. In the main room where we hold activities and discussions we put up these posters with a whole host of motivational phrases. One of them says, "What would you do if you knew you could not fail?" And this summer when I looked at that poster I immediately thought, "I would be a professional cartoonist." Because I love telling stories with words and pictures, and I know that I need to make art to be happy. I also know I don’t want comics to be something I do on the side…I want to be able to spend a lot of my time on comics, I want people to see the comics I make. I want comics and writing and illustration to be part of my livelihood.

I have always loved to draw but it’s only recently that I’ve realized how much I want art to be a part of my life and career. That’s a part of why I don’t want to be a classroom teacher or a school counselor. I often feel I don’t have enough time for comics as it is with my cobbling together of part time jobs–with a full time education job I worry about how much comics would be relegated to the extreme background.

Still, I want to keep serving kids who have not had their needs met by the school system. And though I have my doubts about teaching, and don’t necessarily see myself as an art teacher, I think I need to figure out some way that I can blend these two things I care about so much. Because sometimes I think that the main thing you need to be a good teacher is something you are passionate about and want to share with others. And I have spent some time tonight thinking in more detail about a vision I have for a comics curriculum. I would love to teach teenagers how to make autobio comics, starting from this idea we have in my high school program that everyone needs to tell their own story. I imagine showing them all these different examples of autobiographical comics and graphic novels, having the kids talk about the different styles, and sharing their own life experiences in comic form. And I know that I would want this kind of teaching to exist alongside my own comics work.

This education/comics conundrum is something I often think about, but today’s struggles really brought my thoughts out with greater force and clarity. I just hope that I can find the stable success in comics that I want, and figure out some way to keep education solidly in my life too.


  1. tugboatcity · November 17, 2009

    You are a saint for putting up with those brats. I couldn’t do your job for a day or even hour. They don’t know how lucky they are to have you as a teacher.

  2. quirkybird · November 17, 2009

    I can think of oh, half a dozen people in town (and up in Seattle) who could have really valuable conversations with you about their experience teaching comics to school-age kids. Tell me if you’re interested and I’ll hook you up with the ones you don’t already know!

  3. Lisa Rosalie · November 17, 2009

    Thanks…they really are good kids, they just act like jerks sometimes.

  4. Lisa Rosalie · November 17, 2009

    I am definitely interested! I’d love to discuss comics teaching with folks who have more experience doing it than I do, and who might clue me in on some opportunities to start doing it.

  5. so_lily_briscoe · November 18, 2009

    I don’t have much to say to this directly, but as someone who questions her place in her profession every single day (and frequently cries about it), I think that this vexedness is part of caring about what we do, part of what it means to be passionate about something. That doesn’t make what’s hard any easier, and doesn’t help with specific situations of difficulty, but I still think it’s true. Wondering whether or not you belong somewhere doesn’t mean you don’t belong there.

    Many loves to you.

  6. Lisa Rosalie · November 22, 2009

    Thanks for your insight, as always. I’ve been working to not let this bad week derail me too much…And much love to you as well.

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