Almost every day, I bookmark a website, email myself an article, or highlight a passage in a book with my students in mind. I outline lecture notes and jot conversation starters in the page margins of whatever I’m reading. I craft engaging questions and anticipate my students’ reactions.
The only thing is, I have no students.
I haven’t set foot in a classroom—and no one has called me Ms. Jones—in six months.
I’m not, according to my tax returns, a teacher. According to those tax returns, I’m not even employed.
Even so, I know which day on the syllabus I want to squeeze in a new text, and I know exactly how I want to incorporate a song I heard on the radio into our class discussion about postmodernism.
Why am I constantly aware of my imaginary students? Students with faces, even, and names? Becca, whose ponytail is hidden beneath a camouflage cap, who wears furry boots with Nike gym shorts. Andrew, whose dark eyebrows make him appear perpetually skeptical. Natalia, the volleyball player who towers more than a foot above me when she approaches my podium.
Who are these people?
The thing about being a teacher is this: you either are forever or you never were. Telling me I’m not a teacher is like telling me I’m not a brunette. Even if I die my hair magenta, my hair is brown underneath. Eventually, my roots will show.
So even if I’ve been turned by government forms into a dreaded acronym—a SAHM, or stay-at-home mom—I’m a teacher deep down in a part of myself that is so fundamental to who I am, it doesn’t rely on an actual title or position.
When I was little, I lined up my stuffed animals in the hallway of my childhood home and stood in front of them with a ruler and notepad, teaching them their ABCs and sometimes sending them into the hallway (which, confusingly, was outside of the actual hallway) when they misbehaved. Bad students had to sit alone in my bedroom, cut off from the educational thrills on the other side of the particleboard door.
As a little girl, this kind of behavior was imaginative, even ambitious. My mother would ascend the stairs and smile to find me conducting a serious lesson colors.
It occurs to me now that a classroom full of students who exist only in one’s mind is less charming when you’re almost thirty.
Is this a classic case of a mother unable to relinquish her former identity? Or worse, a teacher creating in her imagination a scenario in which students, like the stuffed animals of my youth, long to hear what she has to say, their bodies leaning involuntarily in the direction of my desk? Is my fake syllabus a well-crafted delusion—the perfect class I never had the time to teach while I was actually teaching? Have I convinced myself that if I could teach a particular book or concept this way, this time, it would really reach and get through to my students… all the while knowing I will not soon have the chance to test my theory?
Or is teaching less of a job and more of a disposition, something I couldn’t abandon even if I wanted? Is there a teaching gene (and if so, could schools test for it to avoid hiring a bunch of hacks who would ditch half-completed terms for larger paychecks if the chance came along)?
It doesn’t matter, I guess, because all this planning, compiling, searching, and scribbling is compulsory. I’m going to keep working like this with or without students.
All I can conclude is this: perhaps these habits aren’t about my real or imaginary students, anyway. I taught Montgomery the Gorilla (troublemaker that he was) because I loved teaching but also because I loved learning. Communicating what I knew—or was trying to figure out—continued my learning. Communicating acquired knowledge to another person (or animal) is just the second phase of study.
Maybe I am and always have been my own best student. Real teachers—the ones with the gene—do their homework even when no one is checking for it. The courses I create are good because the topics are interesting, first, to me. So I’ll keep working. Delusional, pathetic, or profligate as it may be, I suspect no real teacher can stop herself from scrawling questions no one may ever answer.
Lindsey Jones is a beauty junkie. prefers questions to answers. slightly more rebellious than she seems. bibliophile. classic middle child. pessimist, cynic, or realist? writer. editor. aspiring photographer, painter, foodie, and fifty-other-things. scared of the phone. loves snail mail. is unafraid to report bad service to the proper authorities. has a noisy brain. wants her children to have funny names. hangs out in coffee shops but hates coffee.