First year survival guide

For professors in Palestine

It’s hard out there for an Abu Deis employee.

Lunch — check
Snacks in case we get stuck on a checkpoint — check
Pens — check
Photocopies of once beautiful novels — check
Laptop that only connects to the internet when it feels like it — check
Band-Aids — check
Extra readings — check
Backup copies in case the printer doesn’t work — check
Skirt long enough — check

I remember my keys as I’m running downstairs to the cab.
It happens to the best of us.

I always give myself an hour to get to Abu Deis. Before Qalandia Checkpoint, the Wall, settler roads and unmanageable traffic, the trip used to take up to 30 minutes at most, 35 if you stopped in the old city in Jerusalem to buy ka’ak and falafel (totally worth the extra time).

After passing numerous awful drivers and potential flying checkpoints I am faced with two roads; the road less taken is wide, pretty, and, most notably, forbidden. The forbidden road leads to Jerusalem, and if I take it, a lot of unpleasant things will happen, including bullets. I take the other one.

Here is your first tip: unless you have an Israeli car with a yellow license plate, always take the other road.

The Dead Zone

Abu Deis, once a suburb of Jerusalem, might have been beautiful at some point. Today, the orphaned town stumbles between the Wall and painfully narrow alleyways. It has no services, since neither government wants to claim it. It also has a high percentage of crime and family feuds. The university has shut down twice this year as a result of disputes and killings.

My students mostly come from Abu Deis or areas around it. The room for a social life or extra curricular activities is very limited. Moreover, they are locked up in tiny areas with very little space. When I ask them to free write in class, or imagine being alone on a mountain, they stare at me like I’m speaking in another language.

Second tip: don’t assume. Slowly walk your students towards freedom of thought.

Three-ring Circus

I never knew this kind of love before.

Since we take a liberal education approach, our class size doesn’t exceed 20 students, who all sit around a table. When you walk into the class you see everybody: women in colourful veils with little earrings sitting where the pin needs to be, young men in printed shirts saying things like “FBI: Female Body Investigators”, “God” or “Revolution”, nail polish in crazy red and backcombed hair.

The thing about being 18 is how funny everything is. It doesn’t take much to make them laugh or get embarrassed. The class erupts in sudden laughter every time somebody says something outrageous. It’s even funnier when I laugh instead of trying to bring back order. There is something so gratifying about their laughter; the way their bodies move despite themselves and then how they try to kill the joke.

At the end of this semester I wanted my First Year Seminar class to learn all the major schools of philosophy. To do so without the constant threat of them falling asleep, I prepared a game of charades. Everything from “humans are animals that make bargains” to “God is dead” were carefully written on cards and arranged in a stack. During that class, I realised how much I love them.

It wasn’t just how funny they looked trying to act out existentialism, but the way they understood each other. Some would just do two gestures and the words would collapse from the ceiling. Voices would scream trying to construct a concept, and then a lone wolf would quietly utter it and win the game.

What I feel towards them is a love that makes no sense: they piss me off, don’t do their work on time, complain a lot and have an attitude, but when they push themselves to broader horizons the whole world seems to open up.

Then again, when you as much as glance at your watch, they’re ready to go.

Third tip: you will love them despite yourself.

Muddling Through the Middle

When you have to grade, grammatical mistakes and structure will be the least of your problems. You will spend a significant amount of time reading papers you know were written haphazardly and without appropriate research, or plagiarised papers after you’ve said, a million times, that you research every odd sentence you suspect.

But then, right when you begin to give on life and question your career choice and capacity to make any kind of impact, you find that one paper that is well-thought out and beautifully written and all your broken faith is restored. Sixty-four papers later, you have to understand how to muddle through the middle.

Not all your students are going to be bright, do great things with their lives, or push themselves to become better. In fact, not many of your students are going to remember you, and some of those who do will either only recall negative things about you, or genuinely believe that they’re smarter than you (and some actually will be).

After a year of teaching this is what I know: you’re going to feel bad every time a student writes a bad paper, you’re going to beat yourself up when one of them drops out or gets expelled, you’re not going to be able to help all of them, and not all of them are going to love what you teach as much as you do. But here is why you should bother: if you teach for 10 years, and make at least one student every semester care about something, you will have done more than most people could ever imagine.

My final tip till next year: even at the darkest moments of this job, be certain that somebody, somewhere will know how to read a poem, or solve a mathematical equation because of you, and for that alone, you should give thanks.

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12 thoughts on “First year survival guide

  1. Amen! Tala you said it all so beautifully and eloquently. You remind me of why we teach! Thank you!!

  2. Wish I had been there for the charade exercise! This is very inspiring, Tala.

  3. Your article is so true! The interesting thing about it is that it is true even in the United States teaching at a relatively high-performing high school! Thank you for putting words to my thoughts.

  4. Tala that was adorable, I’m honestly so glad to have been honored with you as my teacher ! In the words of Tupac Shakour, ‘you gotta keep ya head up.’

  5. Amazingly written and thanks
    For taking us as readers into
    Ur world of teaching.

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