I ran across this article the other day, and with spring approaching a year hence, it seemed appropriate to repost this article from last summer. As I can now barely perceive the light at the end of a very long tunnel, and at least contemplate the possibility of retirement, I am reminded of an aphorism attributed to a number of accomplished college professors that went something like this: “It’s time I stepped aside for a less knowledgeable and experienced man.” That is ultimately what we will all do. Just about the time we become really good at our jobs, when we have the benefit of experience, and perhaps, a bit of wisdom, it’s time to close up shop. Teaching isn’t as much a young person’s game as police work, but it’s getting there.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about what I do these days, so as a public service, I present, once again, these thoughts on what anyone contemplating teaching should consider. Want to “reform” education? Herein be dragons:
The doorbell rang yesterday evening. The Domino’s delivery guy was one of my former students. I could tell he wasn’t sure I’d remember him. I don’t remember them all, but I remembered him. A good kid, good student, always smiling. He told me he was about to graduate from college with a degree in English. He’s going to be an English teacher, and he asked about openings in my school. He also thanked me for inspiring him to become a teacher of the mother tongue.
I was pleased, humbled, and saddened. I’ve often asked myself these recent years if I could in good conscience recommend teaching to any bright, enthusiastic young person. I would surely never recommend it to the dull and sullen. My chance meeting yesterday solidified my thinking. I would recommend it; I have to if America is to survive. However, there are caveats, so many caveats.
So my former good student, my young friend and spiritual, if not in fact, replacement, God help you, and I offer these bits of warning and advice.
Believe, with great intensity, in what you do. Believe in its importance and necessity. Believe that you are the sole person, the sole discipline between civilization and barbarity, and teach that way, every day. Just don’t tell anyone you think that.
Believe in what you teach, or don’t teach it. Of course, there will be things you’ll have to teach, but more on that shortly. Even if they don’t always show it, the kids will take their enthusiasm about their studies from your enthusiasm about their studies. When you tell them what they’re reading is good and important, and will make a difference in their lives, do so because you believe that.
Understand that during the school year, if you’re going to be a true English teacher, your time will not be your own. Accept it. If your kids will have the best opportunity to learn and grow, you must have them read and write a very great deal, and that means you will be constantly grading papers–hundreds every week. Grading papers does not mean slapping a score on a paper without reading it. For English teachers, it means reading every word, paying attention, and making corrections and suggestions, and writing comments that will help them grow.
Learning–life–is all about attention to detail, not only yours, but the appreciation and practice you instill in the kids.
Reading–and understanding what is read–is vital. You will be stunned at how few of your students actually read. You will be horrified at how poorly most do it, and how little of what they read they understand. This is because they are the tested generation, the first generation for whom the entire purpose of schooling is taking mandatory, high stakes tests. These kids have lost years of curriculum in preparation for taking a few meaningless tests of a type they’ll never see again. This means they’ve never experienced precious and irreplaceable brain development. They know less, they’re slower, and far less capable than any generation that came before them.
Your students are used to reading short selections of text–500 words or less–finding one or two ideas, and being done. The idea of reading for pleasure is foreign to them. The idea of reading to better understand the world and themself, is equally foreign. Helping them to understand this is your job.
You probably have some sense of this already, but it will soon become inescapable: non-readers are deficient in everything. Their abilities to speak, reason, write, calculate, interact with others, all of their lives are hampered because of the neural connections they never developed.
You will come to hate the legislators and educrats that have turned education into a profit machine for textbook companies. They deserve it.
Literature is the study of human nature, of life. Make the kids see it and believe it.
You will be absolutely amazed at their limited vocabulary. Taking months out of each school year to produce one piece of data–a test score–has terrible consequences, and the study and understanding of vocabulary is one of the biggest casualties. Words that you take for granted, the simplest words, single-syllable words, words in everyday use by intelligent people, will elude them. Even context won’t help many of them. You cannot take for granted that they know virtually anything.
Do as much vocabulary as possible, and don’t let them use electronic devices to look up words or write sentences. They need to put their hands on paper; they need to think.
You will be equally amazed at their lack of cultural touchstones. Their knowledge of idioms is virtually nonexistent. “Barking up the wrong tree,” means nothing to them. “Water under the bridge” is equally meaningless.
Common literary references, even from The Bible, mean nothing at all to most of your students. Characters, stories, parables, allegories, for all of these, you must almost always stop, tell the story, explain it carefully, and after assessing at least minimal understanding, move on.
It will take much longer than you imagine to accomplish virtually anything. You noticed, didn’t you, that even your fellow English majors in college didn’t do all the reading? Most of these kids, left to their own devices, won’t do any of the reading. If you want to be certain that the kids at least heard the words, you’ll have to do it in class.
But if they don’t do the work, they’ll fail! As long as they barely pass by the end of each semester, many won’t care. But, but, but… No buts. Grades meant something to you, but you were an English major. Your students won’t be. Some will work very, very hard at failing. If they’re putting out that much effort, who are you to stand in their way?
Whenever kids are failing, at each time when grades go out, e-mail or snail mail parents, and keep copies. Develop quick templates, cut and paste, and it’s a pretty quick process.
For everything you do, be prepared to explain even the simplest concepts and instructions many times. Be ready to do it, cheerfully, as many times as necessary and in as many different ways as necessary. They’ll need it. So will you.
Be prepared to deal with discipline. Tell the kids, just as I did, that you expect them to behave like teenagers, but they never get to be rude or stupid teenagers. Let them know there will be consequences for improper behavior, but never raise your voice unless it’s absolutely necessary. That’s your classroom nuclear weapon. If you use it the first day, to what can you escalate thereafter?
For any kid you have to discipline, start a discipline record. For each incident, add it, date them all, be specific, and print out a copy to send to the principal with each incident. Keep these records–forever.
Never get angry; get curious. Kids misbehave for reasons. Try to figure them out. Anger makes it harder to think straight, and kids will exploit it. Discipline must always be done calmly and with good humor. Let the kids–and their parents–know you don’t take it personally, and don’t take it personally.
Take whatever grade you’re teaching as a starting point, and the first week, have the kids speak and write. Get a baseline of their performance. You’re probably going to find that a ridiculously large number are as much as three years behind where they should be in at least some ways. Testing again. Your job is to take them from where they are the first day they walk into your classroom, and take them as far as they can before they leave. You may think you’re teaching 11th grade, but your kids may still be in 9th.
Each class has its own unique personality made up of the unique personalities of each of the kids. With some, you have to be a little looser and relaxed. Some will work hard with little prompting. Others required constant attention and redirection. As long as they do what you ask and get the work done, that’s what counts. Maintain the same principles of discipline and work ethic with them all, but approach them as their personalities require.
You can be your student’s friends, but never their homies. You are always–always–a completely responsible adult teacher. You will tell the principal when they misbehave badly enough. You will tell their parents what they’re up to, and if they confess to crimes, you will tell the proper authorities. That’s your responsibility. That’s your job.
You can be part counselor–that’s part of your job too–but there are counselors in your building for a reason. Don’t let yourself become too close to the kids. Some will suck you into their problems like a whirlpool. You’re a teacher. Figure out the boundaries–fast.
The best principals will back you completely. The best are few and far between. Don’t expect principals to understand your needs and problems. They were teachers once, but for most, that was a long time ago. They’re not your enemies–most of the time–but they’re your bosses. They know they might have to fire you, so most don’t get too close. Keep that in mind. Even so, build good relationships with them.
Keep in mind too that if principals are from another planet in terms of understanding the daily realities of teachers, central office administrators are from distant galaxies. They tend to want to impose their agendas on you from above. That’s how they someday get to be superintendents. Because they’re making many times what you make, many think themselves much smarter than you. Most aren’t. Usually, their bold new initiatives that will change the face of education make no sense. Most are the same old failed ideas dressed up with new acronyms and Power Point presentations. Often, they’re destructive to learning. Virtually always, they waste enormous amounts of precious time. Be very, very careful what you say to them. They take themselves, and their idiotic ideas, very seriously indeed. Smiling and nodding is often the best course of action.
Be very careful what you say to anybody in your building, or out of it. Don’t speak about kids or other teachers to outsiders. Don’t say anything about other teachers, principals or administrators to anyone you don’t absolutely trust–and trust damned few, if any. It’s better not to say anything at all to anyone. Schools are like small towns, and gossip works the same way.
Be utterly reliable and well organized. Teach these virtues to your kids. Do I have to tell you why?
In-service training will make you want to commit suicide to end the pain. Nod and smile, and then, to whatever degree it’s possible, ignore the meaningless, time-consuming and destructive drivel forced on you. When the bell rings, close the door and teach as well as you can. That’s what you always do.
Your most precious commodity is class time. It will be taken away from you for all manner of reasons, or for none at all. Often, with little or no advance warning. Pep rallies, send offs for sports teams, “no sex” assemblies, concerts, lectures, football games, you name it, it will interfere with classes. Expect it and don’t let it make you crazy, or at least no crazier than it has made me.
All you can ever do, all the best teacher in the world can ever do, is provide the best educational opportunity your abilities, resources and time allow. The rest is up to the kids and their parents. Make providing that opportunity your bare minimum acceptable level of performance, and everything else becomes easier.
If a student cheats, keep a copy of their assignment–forever. You never know when it will make the difference between a parent screaming at you, and a parent vowing to straighten out their student that didn’t tell them the whole story.
Most parents are reasonable, and their kids have not told them the whole story. If you’re meeting with parents, always check first to be certain they have all the facts. That often makes all the difference in the world. Remember when I told you to keep track of all grade issues and discipline issues? Organization and documentation, as well as a calm and sincere demeanor, make all the difference.
Despite all of these very significant handicaps, the best teachers manage to improve their students. Their kids look forward to their classes, and dare I say it? They actually have fun. Be resolved to have fun every day. Be resolved to care about your kids, understanding that they are teenagers and all that means. Be afraid to let them down.
I could go on and on about his, but this is enough for a beginning. Still sure you want to do this? Still sure teaching English is what you want to do for the next forty or so years? That’s what you’ll have to do to get a pension in Texas, you know.
If so, good for you. If you do it right, perhaps one day a pizza delivery guy will thank you for inspiring them. It will then be your turn to write something like this…