Category Archives: Teaching/School

The Student Becomes The Teacher

I think it is egotistical and foolish of a teacher to think that all the learning happens in one direction.  My students are almost always younger than me but none of them are stupid.  At a minimum they bring fresh eyes to stories that I have read hundreds of times. Frequently their insights and interpretations are surprising and unexpected and that makes reading the story brand new.  Sometimes though it is the mirror that they hold up to me that makes me view my own life in unexpected ways.

English is one of the few classes students will take where they will be asked to be truly introspective.  This is what I always loved about English but for many this is an uncomfortable spot.  When you read you are asked to identify with characters, search within yourself for connections, wonder about your responses (both emotional and intellectual) and then ask why you responded that way.  This thinking process can lead to conversations that cover a whole host of personal experiences.  That is why my students and I connect – sometimes on a rather personal level. We talk about love, jealousy, loneliness, fears, anxiety, dreams, relationships, and connections to each other.  My goal, as a teacher and a guide, is to create a comfortable environment in which they feel safe discussing these sometimes personal topics.  Frequently this is done by me sharing my own stories.

Perhaps it is because I’m pregnant and emotional.  Perhaps it is because of this stage in my life. Perhaps it is because I have more “adult” or “older” students than ever before, but this semester my students have really pushed me to do more self-reflection. They have made me reflect on everything from why my marriage works, to how I define myself as a woman, and it has been uncomfortable.  It is easy to seem smart and wise when you automatically have time and experience on your side, but when that gap closes and you are faced with students who can think the big questions – well, I am no longer confident that I have the answers.

This semester we are reading “The Chrysanthemums” by John Steinbeck.  It is a beautiful story about a 35 year old woman named Elisa living on a farm with her husband in California.  I’ve read this story at least four times before selecting it for this semester, but this time the reading was much different.  I KNOW Elisa – I understand Elisa because parts of her are also parts of me.  As I stood in front of my classroom preparing to lead a discussion about this character I felt naked. I no longer knew how to talk about Elisa without also talking about myself and somehow the imaginary boundary line that I had always drawn in my mind was so much more difficult to see.  Were we talking about Elisa’s fears and anxieties or mine? And unlike previous semesters my students knew that and I felt small, embarrassed and inadequate.

We all look back on our education and can identify the teachers that changed us, influenced us and help shape us into the people we are today.  I can name every English teacher I have had since 9th grade.  Each one has contributed to me being an educator and the style with which I teach.  As a teacher I’m realizing that I will also have students that both shape me as an educator and influence who I am as a person. Students, who through no knowledge of their own, will change me.

English Majors UNITE!

As I sat on the couch watching the Sunday morning news a commercial came on promoting a non-profit organization that was working to encourage kids to enroll in more math and science programs.  It occurred to me, why are we always encouraging kids to study math and science and yet nobody is encouraging students to study English? Why? (caution I am now climbing on my soapbox).  Everybody is fascinated by Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, but if these gentlemen opened their mouth’s and said, “y’know, dude, it’s like, uh, a thing, that does stuff that like, lets you write junk and, uh, you can then like, send it to people, y’know? and then people like get it, and like uh, read it…” Would their companies be as successful? The truth is that nobody thinks of the importance of writing or speaking properly until they see or hear somebody do it wrong and then that person is left vulnerable.  Nobody is there when their resume is read in the HR office and then laughed at because the basic grammar and speech patterns are so horrendous.  Every administrator or politician talks about the importance of reading and writing and yet, when the money gets passed around the first place it goes is to pay for more computers, science equipment, etc. It is not spent on writing centers, books, and other reading and writing tools that are essential for success.

When I decided to major in English the only career option presented to me was teaching.  I was NOT an education major. I refused. I worked in online media for ten years and used my degree every day.  As a project manager I wrote status reports, communicated with clients, but most importantly I was able to take large complex problems and break them down into smaller pieces.  After all that is what you do when you read a book.  You look at the whole, understand it, look for patterns, examine it’s components, see the connections and than communicate those relationships to other people. When you put together an ad campaign or a website it is the same process.  Studying English teaches you how to identify the undefined problem and then how to think about the problem so you can find a solution.  Wouldn’t we be a better country, a better society if we had more creative problem solvers?  And how do you teach creative problem solving? You give them Walt Whitman to read, and Ernest Hemingway, Shakespeare, Dickens, et al.

And yet, when we think about encouraging education, and student learning, we think about math scores, science scores and how we get more kids enrolled in math and science.  Our students will never appreciate the value of writing, reading and speaking properly if the adults reponsible for funding their education don’t start valuing it first. Why are these most important skills so frequently discounted and treated like second class citizens in the education field?  A child will never be a good scientist if he can’t successfully read or learn the basics of reasearch and have the ability to document his findings.  I fully appreciate the value of math and science and I am not discounting their imprtance in our society, but I also don’t feel that they are superior to reading and writing.

School Days

I have one week of class left. It is amazing that I have gone almost this entire semester without writing a single blog post about it. It has been a remarkably average semester which has made it less than noteworthy. Here are my final thoughts.

Private vs. Public
People frequently ask me if I see a difference between students coming from a public school education versus private. This is a hard topic to comment on because so much of this has to do with the school district. However, I work in a well-funded, highly rated public school district, and yet, my private school students are ALWAYS at least one semester ahead of my public school students. My private school students come to college understanding the amount of work and discipline it takes to excel in college. They are prepared to do the research, put the effort in and manage their time in a way that will make them successful. On average, most of my public school kids have no idea. My public school kids complain far more than my private school kids. I don’t know if this would be true in every school district, or every college across the country but my personal experience has been that private is superior.

The Ancient Hobby Of Reading
As an English teacher this is the most disturbing trend – kids don’t read. I recently quoted an article where the CEO of Delta Airlines said that when interviewing future executives he often asks what the last three books were that the interviwee read. When I shared this quote with one of my students who wants to be a pilot he said; “you mean I have to READ too?” Sigh. Yes, reading would be nice. The part of this trend that bothers me most is that girls still read, but boys don’t. Why has our soceity and our school system suddenly cateogrized reading as a “girl’s hobby”? Something has to change there.

Teaching Is Hard
Before I became a teacher I was quick with my criticism and my skepticism. Now, I get it. Teaching is a very difficult profession. It is not diffcult like advertising was difficult. No, working in advertising is STRESSFUL – teaching is DIFFICULT. Why? Well, you are working within a bureacratical system that rivals the government. You truly are a cog in a much bigger, complicated machine that you cannot change without seven forms being completed and the signature of ten people, one of whom is no longer working for the school. You are also teaching people who don’t want to be taught. Students don’t want to be there, they don’t want to learn. No, they want the shortest distance between two points with the least amount of effort. You are trying to excel in a position with an uninterested constituency and an unsupportive system. In addition you are being paid approximately the same amount as your student who is working at Best Buy. Once again, if we want good teachers we need teachers to be paid more money.

Only The Strong Have Standards
When I started teaching I was afraid I was going to be the “easy” teacher. The teacher that everybody liked because I was a push over. I have been surprised to find out that I’m the “hard but fair” teacher. This does not come easy. In my composition class my students write and write and write and write. They also bitch and complain and whine and bitch some more. My three year old does less whining than my 19 year old composition students. And, as any parent knows it is easy to capitulate when you are exposed to that much emotional duress. I expect my students to work hard, read challenging authors (like Walt Whitman – oh horrors) and to write long papers (5-6 pages – I’m a tyrant). When I look at veteran teachers who have lowered their standards I see the signs of resignation. They have grown weary fighting the battle and have ultimately capitulated their standards due to the on-going pressure from their students. It is an exhausting battle. It is because of this battle weary feeling that teachers take long breaks.

I wish I had some wonderful words of wisdom regarding how to fix our educational system, but unfortunately it is not that easy. I’m looking forward to the end of this semester. After a brief four week break I’ll be back to fight the battle again during summer term.