On Teaching: Theory and Practice

Some time ago (don’t remember when, don’t remember who) someone asked me to answer some questions about teaching. When I got done, I realized it was the first time I’d written so comprehensively about my teaching philosophy since I first began twelve years ago.

I saved my answers, so here they are. As always, feedback is appreciated.

Preface

I began teaching in 2000, with a year in middle school (8th grade). I took another three years to find a full-time job, doing substitute teaching along the way (day-by-day and two 9-week long-term jobs). I’ve been teaching 9-12 grade English at Sun Prairie High School since January 2003. Go Cards!

I’ve taught many flavors of the bog-standard English class, which usually involves guiding students through important novels, plays, etc. as well as grammar and writing improvement. I have also taught Creative Writing, which I dearly love; that’s a much more fun class, since many of the students (though not all — not even a majority) enjoy writing. In 2007 I created a class called Interdisciplinary Poetics, which explores intermediate-level principles of poetry, as well as the sociological, political, and philosophical origins and effects of rap music and hip-hop culture. (In 2011 I began teaching AP English.)

What does it take to be a good teacher?

The two most important things are dedication and a mind that is genuinely open. You must be in the classroom for the right reasons, and you must be tirelessly (to the point of exhaustion) devoted to finding the best ways to teach. Too many teachers are uninspired and/or unwilling to strive for the way of teaching that will work best for the kids.

Good teachers connect honestly with students, and use logic to explain the reasons for work and rules. Bad teachers rely on “because I said so” and condescend to students. Good teachers demand hard work and integrity from their students. Bad teachers assume the kids are dishonest and cannot be trusted.

There are other things too, but those are most important.

How do i know I should go into teaching 6-12 and not some other line of work?

Do you enjoy working with teenagers? I would recommend volunteering at a school or somewhere else that allows you to spend time with them. See how you relate; the interactions are quite different from those with adults — especially middle school. (There were many things I did not enjoy about teaching at the 8th grade level.)

Do you have a passion for the subject you will teach? You’ll need to conduct an electricity for the material into the students — if nothing else, teachers these days are cheerleaders for the subject, competing against a carnival of distraction never before seen in all of human history. Most students will not care (about the subject you teach, school in general, and — perhaps — even themselves). You’ll need to make them care.

Are you willing to make the necessary sacrifices? Talk to lots of other teachers, and ask them what they’re giving up. I’m the first to proclaim mine as the most excellent and important job on the planet, but doing it right takes a serious commitment and sacrifice. (Money, free time, mental and sometimes physical energy, etc.)

What’s the worst part about your job?

On a regular basis, teachers are ordered by various groups of people (politicians, pundits, parents, principals, and others — that list was not alliterative on purpose) to find better ways to teach, usually using a mix of “new” strategies and/or new technologies. Usually these require a significant investment of time and energy, with very little clear payoff. Many teachers will tell you that the constant revisioning of school mission statements, student interaction models, and paperwork trails are far more cumbersome than they are helpful.

The truth is that many students are often just too lazy to do the work on time, and just as often too lazy to do it well. Whenever a student does not complete an assignment on time for me, s/he must complete a “This Is Late” slip. They are welcome to tell me why they didn’t finish the assignment on time — illness, family difficulty, confusion, etc. At least half of the slips simply and honestly say: “I was lazy.” There may be other problems behind the veil, but I’ve found precious little I can do to affect this situation. Being expected to magically change a teenager’s existential conception of education itself is frustrating at best and soul-crushing at worst.

How much do you work per work?

We are required to be at school by 7:30, but I’m always in by 7:00. We have two 52-minute “planning” periods and five class periods of the same length. School is out at 3:14 and we are required to stay in the building until 3:30. So that’s 8 hours a day, 40 hours per week.

Officially.

That planning time is very quickly devoured by meetings, paperwork, consultations with students, and other tasks. This means that returning papers to students requires a significant investment of outside time, not to mention creation of presentations, retrieval of materials, and reading books.

I’m very bad at grading papers quickly. Paperwork always feels like the least important part of my job, so I don’t feel compelled to devote all my free time to it. (I will, however, spend hours on the weekend creating presentations that try to engage the students’ critical thinking about a movie we’ve watched.) The research shows that students benefit most from rapid response from teachers, but my personal collection of anecdotal evidence shows that if I spend all my time on weekends and evenings grading papers, I will be insane and comatose.

What do you do with your summers?

As much as possible! The joke among teachers is that we enter the profession for three reasons: June, July, and August. Ha! But those months are incredibly precious for me.

Ever since I was a student, I’ve lusted after summer as a huge block of free time, to which I can devote projects and reading and goofing off. I’m happy to say that, for the most part, this remains true. (Every so often one must take a class, or do curriculum work.) In 2005 I went to East Timor for two weeks. Another summer I finished writing a novel.

The vacations we get in the middle of the school year (one week in spring, a week and a half in winter, three days for Thanksgiving) are never enough time for me to travel. I always feel worn out after flying or driving long distances, so I need a couple of days to do nothing afterwards. It’s just not worth the hassle for me. So we usually use summertime to see the people we love. (Alas, summer is not the best time to visit Florida, heh.)

What are your responsibilities outside the classroom?

One of our planning periods each semester is reserved by the school for a “duty”. Some teachers are required to monitor the lunchroom, others assist with special-needs students. In the past I have been in charge of study halls (which is nice because I can get some work done), and this semester I’ve got the most hands-off duty I’ve ever had: I’m an “English Resource Teacher” in the library. Students can come to me with questions about grammar and books and the like, but I rarely have more than one question per week. So again, I can get some work done (or not, since it’s at the end of the day and I’m often too exhausted to grade papers).

We have weekly faculty meetings, and the English department meets regularly (usually once every two weeks) to sort out priorities, coordinate reading lists, etc. As members of the community, we’re also strongly encouraged (and as a passionate member of our community, I push myself strongly) to supervise the hallways, pick up litter, and help students with minor problems.

I’m also the sponsor of the high school Go Club, which teaches students how to play the ancient board game Go. The kids meet in my room before school, during lunch, and once per week after school to play. I’ve received some extra money for this sponsorship, but next year the budget is being cut. I’ll still do it, though, because I love the game and the students (small though the group is) really enjoy the social space and game dynamics.

TimeWaster™

Mos Def is now Yasiin Bey. I love this song, but I wish the beat were steadier.

Today I’m listening to: The Orb!

Comments are closed.