The English Teacher / The Social Network

From An English Teacher, With Love

Dear So-You-Think-You-Want-to-Be-a-High School-English-Teacher,

My name is Becky. I am a high school English teacher  — and, in the spirit of full disclosure, this facet of my life is nearly wholly against my will. Let this fact remain at the forefront of your understandings. I offer no other disclaimers.

It is supposed by the ubiquitous ‘they’ who are credited with ‘saying’ nearly every profound bit we’ve ever heard that ‘English’ teachers must and do teach their students how to: write effectively for a variety of audiences and purposes; read widely and extensively across literary genres and time periods from a variety of world authors while emphasizing British and American writers and simultaneously nodding vigorously toward diversity because of the global community we now inhabit; speak well, again for a variety of audiences and purposes; conduct effective research, utilizing multiple sources though never plagiarizing while evaluating credible from non-credible opinions, and utilizing others’ thoughts and work by seamlessly integrating it into one’s own position as both support and refutation of presented argument; learn and correctly use the mechanics and conventions of Standard English (grammar, punctuation, spelling, sentence structure, parts of speech); edit and revise one’s own work, and offer constructive feedback to others; analyze literary and rhetorical thought; think critically; engage culture; write a resume; write a college entrance exam/write a college application essay; work collaboratively and alone; take notes, use multi-media; respect authority; love their mothers; use a Kleenex; stay awake during a boring lecture; write an effective piece of analysis in under 40 minutes with a notable thesis; do their homework; care about important ideas; avoid Sparknotes (and mixed metaphors) like the plague.

The job responsibility list is most certainly is even longer than this – ‘English’ teachers have a hefty content load. If you think you want to be an English teacher, the stated work load awaits you. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Confidentially, I never wanted to be an English teacher. When I went to college, I planned on preparing to be a pharmacist. I thought that something in the field of ‘medicine’ (nearly as broad and deep as the field of ‘English,’ when you think about it) held the brightest promise for my future, and, as the sight of blood and the mere thought of seeing someone’s literal guts made me queasy (still does, actually), pharmacy – you know, ‘pill-pushing,’ – seemed the perfect fit. And, BONUS!  I loved Chemistry in high school. Even took a semester of Organic Chem. I knew I’d found my niche. At the tender age of eighteen. Then, I actually went to college. Here’s what I learned. College profs and HS teachers often do things quite differently. (This is of course true in the English department too.) Everything I needed to know about Chemistry I did not learn in high school. It was hard, and I folded. Easily. And proceeded to not know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life for the next five quarters of my college life. (For those of you on semesters, that means I didn’t catch a clue until the end of my sophomore year.)

By then, I had tried a class or three in ‘business,’ including, of all things, Business Law. A three-hour night class that didn’t offer a substantive grade until it was too late to drop it. A ‘D’ remains on my undergrad transcript. Pathetic. I tried on philosophy to see how it fit. I sat through the requisite comp class, an Intro to Lit class, an Intro to Poetry class, a Psych class – taking classes was required to actually stay in college, after all. Then, in my most daring effort to ‘find myself,’ I transferred to another university to pursue a degree in Fashion Merchandising and Retail Management. I worked retail to amass my wardrobe and pay for ‘stuff,’ and really, I considered myself a natural in the retail fashion world. Why not capitalize on it? In my first required design class, they required us to DRAW. The nerve.

I was the poster child for ‘going home with my tail between my legs’ as I returned to my college of origin at the beginning of my junior year. I had six quarters to select a major, earn a degree and graduate on time. Ambitious and terrifying. What did I choose?  English major. Psych minor. Degree track? BS in Secondary Ed. WHY?? Because a BA in English required 2 years of a foreign language, and friends, I simply did not have the time.  And, as it turns out, the classes that I’d enjoyed to that point all had an ENGL identifier in the course catalog. English Education by default. What could go wrong here?!?!

It seems prudent to mention that the unfortunate soul whose job it was to be my senior English teacher in high school was the most arrogant, disdainful SOB I’d ever encountered in a classroom. And, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to mention that, to utterly mock him I plagiarized an entire paper. Egad. Of course as seniors we had to do something that qualified as ‘research’ – “choose a topic that interests you and learn about it…” My topic of interest? Baseball. The entire entry from the WorldBook Encyclopedia became the paper I submitted. I got an ‘A.’ What a chump. Decide for yourself if I refer to myself or that teacher. To honor ‘full disclosure,’ these bits are also germaine here:  1. I was (still am, of course) a voracious reader. 2. I have a penchant for irony. 3. A certain charismatic Philosophy/Writing Prof (doesn’t every university have at least one?) magically nuanced his every phrase, making me fall in love with words. I should probably mention that I actually did well in those classes.  I ask you: Who wouldn’t conclude, as I did, ‘fine. I’ll get the BS.’? (Please note irony and sarcasm) But I am not going to actually teach.

My student teaching (a requisite for the degree, obviously) experience predictably confirmed that conviction. It was dreadful from start to finish. Instead of getting a high school placement, I was assigned to a Junior High – 7th graders to be precise. I was convinced that my supervising teacher had been alive longer than Methuselah. His pedagogy was simple: Follow the textbook. His lesson plan book was his education bible, and it rested comfortably in the middle of his overly tidy desk, where one pen, one oversized monthly-calendar-at-a-glance desk blotter, and one grade book shared space. (I have NEVER trusted a neatnik desk occupier since). Every Monday morning he reached into the bottom left-hand desk drawer, home to a several-inches-high stack of lesson plan books. The previous year’s book, of course, was on top. After opening up the year-old version, he would copy, word for word, the previous year’s ‘plans’ – HA! – into his current plan book. The activities, whatever they might be, were simplified explanations of the various lessons and exercises of the grammar and composition book the students used. That’s it. That was English 7. When it came time for me to create my own lesson plans (including objectives, of course), I had the audacity to ask Methuselah’s uncle what the point of the next exercise could possibly be.  It was a list of words, I remember. One of them was ‘chocolate.’ The lesson (that’s a stretch) seemed to imply that it is imperative to spell words correctly. I do not disagree with such a sentiment. But I couldn’t really see the lesson’s point. So I asked.  Big mistake. HUGE. A stern finger stabbed the air in front of my face and these words bit the air: “Miss Jung, we do the lesson because it is the next one in the book, and that is all you need to know about it!”  A fine learning objective, wouldn’t you agree? The glorious month of May arrived at last. With it came absolute certainty about one thing. The teaching profession and I just weren’t going to get along.

How is that supposed to encourage you, So-You-Think-You-Want-to-Be-a-High School-English-Teacher? I don’t know that I can answer that. But I can say this: I must first amend my observation that my entire student teaching experience was dreadful. The kids were some kind of wonderful, but acknowledging that kind of ruined my determination that I was not meant to be a teacher, so I faithfully eliminated such an inconsequential detail from my story. Even more problematic, I did teach again – some argument about at least giving it a try. As an epilogue – ‘the last laugh…’ and all that rot – I still am teaching. Even worse, I love it.

Every horror story about student teaching and dreadful first years and ego-maniacal department heads and rubric development and grading scale changes and merit pay and tenure and standardized curriculum and test scores, and…,  well, they’re likely at least partially true. But there are other true things…Laughter. Hugs. Thank-yous. Shared discovery. Reading together. Poetry. Football games. Starting over – every year. Dickens. Shakespeare. Steinbeck. Service projects. Music concerts. Art shows. After school help. Tears. Forgiveness. Ideas. Possibilities. Progress. Change.

So, since you think you want to be a teacher, or you’re looking for reasons to stick with the profession in spite of the frustrations, worries, roadblocks and discouragement, take heart. (you’ll need it.)

Have you ever noticed that the root word in encourage and discourage is, well, COURAGE?!?!  And, courage comes from, and is for the heart. Incidentally, if you investigate the definition and etymology of the word courage, you could accurately write an opening paragraph that includes this: “According to Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, ‘courage’ is defined as “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty. From the Latin, cor, for heart.” As a writing teacher myself, I BEG you not to write like this. And, please, for the love of all that is good and holy, don’t let your students write like this either. I’ve been teaching high schoolers for seventeen years, and every year, no matter how I try to keep them from writing it, I inevitably read a few introductions that rely on dictionary definitions as the ‘hook.’ For this very reason alone teaching takes courage.

It takes courage to correct others’ mistakes, and even more to correct your own. As a teacher, you’re going to make plenty. But remember, we LEARN through our mistakes. And teachers who stop learning (remember Methuselah’s uncle!?!?) stop being effective teachers.

It takes courage to sit through faculty meetings. Conveniently scheduled at the end of the day, you’ll need courage to listen to that colleague who, like clockwork, always has some vital matter that only she realizes absolutely must be discussed.

It takes courage to face the corporation bureaucracy, the DOE edicts, the standardized tests, the teacher evaluations, the parents, detention duty… Buck up. It takes courage not to ask out loud why they didn’t teach us these important parts of teaching in undergrad.

It takes courage to realize that they didn’t teach us these things in undergrad because they feared there would be no teachers…

It takes courage to follow the chain of command. Follow it. Earn your voice.

It takes courage to use your voice.

It takes courage to prepare the next generation for whatever challenges await them. That’s what we’re doing. Every day. And it takes courage to remember that education is more than a ‘right’ – it’s a responsibility.

It takes courage to let someone fail. It takes even more courage to help them succeed.

It takes courage to help shape another’s character, enlighten his mind, enflame his heart.

It takes courage to transform lives.

It takes courage to teach.

Keep learning. Keep striving. Read widely. Deeply. Daily. Write.  To discover what you think and to share what you know. Laugh. Cry. Make a difference. Remember love. You’ll need it.

If you think you want to be a teacher, that is.

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6 thoughts on “From An English Teacher, With Love

  1. As one of the numerous Americans who has moved to a foreign country and decided to teach English, thank you from the bottom of my heart. It is much easier to teach English as a second language to adult learners in private classes. They seek out the teacher. They want to learn. They want to improve, and one of them even ASKED for homework. I have barely seen a glimpse of all of the difficulties you have endured and overcome, and it makes me that much more in awe of the wonderful education I received.

    Thank you for not being a pharmacist. I can’t imagine what senior year would have been like without you.

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