I spent about six months planning my first lecture for all of my English students at the beginning of the year. What could I say that would draw them in? That they had never heard before? That would teach them the far-reaching values of analyzing literature and still be engaging for the kids who hated school? I changed it and tweaked it and rehearsed it in my head, and by the time 7:30 on August 19th came around, I was ready to go.
I started off every class by admitting the truth: This was my first year, and there would be lots of trial and error on my part. I invited them all to talk with me openly and offer suggestions when things weren’t working out. I told them I was excited to be there and looked forward to the school year, and then we did the necessary administrative work – disclosures (boring!), policies (no late work! no cell phones), a little About Me (I have 7 brothers! I love dinosaurs!), and then we were on our way to the good stuff.
Why study English? I had made a slide with what I thought were some pretty solid answers to that question. Do you want to be more attractive to the opposite sex? Do you want be perceived as intelligent? Do you want to make money? It’s pretty hard for even recalcitrant teenagers to answer no to that last one. Alright, good so far. But what’s the best part about English in my opinion?
The profound insights it provides to human nature – of course! I love the fact that within the canon of human writing there are lessons to be learned and connections to be made and insights that have been carefully preserved and developed over thousands of years. It’s a strange thing for them to consider that even though generations of yore didn’t have smart phones and VSCO and online bullying, they still had to answer the fundamental questions of life. Who am I, really? What do I want? How can I live a life full of meaning? Who should I marry? What does it mean to love your children? What does discipline and sacrifice look like in the process of self-improvement?
As an example of the enduring nature of these questions, we then did an in-depth literary analysis of three seemingly unrelated situations: The Garden of Eden, Nazi Germany, and you, the student. What did these have in common? What themes do they share?
I was surprised by how many students didn’t know the fundamentals of the Garden of Eden story, but enough were familiar with it that we could put together the basics. What was the original meaning of “paradise”? A walled garden, a protected area. What tempted Eve to eat the apple? The snake, yes, but fundamentally an appeal to power: “Ye shall be as Gods,” knowing the difference between right and wrong. Where did the snake come from? Inside the garden – from the tree itself. And the consequences of allowing the temptation of power to overcome early humanity led to devastating difficulty and death.
We then shifted tracks. What percent of Nazi Germany were card-carrying members of the Nazi party? 39%. We broke down the number of people in the classroom who would, statistically, have been proud Nazis who turned in their neighbors and gladly saw Jews and Gypsies taken away. Why were people so willing to listen to Hitler and participate in one of the most violent episodes in human history? Anger. Resentment. Shame. A desire for power and revenge. Were the people alive in the early 1900s in Germany just a bad batch of humans? No?
Then what does this say about your capacity to do terrible things, given the right brew of circumstances and motivation?
It went really well. I followed it up with a couple of weeks of intense self-reflective reading and writing, especially for my seniors, who are about to leave school and make some major decisions. They’ve read Nietzsche and Jordan Peterson and e.e. cummings. They’ve had to think very carefully about what they value, how they actually know they value it instead of just thinking they do, and what this means about who they are and what they should be doing with themselves.
The rest of the quarter has continued likewise. My seniors have given This I Believe speeches (if you haven’t heard those, Google them – they’re great), and are currently preparing their resumes for a mock interview that I will conduct, using a variety of jobs and companies they had to sign up for. My eleventh graders just did a debate, and are currently preparing Ted Talks wherein they identify a problem and propose a solution. Every day, we read a piece of news and discuss current events.
Not everybody is having the time of their life, but I’ve gotten some fantastic feedback so far. “I actually learn something in this class.” “I learn more about history in this class than I do in my History class.” “You’re the only good Language Arts teacher I’ve ever had.” “I don’t fucking hate this class.” Etc, etc.
I’m nice, but I’m strict, which they’ve responded really well to. I have a firm no late policy, which can only be worked around if they come to me beforehand and explain an extenuating circumstance and commit to an alternative deadline. Their cell phones are tucked in a special hanging pocket during class and never allowed out. They have no busywork and no homework (unless they waste enormous amounts of time in class), but I’m a tough grader and I have difficult assignments that require them to actually show me they can do the material I’ve taught.
There are teachers that get to the school at 6 a.m. and stay until 4 or 5. Not me. I get there right at 7, and leave right at 3. It’s not because I’m opposed to working hard or being at school, but I listened carefully to my teacher peers when they talked about the problem of burnout and how quickly and easily it can catch you. I already spend many hours a week at home, grading papers and designing lessons, and so I keep my time at school to a minimum. Students may not bother me during lunch time and my prep periods. I have a final day at the end of each quarter that students are allowed to come to me and turn in re-done assignments and ask for help, and after that, I’m not doing anything but finishing up the quarter and enjoying the time off.
But I have to admit, it hasn’t all been roses. At the end of the first week of school, one of my students accidentally shot and killed herself at a party with friends. Details are still pending, but it seems like it was just foolish teenager behavior gone tragically awry. I am constantly managing kids who are dealing with severe depression and anxiety, and I’m glad to do it, but it’s emotionally exhausting. Being a teacher is also being a friend, an academic advisor, and a therapist at the same time.
Beyond that, I’ve already dealt with some bureaucratic things I’ve been very frustrated about. The fact that students have fundamentally lost the boundaries of respect between adults and children is quiet clear, and for all the trendy lip service about breaking down authoritative barriers and making education more child-centered, the consequences are not good. The general sense that teachers and administrators have fundamentally stopped demanding parents respect them and their boundaries is also quite clear. Parents are willing to steamroll anybody who gets in the way of their perfect child’s performance, and exhausted teachers and flimsy administrators allow that to happen.
Class sizes of forty students are incredibly challenging to teach and manage. So is the fact that all students are required to finish 12 years of school, whether or not they have any interest in academics or college. The general push for everybody to attend college is, in my opinion, deeply arrogant and misguided it and aggravates and demotivates students who would otherwise do very well in a trade. The emphasis on grades and test results rather than ability has totally upended educational priorities. The trends that come and go in education are difficult and frustrating to keep up with, especially when I know that they will soon be replaced by the next best thing.
All that I say while recognizing that every job has its positives and negatives. The particular mix of positives and negatives in teaching suites me quite well, and I’m glad to have found something that I both enjoy and find intellectually engaging, and which I seem to have a particular affinity for. I’m looking forward to the rest of the school year and all the teaching and reading and writing that will come along with it. And fall break starts in fourteen days!… but who’s counting??