This is my last week as a high school English teacher.
There’s an identity shift with this career change. I was initially reluctant to teach high school–my first credential only went through 8th grade–but over the years, being a high school teacher got embedded into my DNA. It’s hard to imagine this fall when I’ll be a full-time Ph.D. student and only have one class of 18 first year comp students. It’s hard to picture life beyond this classroom.
I realized the other days that I’m even going to have to change the subtitle on my blog. “Thoughts from someone in a Ph.D. program”? “Thoughts from a former high school English teacher who hopes to be a professor someday”? “Thoughts from a person”? Little triggers for mini-crises are lurking everywhere.
There’s a lot of soul-searching and more than a little anxiety going into this transition, so I thought that one good way to mark the change would be to write down some reflections on my experience as both a teacher and a learner. So, without further ado, these are 11 things I’ve learned in 11 years of teaching.
1. Teenagers are far more sweet, funny, and delightful than most people give them credit for. I almost never got a positive response from telling people I taught high school English. I wished I could help them understand. Yes, teens sometimes put up a crusty, eye-rolling, I’d-rather-look-at-my-phone-than-look-at-you exterior. But they are also starry-eyed idealists for whom a whole world of possibility is wide open. They’re sarcastic, but not yet cynical. They’re intelligent and hilarious. Nearly every single day I taught, I was amazed by a beautiful insight a student would provide on a story or poem, and several times a day, I laughed so hard I nearly wet my pants. You can’t help but have your spirit uplifted by spending your days with people who still dream big. Their identities are still forming, and in the process of trying to decide who they want to be, they need people who can see past the occasional crankiness, love them for who they are, and help them choose the right path.
2. Teaching is WAY harder than people realize. All teachers know those vibes we get from people who think that reading a couple books, passing out a couple tests, and then getting three months off a year is all there is to our jobs. I usually had 5 preps (6 classes) a semester, which meant 5 unique classes for which I prepared 5 unique lesson plans each day. I had to be simultaneously reading all the novels that all my classes were reading. I gave my 120 students 3-4 homework assignments a week, and some of those were writing assignments that had to be graded for ideas, word choice, organization, conventions, sentence fluency, and voice. And I never, ever, got summers “off.” If I wasn’t attending classes or conferences for professional development, I was planning for next year. I didn’t mind the work. But I did mind people’s faulty assumptions about how much work I did.
3. Parents are awesome…except when they’re not. The vast majority of my experiences with parents have been positive. I loved partnering with moms and dads who were as committed to educational excellence as I was. And parents have offered me encouragement–everything from sweet cards to uplifting emails to Starbucks on my desk–at crucial moments in my career when I felt like giving up. But to paraphrase Longfellow, when it’s been good with parents, it’s been very, very good, and when it’s been bad, it’s been horrid. I can deal with parents’ attacks on me. I’m an adult, with perspective. What kills me is seeing parents cripple their own children. Over the past decade I’ve watched many parents go from “I want my child to succeed, and that will mean letting him fail” to “I want my child to succeed, and that means protecting him from every failure and/or negative influence.” Kids emerge from overparenting terrified of the world, unprepared to deal with real life, and convinced of their own inadequacy, despite being told their whole lives that they are “special.” Gah, I think this one needs to be a separate blog post.
4. The hardest thing about teaching is the paperwork and bureaucracy. I became a teacher because I loved working with students and I loved my subject. Unfortunately, there was a whole lot of extraneous stuff that was constantly diverting my attention from those two things. I felt like I had a full time job of teaching and a part time job that consisted of meetings, committees, and babysitting. I think my public school colleagues would add “standardized testing” to this list; thankfully, I was shielded from the tyranny of the test in private schools.
5. The second hardest thing about teaching is being “on” all the time. Ever had one of those days when you weren’t feeling your best, and you wanted to just slouch in a quiet corner, sip coffee, and talk as little as possible? Even as an extrovert, I had those days. But I had to be up at the front of the room or circulating around the room for about six hours a day. Regardless of whether I was exhausted or energetic or elated or grieving or had zits or or had a bad hair day, all eyes were on me. My mood would set the tone for the class.
I remember how hard it was to teach the day after my grandmother died.
6. Teachers teach best what they find the most interesting. Which should be obvious, I guess. But it took me a while to figure out that I needed to find ways to spark my own interest in a text so that I could speak with passion and conviction. It didn’t matter if I loved the text or hated it–I just couldn’t be indifferent to it. Try listening to someone talk for an hour about something that doesn’t interest her. It’s not fun.
7. After year 3, the curriculum gets stale, and outside refreshment is necessary. Because #6 is true, #7 is absolutely essential. The first year I taught, I was in full-on survival mode, the second year I found my feet, and the third year I hit a nice rhythm. Nice rhythms make for light workloads, but they quickly lead to stagnation. For me, saying the same things about the same texts over and over and over filled me with a sense of futility and occasionally pushed me to the brink of an existential crisis. I needed a fresh perspective through reading critical articles, taking classes, and discussing the texts with my patient husband or colleagues. Thankfully, great literature yields deeper meaning with multiple readings. I learned things this year about Hester Prynne, Macbeth, Beowulf, Brutus, Huckleberry Finn, and Tom Wingfield that I never knew before, even though they are all my old, old friends.
8. It’s vital for teachers to have a thriving personal life outside of school. Teaching is a job that can easily consume all your free time if you let it. I never wanted to be a teacher whose whole life was wrapped up in school, grading, and school-related functions. I wanted balance, I wanted freedom to pursue other interests, I wanted to spend time with my husband, I wanted to have friends. What I realized after a while is that my commitment to maintaining a thriving personal life made me a better teacher. Having outside interests made me a more interesting person to listen to. Having friends prevented me from trying to turn my students into my friends. Having time to relax and unwind made me more patient and improved my mood.
9. Most teachers have forgotten how hard it is to be a student. When I went back to grad school, I remember feeling amazed by the mentality some professors seemed to have that their class was the only thing we had going on in our lives. They sometimes seemed to have no conception of how long an assignment would actually take (to do well, anyway), and I remember feeling, a couple of times, “Why in the world are we being made to do this?” I started trying to be more aware of what was going on in other classes so that students wouldn’t get tsunami’d with massive assignments from all their classes at once. I started thinking through all the steps I was requiring of each assignment and being realistic about how long it would take my students to complete. And I definitely cut out lots of busy work and tried to convey a sense of each assignment’s importance.
Also, sitting in hard chairs for hours really, really hurts your butt.
10. The quiet kids often have the best things to say and the “problem” kids are usually dealing with deep struggles in their personal and home lives. It was very easy for me to make assumptions about students. The quiet kids always seemed tuned out, and the rowdy kids were always a pain. Teaching for 11 years helped to undo some of those snap judgments. I learned to call on the quiet kids more often, delighted to find that they often had a brilliant insight borne of careful introspection. I learned that most of the kids to whom I assigned detentions most frequently were usually dealing with horrific, adult-sized problems at home. Acting out in class was their way of dealing with the difficulties they faced.
11. One of the best parts of teaching is returning alumni. As wonderful as teenagers are, they usually don’t say “thank you” to someone who’s just assigned them a 5 page paper. That’s okay. I’m planting, watering, and weeding for a future harvest. But I get a lovely reward when alumni come back and tell me how well prepared they were as writers, how my class helped them think critically about literature, and how much they miss having me as a teacher.
I’m excited for what the future holds. I hope that one day I’m a professor who gets to influence future teachers, and that my efforts can have a multiplicative effect, reaching thousands of students instead of hundreds. But I’m always, always going to hold in my heart these precious years I’ve spent with my funny, sweet, intelligent, annoying, beautiful, inspiring high school students.