Reflections on Teaching

When I began thinking about teaching, I began it with a rather self-centered outlook: I will teach the way I wanted my teachers to teach me. I will be the kind of teacher I’d always wanted in high school. I also had a dream to be the revolutionary teacher from such faux-inspirational films as Stand and Deliver and Dangerous Minds. I wanted to buck the system, improve the quality of public education. This, I realized later, was also a self-centered (and extremely unrealistic) pursuit.

Upon studying more about educational theory and working directly with a number of public school systems (as a student-teacher, a long-term sub, and an on-call sub), I felt the shortcomings of my individuality: I had to learn to work with a community, and I had to serve the needs of members of that community (both students and faculty) who did not share my values, my learning style or my intellectual background.

I had a chat with Deborah (another teacher at my current school) once in which she lamented that she actually felt guilty for teaching in a private school. I reassured her she had nothing to feel guilty about. As one of my fellow graduate students once said (I’m paraphrasing): “We always talk about being where the students are. The students are everywhere.” It’s true there’s a definite need for good teachers in public schools, particularly in lower-income schools, but truthfully, I see “good teachers” as only part of the solution. Schools that are struggling to meet even the “basic standards” of the state (whatever state it is) need administrators willing to change, parents willing to invest time and energy in their children’s education, a supportive rather than a demanding government, and a workable budget that allows a school to function easily. “Good teachers” aren’t enough.

I found myself, as a public school teacher, spending the bulk of my time dealing with discipline and paperwork. I would have to keep careful track of tardy slips, write cut slips and detention notices, make sure students did not physically harm one another, manage bathroom passes and hallway passes… the list of tasks that had no immediate bearing on curriculum weighed heavily on my idealistic shoulders. It was then I realized I wanted to be with students who wanted to learn in an environment that supported me, where parents, students, faculty, staff and others worked together to create not only good lesson plans and curriculum but also a good learning environment and a community. I thought Frisbee Dogs was a great addition to my current school’s “Spirit Week” last year. We have Spirit Week events, faculty and student retreats, even Grandparents Day to foster community and remind ourselves that education is not just about the classroom.

Before coming to this school, I’d had a few encounters with self-selected groups of students and they were all wonderful. I worked as an SAT instructor for Kaplan. I taught conversational English to high school students in Hong Kong. I even taught Sunday School to middle school students in my family’s church. Self-selected students know why they are there (in the classroom) and are more likely to take responsibility for their education. It is for that reason that I take the somewhat radical view that we should not have compulsory education in this country. We quickly went from little free, public education to much mandatory schooling. True change in education will not happen with the police, vice-principals, teachers, and parents strong-arming the children into classrooms. If the students bring themselves to the classroom, then they’re ready to learn.

So, here I am at a private school, taking the time to learn from experience, from my fellow English department members and from the students. Suddenly, in a community where learning (not paperwork or discipline) is the primary concern, I can remind myself of the theoretical principles of quality teaching we talked so often about at my graduate school of education. I’ve always had a heart for education and a passion for teaching. Honestly, though, in recent years, I’ve gone back and forth between wanting to teach for the rest of my life (teaching and students—yay!) and quitting altogether in order to get a desk job (grading papers—boo!). I don’t know where I’m headed. I love this community—the opportunity I have to teach wonderful students, work with supportive fellow faculty members, and have the educational luxuries I’d always dreamed about when I used to teach five classes (of 20-28 students per class), supervise two study halls a day, and have to plan my bathroom breaks.

The idea of schools having more money instead of better teachers sounds counter-intuitive, but there are numerous ways we benefit from a large endowment and a tuition- and donation-driven school. Faculty and staff are reimbursed for expenses. Students have to purchase books—so the books are less likely to be in bad condition, and the students can write and take notes in their books. Technology is readily available to students and faculty. Faculty can significantly cut down on “meetings” as well as stay in touch with each other better through the use of email. We have retreats, etc.

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