Becoming a teacher: Why in the heck do I do this?

When addressing teachers the principal at my previous school would often say something like, “We became teachers because we loved high school.”

Not me. I hated school. I thought it was a waste of time filled with power tripping teachers who were more interested in proving what they knew instead of developing what I knew. That is why I became a teacher.

Honors English

In high school, I took honors English. I’m an avid reader – always have been – and even today easily knock out two or three books in a week. Typically, when a book was assigned in class I’d read the whole book that day, or if it were large or I were busy, within a couple days of it being assigned.

So when my teacher assigned Silas Marner by George Eliot, I went home and read the entire book the first night. The next day I finish my classwork a few minutes early, pull out a science fiction novel and start reading.

Quickly the teacher slid over and took my book from me. She informed me I could read the next chapter of Silas Marner and I told her I’ve read the entire book. She told me I was lying and proceeded to drill me about the book.

The book I was reading in English class was Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard. Reviews were OK, but I never really got into the 1,000+ page tome.

I answered every question correctly, even the last one, which she said I answered wrong. She then told me science fiction novels are trashy books read by trashy people, took my novel and placed it in her desk.

I pulled out Silas Marner, found the pertinent passage, showed it to her, and told her – with evidence – I was right. I was sent to the principal. When he asked if I knew why I was in his office, my response was “for being right.”

Of course, being a smart ass might have had something to do with it, too.

Admission: The particular novel I was reading, in hindsight, is more than a bit trashy, but that didn’t give the teacher the right to demean me.

Becoming a teacher

I came to teaching later than many. For me, it was a second (third?) career after a stint in the military, which I consider my true education, and a couple decades as a successful journalist and editor.

My decision to become a teacher was a careful and prayerful one. The decision itself probably took a couple years and factors ranged from a need to help other people to a desire to have more time with my 3 daughters.

I truly enjoy my classroom time with students, including prep/planning for it. And I take very deliberate steps not to repeat the things that drove me nuts when I was in school.

There are things I can’t stop. These are things that I’m not sure of their efficacy. Fortunately, most of those things roll off my back and keep my focus firmly on where it belongs – ensuring my students are learning and frankly, that their learning goes beyond the content area.

The heck with standardized tests and grading schemes. I’ll do whatever the admin tells me to do and I’ll do my best to prepare my students for those tests. My real goal though, as a 6th-grade ELA teacher is simple. I want each and every student to read better and write better at the end of the school year than at the beginning.

That’s it.

I graduated high school with a very “meh” opinion of education. Graduation was no big deal – I did what state law said I was supposed to do, so why celebrate?

I don’t want my students to view education the way I did, and especially not because of something I might have done!

Claims and evidence

This started to come out recently as we have studied Roald Dahl’s autobiographical Boy: Tales of Childhood. At one point there is a writing prompt in which students are asked if they think Dahl regrets playing the “mouse plot” on Mrs. Pratchett.

Make a claim (he does or does not) and cite 3 pieces of evidence from the text supporting your claim. Then explain how each piece of evidence actually supports your claim.

Two problems:

  • Students were very concerned with making the “right” claim. I had to explain many different ways that if you can support the claim with evidence, then the claim is not wrong!
  • They have no problem finding and citing evidence but struggled mightily to explain how that evidence supports their claim.

My fear, and what I want to avoid, is that in my high school, that struggle would have been met with derision, anger, maybe a callous word or two. Then whether you got it or not, the class would move on.

I want to teach them to think! Sometimes that takes more than the singular day in the lesson plan devoted to a lesson.

The bottom line

When I was a journalist I worked on a number of big stories. They were carried by the Associated Press, published around the world, and won numerous awards.

My favorite stories, though, were the ones that notified the community that the Jones’ home burned to the ground and they lost all belongings. Then the next day the community responds by getting the Jones food and clothes and toys and furniture and all those other things they’d lost.

That’s being a teacher. It’s not about reshaping the world, it is about reshaping a person’s life. It is about helping a kid to read and write a little better. It is about helping them learn to exercise their mental power and think things through.

To extend the rationale for their opinion beyond, “That’s just what I think,” or, “I just do.”

And to celebrate the small victories.

Friday’s Story

This week, as I write this, I was in a bit of an irritable mood. It was set off by a couple things that I think are problems in education, but nothing I can deal with right now. Still I ran into it head on this week, so when Friday hit, I was tired. I was irritable. My B.S. meter had been going off 90 to nothing. And I was frustrated as I’ve been in a while.

Teacher

In other words, thank God it was Friday.

I have an inclusion class. There’s usually an EA in the room with me and I have a number of students with IEPs, several with a significant number of accommodations. They are sweet kids and several of them try really really hard. On this day, the EA was serving as a substitute elsewhere.

Two of kids, whom I shall call Student A and Student B, give new meaning to the word loud. What’s worse is if the class laughs about something, those two will laugh very loudly. But worse still, it is hard to bring them back down. They just keep going and going long after we’re trying to be back on task and moving on.

Naturally, during such an incident the executive principal decided to stick her head in the door. I could’ve died then and there and it felt a perfectly shitty ending to a perfectly shitty week.

Then Student C, a young man who is generally in some sort of behavior-related trouble somewhere, stepped in.

Student A joined Student C’s group. Student A. I’ve never heard him read and he’s rarely turned any work in and the work he does turn in is incomprehensible.

Student C asks me to step to his group, which Student A had joined. Then Student C said, “Watch,” to me and told Student A to go ahead. Student A started reading. It was halting. He struggled with words, which Student C helped with. But for the first time this year, I got to hear the young man read.

Later, Student A and C walk to my desk. Student A hands me his assignment. It is a handwritten sentence. It’s not a paragraph, as assigned. It isn’t following the prompt, but it is about the text we were just reading.

As his caseworker said later, a text appropriate sentence is a miracle.

There were two miracles that day. Yes, student A was loud enough to make the principal make a face. But student A worked. He read. He wrote.

Student C was the catalyst. This time instead of being a catalyst of trouble, he was a catalyst of a kid taking a step, gaining a smidge of ground. Getting a little better.

Seeing that is why I am a teacher. It’s why I do what I do.

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