“Why Teach What I’m Teaching/What I Taught?”

A former student of mine, who is now in the classroom herself as a music teacher, asked me about my teaching philosophy, particularly why I taught what and how I did. It’s a question I’ve been asked a number of times for a variety of reasons. Most recently I’ve been interviewed about this by several future teachers. I thought those of you who read these ramblings might be interested.

Whether I was teaching English classes in the three high schools where I was employed, college composition at the community college or university levels, or future teachers, I always had basically the same purposes. First of all, I needed to teach to the students who sat in the desks in my classrooms. That’s not as simple as it sounds.

Some students are in classes because they’re required to be there, of course. That means I had to make the class worthwhile for them. I think that most of the time I was able to make the experiences as painless as possible—I tried to make their experiences enjoyable. That required me to get to know them as individuals so I could do some tailoring. I usually began each term with some questions that provided me with a few insights into each person. What did they expect from me and the class? Why? What things might keep them from being successful?

Every class had certain requirements to address the curriculum I was expected to teach. I had to move the students forward in their academic careers. That governed the subject matter. I was fortunate in that I was never in a school that forced me to teach in a certain manner, so I was free to work to my areas of expertise in delivery. The outcomes were always the most important as far as my administrations were concerned. Throughout my career I experimented with a variety of methods, from direct instruction (i.e., lecture) to very student centered techniques. Most of the time I used a combination of the two. After all, I was the “expert” in the room, but each student, no matter how much a novice, had something to offer. My major task was finding ways to work to both strengths. When I was “lecturing,” I always tried to keep things as real as possible—for future teachers it was “This is what it’s like in the classroom from my experience”; and for students of literature or composition, I often referred to my own reading or writing, and theirs.

I went into teaching, though, to teach literature and writing. I have always felt that my main goal was to help my students develop an appreciation for each. Even if they weren’t going to be literary critics or famous authors, I wanted them to know the basics for understanding what makes good literature and writing. As far as I’m concerned, this is essential to being an intelligent consumer, a productive citizen, and simply a fulfilled individual.

Civilization is not really civilized unless there is art in some form. Until someone is painting or sculpting or making music or writing creatively, any nation is merely a union of warring clans. Most ancient civilizations valued poets over priests. The Greeks and the Vikings, for instance, believed that immortality was achieved by having deeds immortalized in song. I believe that literature is the real history of a people. It’s what people were thinking and believing at the time. The interpretations of the time in poetry, music, drama, painting, sculpture, dance, architecture, etc., says more about humankind than any other rendition, and more truthful. The civilizations that lasted longest were those that valued the arts and artists.

So where do teachers fit? We are the guardians of civilization! It is our duty to see that our students—future citizens—understand and appreciate those interpretations and, for some, have the tools and expertise to provide those artistic creations.

This has so many generalizations. I studied adolescent psychology, sociology, and pedagogy for years, of course. Meeting students’ needs ranges from making sure the classroom is as comfortable as possible to the work being entertaining and interesting. It’s difficult to control the temperature sometimes. I’ve been in classrooms where the snow actually came through closed windows or air conditioning was only in the superintendent’s office. I have no control over whether or not my students have been able to bathe that week or had anything to eat that day (although more than once I bought lunches or provided snacks when eating in the classroom was “not allowed”), and I’ve concerned myself with a student’s physical safety to the point of calling Human Services (and threatened to call the police at times). I took very seriously the emergency procedures because it was my responsibility to protect “my kids” if the need arose.

I used to tell my future teachers that the answer to the question, “What do you teach?” is “Students.” I could tell if someone was going to be a good teacher if he or she felt more concern for the students than test scores…or his/her future employment. This is why most people leave the profession. They don’t want to put someone else’s children’s well being above that of their own family, or their own comfort or success. This is why English teachers stay up until the early hours of the morning reading essays and making more marks on the papers than the students did. Others do the same. They spend their own money to provide the materials students need. They go home and cry into their pillows because a student has obviously been abused in some way. Do you stop a teenaged girl on the street and ask her about the bruises she’s unsuccessfully trying to conceal, and then try to help her when she confides that her boyfriend or her father has beaten her? Is that teaching English? Do you keep an extra coat or sweater in your car or office to loan to a student who is shivering through your ninety-minute class? Do you pay the entry fee so a student can take an exam, and then go home to ramen noodles for supper?

I don’t think there is a greater calling than teaching. Those who stick it out have my greatest admiration because I know what they’ve sacrificed. I don’t blame anyone who “bails.” It’s a masochistic profession in this country. You don’t really know the rewards until many, many years later most of the time. I feel such pride in my former students. Many are teachers themselves and they’re struggling—that’s why I’m writing this. Some are creating wondrous works of art. One is helping develop the systems that will take the human race to the stars. Others are doing the things that are keeping the nation running and may one day be the legislators, or President, that help guide us into a very shaky future. I hear from some now and then. They are my children as much as my sons are. I love them all.

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