Be Better: It’s Not About You

16 Jan

A lot has been written about the Millenials and how self-oriented they are. But I’m going to raise an uncomfortable truth about us educators, because I think it needs to be addressed head on if we are serious about improving education: we educators are often self-oriented, too, sometimes willfully blind to how much this could impede our students’ progress.

I’m a high school teacher, and I think we high school teachers are the worst when it comes to being self-oriented in our work. We tend to have our pet subjects and our pet method for teaching and wash our hands of the rest of the teaching process. I confess that I think English teachers are the worst of the worst here (and I’m an English teacher), tending to teach our favorite authors/genres/historical periods and to use the methods we find most comfortable. Many high-school English teachers think there are Important Things That Must Be Learned. For some this is the five-paragraph essay. For others it is the writing process. For some it’s imperative that students know the difference between a gerund phrase and a participial phrase. For others it’s imperative not to teach formal grammar and instead to learn it organically as it comes up in the literature and the writing. For some it’s a must to read Shakespeare. For others it’s to read as few dead white men as possible.

These are all profiles of the typical English teachers I’ve worked with over the past decade. No one is better or worse than the other — we are all equally bad in that we tend to let our own interests, biases, beliefs, and strengths define how and what our students are learning.

Take me, for example. I was terrified at the prospect of teaching poetry to my high-school students for a long time. Sure, I had my favorite poets. I took a Pablo Neruda seminar in college that left a deep, lifelong impression on me, and I jumped at the chance to include his poems in my courses. But those were safe, comfortable poems. I knew what I was doing with them. T.S. Eliot? Forget it. E.E. Cummings? No thanks. The Beats or the romantics? Not my style. I didn’t understand most of those poems and I was afraid that my own deficiencies would be so obvious to my students as to be laughable. How could I teach something I didn’t really like or understand? So I stuck to my safe poets for years: Pablo Neruda, Louise Gluck, Shakespeare. These were poems I’d been taught, and so I taught them — confidently and (I like to believe) pretty successfully.

Until I landed my first job in an IB school and had to teach IB literature, which included the poetry of Sylvia Plath. Not only did it include the poetry of Sylvia Plath, but it required a fifteen-minute oral exam for the students on one of Plath’s poems, selected at random, and I had to lead them through a question-and-answer portion of the oral exam — all of it recorded, sent off, and re-assessed for the final marks by the IB itself.

Gulp.

It was a turning point for me as a teacher. In addition to Plath, I had to teach the other IB texts stipulated by my department — all new, unfamiliar, and a little scary to me. There were Oedipus Rex, Othello, and Ibsen’s Ghosts, none of which I’d ever even read. I suddenly found myself immersed in their worlds, trying to learn as much as I could about Greek tragedies, Iago’s motivation for evil, and the nineteenth-century Norwegian context which made Ghosts so scandalous. But it was the study of Plath and those looming oral exams that really pushed me outside my comfort zone and into new realms of exploration in my teaching. I dove in head first to her poetry, trying to learn everything I could about her life, her motivation, and her greatest works. I was fascinated to discover a whole world of sound devices, something I had rarely considered before, aside from meter and rhyme. I was learning new terms every day — assonance, consonance, enjambment, synecdoche — and their effect on the poetry, the way it was meant to be heard or understood. I was bowled over by Plath’s brilliant use of language and ultimately I couldn’t even remember what I’d been so afraid of. Why had this seemed scary?

It was a great lesson for me — I learned more that year about new genres, authors, and styles than I had ever learned before, and all thanks to the IB’s requirements pushing me far outside my safe little world of my favorite teaching texts. And this is not to say that I never teach anything familiar; I just finished teaching Plath again for the second time in another senior IB course, and will teach her again this spring to my juniors. But in addition, for the first time, I’ll be teaching four different poets for the final semester of my senior IB course, something I would never have dreamed of doing just a few years ago. But now, thanks to that initial Plath experience, I realize that I need to expand my horizons and push my boundaries in the name of what’s best for my students. In this case, I believe the best preparation for the challenging IB exams will be to study a great deal of poetry. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a wee bit nervous about it, but I’ve learned that this kind of nervousness usually leads to good things in the classroom. Fear of the unknown is healthy; inertia due to that fear is not.

Which brings me to my main point — we can’t stick just to what we know and feel safe with because we erroneously convince ourselves that’s what’s best for our students. We do them (and ourselves) a disservice if we believe that. Whether you are a second-grade teacher or a college professor, ask yourself: when was the last time you tried something totally different and slightly outside your repertoire/comfort zone? It might be teaching a new genre of book for the very first time (say, graphic novels), holding a Socratic seminar instead of lecturing, tossing aside the textbook in favor of Essential Questions and primary-source documents, or having students work through an important assessment at their own pace, according to goals they’ve laid out, instead of a one-size-fits-all assessment approach.

I think one of our bigger failings in education is that we lose our students’ interest because we are so wrapped up in our own interests. I would never have chosen to teach Plath, and it wound up being a great learning experience for me and my students. While studying Plath again this past semester, my  senior students were given the opportunity to vote on the genre of literature they wanted to study for their final semester: either four poets’ works or four fiction writers’ works. The class voted almost unanimously to study the poetry in the final semester. Secretly, I thought they were nuts. But they would never have even had the opportunity to vote if I had stuck to my comfort zone; I would have assumed everyone wanted to study fiction, because that’s what I would have wanted.

We need to remember (especially in the high school years, but in pre-K – 8 as well) that a little fear, a little discomfort, a little newness can be a great thing for our classrooms. Don’t fall into the rut of doing “your thing” over and over again. Make use of your talents, but don’t make them a crutch. Because ultimately, it’s not about you and what Important Things Must Be Learned. It’s about modeling learning itself — in this case, you yourself can be the model.

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2 Responses to “Be Better: It’s Not About You”

  1. Janet Abercrombie January 17, 2013 at 5:46 am #

    What a great story. I’ve always been thankful for colleagues or curricular expectations that push me out of my proverbial comfort zone.

    When I moved to my former school, three of the nine 5th grade teachers would plan a unit that ll would teach and assess. I remember them including assessments that involved technology I didn’t understand. I worried whether or not I would be able to help my students in the ways they needed.

    I learned tons. Your story confirms what I now believe – change is worth the effort because it helps us learn and grow.

    • alexisswiggins January 17, 2013 at 6:29 am #

      Agreed, janet. I, too, am always eager to learn tech stuff but need a lot of hand-holding at first. I get nervous about how to advise kids when I myself am not an “expert.” But I think I’m going to start experimenting more with the idea of showing students my own learning process, too — modeling that side of learning. One of my students today told me how much she loves poetry now and how she never could have imagined that a year ago.

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