Monday, July 2, 2012

On Being the English Teacher I Am

So, the school year is two weeks over. Another year done. I had some ideas about blogging the last day in school, but I got busy, then went on vacation, so here I am with the first summer post, looking back on this past school year.

It was probably one of the best I can remember.  As for End of the Year evaluations and such, I got the usual: "An Effective Teacher".  Essentially, a 3 out of a 4 point scale.  And I'm cool with that. After eleven years teaching, nearly fifteen total working in school systems of some kind, I've become very pragmatic about evaluations.  Basically, if I'm offered a job the following year, not deemed a lost-cause, I'm a pretty happy camper.

It also helps that, at this stage in my career, I pretty much always agree with my administrator's critiques, and look at the evaluation as feedback that will only improve my teaching.  However, something felt different this year.  For the first time, I didn't feel...desperate for it to end.

Don't get me wrong. Was definitely looking forward to summer.  Had/Have some huge reading and writing plans, so I'm glad it's here, loving every minute of it. But this was the first year I can remember NOT ravening for school to end. The year ran smoothly. I feel my classes DID something. And I was still busy with them, right up until the end.

It helped that I had some good kids to work with.  But, most importantly, I feel like I hit a milestone: I achieved some balance between what I believe are important works that all students should read, and books that I simply LOVE, and had a feeling a lot of them would love, too.

Teaching high school English is a funny thing, especially when it comes to assigning literature. Though I always have ONE ringer (a book that, historically, 90 percent of the students will like), I never get all the students to like all the books I teach. It's impossible.  

For example, every year, my freshman are split on Something Wicked This Way Comes and Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury. Those who loved SWTWC generally dislike F451, and those who liked F451 dislike SWTWC.  Interesting where those lines fall.

What really seems important to me about this year is I seemed to hit on some things the kids really enjoyed, especially my freshman.  Introducing The Ray Bradbury Theater at the end of the year - HBO adaptations of fifty or so Bradbury shorts - was a masterstroke.  Using The Twilight Zone in Creative Writing also paid big dividends.  Though I'm unsure as to whether I'll use it next year, I'd have to say Buffy the Vampire Slayer really worked well with my 10th Grade Honors English class.

I guess what's mostly different about how this year ended is this: I actually felt like an English teacher.  After 11 years, I actually felt like I kinda maybe sorta deserve the title.  This is not me being overly humble. I arrived at teaching English through a very winding route. I initially set out to get my BA in English/Literature, with an eye towards an MA, to teach college English/Literature. 

I got the BA, took the dreaded "break"  - and life invaded.  Before I knew it, I was married, with a house and bills, and after a year off, was teaching junior high English.  And even though I'm wrapping up my MA in English/Creative Writing...I've never taken any Education classes. 

No Pedagogy. 

No "Instructional Strategies" classes. 

Sure, I've been to lots of seminars and conferences. But, according to New York State, I'm not a "certified teacher" eligible to teach in the public schools. 

Don't get me wrong. I'm not slamming teacher certification. It's important. During the time I've spent teaching in the private sector, I've seen plenty of "teachers" who don't deserve the title, who probably would've been vetted through the certification process. In fact, that's probably why they never took that route in the first place.

However, on the flip side, I've encountered lots of folks with certification who couldn't teach to save their lives.  So I've always maintained the philosophy that being a TEACHER was something that resided deep inside, in your soul. It's one of the things HE stamped on your forehead.  Though it can help any teacher, all the Education and Pedagogy classes in the world will not make someone who is NOT a teacher a teacher.

Thing is, I never really believed that about myself (still kinda don't). I've always breathed a huge sigh of relief after signing a contract for the new year, thinking: "Wow. Thank GOODNESS no none found me out." So I've always felt a little bit like a faker, lucky to be teaching in the first place.

I certainly don't think I'm the best teacher ever, now. But I received a comment from a parent near the year's end that really touched upon what I think is the only thing I do well.  They said, in effect: 

"...he loves what he's doing, and he loves literature, and the kids see that."

And that's it. That's really the best thing I've got going. No fancy projects or innovative, interactive learning strategies. No awards, no groundbreaking success in teaching folks to read or write.  I essentially teaching seminar-style (hard to do with freshman, but somehow I make it fly), and my approach to each class is very simplistic.

I just love books.  And reading. Poetry. Short stories. I love them, I read all the time, and I do my best to bring that love to the classroom.

Probably the best description of how I feel comes from a Charles Grant short story, "Confess the Seasons", out of the recent PS Publishing collection, Scream Quietly: The Best of Charles Grant. It's about an English teacher (of course) reminiscing about why his relative success: 

"Neither did I believe the ensuing acclaim all that richly deserved. All I'd done was fumble through my courses until I'd developed a primary and secondary school curriculum whose sole purpose was to avoid killing literature before students reached college, or the age of illiterate consent.  Those who used it swore by it, and admittedly, it was successful....my secret, which was simple in the extreme - I loved reading."

This pretty much sums up my teaching method.  I fumble through, honestly. The best thing I can do is somehow coax students to think about what they read without killing literature, coax them to at least appreciate the words on the page and their power, and to keep reading, and to keep loving it.  And that last part is really the only thing I can control.

And here it is, summer vacation, and I'm thinking about instituting a "short story" day once a week for my freshman, in which I read aloud to them a short story...just because.  Here it is, summer vacation...and I'm thinking about what I'm going to do next year in class.

It's almost like I'm a teacher, or something....