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55. For some students, you are their only light.
May 29, 2014 12:11 PM   Subscribe

There are few professions more confusing, or misrepresented, than high school teaching. Education is a ubiquitous experience — public or private, we are all taught by someone, somewhere — and yet it remains misunderstood. I have now begun to write about teaching because I profoundly respect this vocation. I refuse to allow politicians to corner the rhetorical market on this subject. There are stories that need to be told.

I hesitate to call what follows "advice," though it might seem as such. There are so many varied experiences during a single teaching day that I am much more comfortable thinking in epigrammatic terms. I have a lot more to say about teaching, and certain reflections will need to wait. But, for now, here are 55 thoughts about teaching English.
Nick Ripatrazone, at The Millions (previously).
posted by davidjmcgee (27 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

 
Teach them writers who look and sound like them, so that they can believe that their words are the types of words that can be printed and praised.

One million times this. I was watching a documentary on James Baldwin, and one of his students was saying how she had been criticized as a university student (by someone else, not by Baldwin) for writing in "Black English" and "regular English", and how she was told that she couldn't mix them, and that her narration had to be one or the other, even though she herself spoke in both ways.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:24 PM on May 29 [3 favorites]


I want to take a class from this guy right now.

Except that I couldn't bring myself to take a slot from some unlucky student who might never get a chance at a teacher this good again.
posted by jamjam at 12:46 PM on May 29 [5 favorites]


BAW HA HA!

Easy to say if you're teaching in the Seventh Wealthiest County in the US!

I taught English in High School, and while I agree 100% about what he's writing about, I'm wondering if it actually works if you have more than 15 kids in a class, if those kids all live seriously below the poverty line, and if the kids are mainstreamed with kids who have physical, emotional and mental handicaps.

Must be nice to live a life of privliege.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:00 PM on May 29 [4 favorites]


Bridgewater-Raritan actually enrolls 18% of their students with a disability of some sort (cite), and only 27% of their students take an AP course in an academic subject.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 1:08 PM on May 29 [2 favorites]


As a lifelong WASP* cis male, I've gotten relatively little out of "writers who look and sound like" me... no more John Green, please. My greatest advancement in Science Fiction appreciation occurred when the TV adaptation of "The Lathe of Heaven" took a sideways route to introduce me to the writings of Ursula K. LeGuin. (And she was the gateway drug to Octavia Butler)

Then again, some of my greatest educational 'opportunities' came when I attended a Catholic High School as a non-Catholic, and the only 'non-cath' kids in the Honors Program were me and two nice Jewish kids... (not a LOT of discrimination, but just enough to teach me it's real and a pain)

*White Angle-Saxon Protestant, for those who don't recall 1960s labeling
posted by oneswellfoop at 1:22 PM on May 29


Must be nice to live a life of privliege.

Of course it is. Given the circumstances, he probably has it easier than many (maybe even most) teachers. But teaching isn't easy in any circumstance and teachers who give a shit range from merely potentially life-changing on one end to fucking heroic in situations like you describe.
posted by davidjmcgee at 1:37 PM on May 29 [7 favorites]


>Rutheless Bunny

Yeah, it probably is nice to have a life full of privilege. Does that mean that all advice and search for professional meaning should be ignored and belittled if those people come from privilege? Perhaps if he was condescending towards other teachers, your point would have been a fair counter-point. But I didn't get that vibe from the piece.

Suicide is the leading cause of death for teenagers, poor and rich alike. I'm not suggesting this author is dealing with that issue specifically. But rather just to remember that even rich kids with privilege often lose track of their purpose. And you know, I think unofficially, there are lots of stories and anecdotes about The English Teacher who brought or saved those kids from themselves. I should note though that I'm not suggesting you disagreed with the points I just made, I just sort of transitioned into this paragraph :)
posted by jjmoney at 1:39 PM on May 29 [10 favorites]


I went to Bridgewater-Raritan High School. I got a good education there, and I'm proud of that. Its certainly not the richest district in the area, but its pretty well off. Bridgewater largely wealthy, but it also services Raritan, which is for the most part lower middle class. The school has a wide mix of socioeconomic backgrounds. I had friends whose family members were mechanics and a friend whose father was a big name editor at the WSJ. As someone pretty firmly in the middle of that divide, I noticed that most of the social cliques were more economically divided than ethnically. So were a lot of the top tier classes.

Also, the school takes on a lot of handicapped students and students with extreme learning disabilities from surrounding districts. Many of these students never interact with the larger school population because they are in their own building (The school, despite being in NJ, is a California style school and each subject area has its own mini-building).

Most importantly, I don't think any of this detracts from what the author is trying express. Sure, he probably has an easier go of it for a lot of reasons, but that doesn't mean his goals are wrong.
posted by lownote at 2:07 PM on May 29 [6 favorites]


Oh as for the Standard Black English vs. Standard White English, one of my favorite essays ever is David Foster Wallace's review of Authority and American Usage, and it gets into his personal struggle with how to deal with SWE and SBE. It takes about 20 pages to get the section relevant to this, but the whole thing is great.
posted by lownote at 2:13 PM on May 29 [4 favorites]


BAW HA HA!
...
I agree 100% about what he's writing about...

Must be nice to live a life of privilege.


So you agree but you still feel the need to shit on him? Thanks for making it just that small bit harder to address privilege when someone's doing something stupid with it.
posted by Etrigan at 2:13 PM on May 29 [7 favorites]


Ex-teacher here.

Please advise how to work #19 with 35, 40, or sometimes even 55 students in a class?

Experience tells me those under the middle of the curve will move along--they are there to get their middlin' grade and move along. Those under the tails? Not much you can do for those....

There's a rather large "net" for those under the left tail. Those under the right are pretty much left alone. After all, "If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?" Etc.
posted by CrowGoat at 2:15 PM on May 29 [1 favorite]


Many nice idea for teaching English here. As he says, this is just the beginning. If you don't teach, note that he mentions you make a hundred different decisions in one class period. This is true. Many are subtle but could potentially make a difference in a student's academic trajectory. Others might lead to a termination of a teacher's career. In any case, as a teacher, you are on your own in the classroom. No adults to joke around with, as in most jobs. You are the only adult in the room, and every gesture and remark is closely scrutinized. Yes, you get used to it, but it is pretty intense. The 60-hour week that English teachers work is not easy, either, when you'd like to catch a movie but have to wait until the summer to see it on Netflix. (If you work in a ghetto school - and I've worked for both the impoverished and the privileged - you have fewer papers to grade, but the classroom experience can be emotionally difficult.)

One additional bit of advice: when grading papers, at least a few times a year, take the time to pull out great quotes from insightful writing. Type them up, with or without commentary, and hand out hard copies to the students. This shows them how smart they are and shows them how much you appreciate their work, their perceptiveness.

Also, to nitpick: I love Sylvia Plath, but "The Sow" is a pretty difficult poem. I'm guessing this guy taught it in his AP class. The AP folks say this poem yielded the lowest test results of any other poem in their 40+ years of the AP test.
posted by kozad at 4:06 PM on May 29 [3 favorites]


"Suicide is the leading cause of death for teenagers"

It's not -- motor vehicles are.
posted by alexei at 5:17 PM on May 29


There's a lot of people attacking Ruthless Bunny's comments and I would like to say to those people, respectfully, that you might not actually know exactly how hard it is to teach in really poor and challenging schools. It is really, REALLY hard. Yes, the idea of changing lives and teaching kids is great and these are important and you should do your very best for all kids, ever, no matter what, but some of the comments in here and sentiments like "teachers who give a shit range from merely potentially life-changing on one end to fucking heroic in situations like you describe" is really insulting to the many, many, many teachers who devote their time and effort and tears to kids in rough situations. Teachers who care are not some bizarre rare breed who only show up every now and then among the duds, there are a lot of really hard-working professionals and it's insulting when we continue to assume that the vast majority of teachers are bleary-eyed know-nothings who just want to get their paycheck and leave.

I'm not saying this guy is totally wrong on all counts, there's some good stuff in there, but we have a tendency to fetishize teachers, especially those in high-needs schools, as these miraculous, saint-like creatures taking on superhuman responsibilities and, while there are elements of this which are true, this fetishization is often used as an excuse not to provide adequate support because look at how BRAVE and DEDICATED these people are and how WONDERFUL and aren't we proud of their STRUGGLE. Yes, there are good points here, but I really wish we wouldn't attack Ruthless Bunny for making the excellent point that, in many schools, it's just not possible for teachers to implement these kinds of suggestions.

Working in high-needs schools, it can be really painful when people keep saying "look at all the good work that's being done" or "do what this teacher is doing" when you know that, as good as their ideas are, they're not really implementable in your school. It hurts when you work so, SO hard and yet can't do as well as other people just because the stuff they suggest isn't possible where you work.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 5:46 PM on May 29 [5 favorites]


Also, Jesus, frankly, a lot of these read as kind of sophomoric to me; there is very little practical advice here and a lot of feel-good crap about how to Care or a few specific authors to read or taking your responsibility seriously. Yes, of course you should take your responsibility as a teacher seriously, I agree, but there's really not much to this advice. "Remember your students are not data"? Great! If you ever think they are you should leave and the vast majority of teachers know this. That said, you can be FIRED VERY EASILY based on their data so I don't blame teachers for being conscious of this, I blame school districts.

This doesn't read like a list for teachers; teachers know all this. This reads like a list designed to impress people who don't teach with how wise and knowing teachers are.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 5:51 PM on May 29 [1 favorite]


There's a lot of people attacking Ruthless Bunny's comments and I would like to say to those people, respectfully, that you might not actually know exactly how hard it is to teach in really poor and challenging schools.

As pointed out over on the Green today, this is a logical fallacy known as Appeal to Accomplishment.

No one is saying anything about the comparative level of difficulty. The author of the linked piece goes out of his way to say things such as "I hesitate to call what follows 'advice,'" and calling it "55 Thoughts for English Teachers" (emphasis added) -- not "55 Things Every English Teacher Must Do Right Now."

My objection is that Ruthless Bunny (a fine person with whom I often agree and virtually always enjoy reading the commentary of), while specifically agreeing with him, still feels the need to attack his "life of privilege." He did very, very little to deserve that.
posted by Etrigan at 6:08 PM on May 29


He did very, very little to deserve that.

He's setting himself up on an expert in teaching when he doesn't actually know what teaching is like for many, many people and presuming to explain to them how they should do their jobs when possibly those who have been in these positions know better than he does.

Also, his faux-self-deprecating "when people learn at a book release or reading that I actually teach high school, as in kids, they look confused. I don’t blame them." and "I profoundly respect this vocation" rub me the wrong way. It's like the conversation about allies the other day, like when he's saying "the majority of my literary peers work in higher education or publishing" he's really saying "Yes, I'm a teacher, but I COULD be something else and I respect teachers SO MUCH as someone whose peers AREN'T TEACHERS but I AM a teacher because I have a VOCATION but please don't think I HAVE to be a teacher because my LITERARY PEERS aren't."

We might well end up disagreeing but I found him really patronizing and disrespectful.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 6:18 PM on May 29 [1 favorite]


you might not actually know exactly how hard it is to teach in really poor and challenging schools.

My mother taught at a high school for children who had been expelled from their former schools for violent behavior, and in addition to her daily lesson planning also had daily drills in restraining teenagers in the midst of violent outbreaks. I heard her talk about how amazing it was when she was able to reach a student who everyone else thought was unreacheable and I saw her weep the day that her aide got viciously beat up in the class. Her work was really fucking hard. I could never do it, and I am honestly humbled when I think about the teachers that do that work day in and day out. I'm not half the human they are.

sentiments like "teachers who give a shit range from merely potentially life-changing on one end to fucking heroic in situations like you describe" is really insulting to the many, many, many teachers who devote their time and effort and tears to kids in rough situations.

Wow. How is that?

I'm... really surprised to hear you say that about a comment specifically calling teachers life-changing heroes. Nothing I said limited that set at all. I would say that vanishingly few teachers don't give a shit. I meant it to be praising, not damning, and I'm sorry if I inadvertently phrased it in a way that made it seem like I was sniping.
posted by davidjmcgee at 6:41 PM on May 29 [2 favorites]


The context for a lot of discussion about teachers - but not much here at Metafilter - is very disturbing to those of us who have chosen teaching as a career. It is #1: I went to school, so I know what teachers do. This is like saying: I've watched movies, so I know how to make a movie…I know what a gaffer, a producer, and a music editor do. And #2: The scary backlash against those few civil servants, like teachers, who have a pension plan. For the vast majority of those who don't (because: shredded social contract), we are sorry it has turned out this way. But part of the reason we took this job was that despite the comparatively low pay (my five siblings all make twice what I make, at least), emotional and financial rewards were part of the bargain we struck.
posted by kozad at 7:02 PM on May 29 [2 favorites]


Class size-derails aside, I found this list really fascinating as a formerly uninterested high school English student. It gave me a good hour of internet wandering already, with many more suggestions to sample from. I wasn't ready for a lot of these writers in my youth.
posted by Violet Femme at 8:11 PM on May 29


I'm... really surprised to hear you say that about a comment specifically calling teachers life-changing heroes

Apologies if I was overly sensitive; the idea of "teachers who give a shit" naturally gives rise to the idea of "teachers who don't give a shit" and there seems to be a pervasive idea that there are a lot of these around with which I disagree. I also DO think that teachers can be "life-changing heroes" but I also think this sentiment can lead to us forgetting that they are also people with difficult jobs who need resources and support.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:51 PM on May 29 [1 favorite]


25. Joyce Carol Oates, Barbara Kingsolver, Octavia Butler.

There are few professions more confusing, or misrepresented, than high school teaching.

Junior high school teaching.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:20 PM on May 29 [3 favorites]


Mr. Jarboe, thanks for making me read Hawthorne and Melville, even though I hated it.
Mr. Morgan, thanks for making me write cliff notes. And entire set of cliff notes, but letting me choose the book (Childhood's End, Arthur C Clarke)
Mr. Boyd, Thanks for showing me there were more paths in life than just the ones my parents took.
Ms. Sandlin, thanks for flunking me in freshman year English. The lesson took a few more years to sink in, but I realized you started the teaching way back then.

To the dozens of other public school teachers that had to suffer me and my friends, I'm sorry our parents were jerks. I'm sorry so many of my friends have turned into those jerks.

Thanks.
posted by DigDoug at 6:11 AM on May 30 [2 favorites]


I am all about #17. if I don't get enough sleep, I don't have a prayer.
posted by illuminatus at 10:34 PM on May 30


6. Create a space for safe confusion.

Great thought for teachers and learners of all kinds.
posted by philipy at 9:24 AM on May 31 [1 favorite]


Oh as for the Standard Black English vs. Standard White English, one of my favorite essays ever is David Foster Wallace's review of Authority and American Usage, and it gets into his personal struggle with how to deal with SWE and SBE.

For the record, SWE stands for Standard Written English, not Standard White. It's what gets you ahead in most jobs in English speaking countries. Failing to teach it is a failure of the education system.
posted by IndigoJones at 11:18 AM on June 1


I found it interesting that in all of his "advice," he doesn't touch on school administration, faculty, or parents.

I've done a little bit of (substitute) teaching and more extensive high-school coaching. The kids and the classroom/playing field are the super-rewarding and fun part. The bureaucracy and other adults (especially parents, sorry) just made the job shitty for me. Throw in the lack of compensation, and it's hard to get on board. Maybe one day.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:38 AM on June 4


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