Memos from the Middle

Smack-Dab in the Middle of Living

Reading, Writing, and Reality: Notes to a New English Teacher

If you’re a narcissistic windbag, become a teacher.  No other job allows you the opportunity to display your knowledge quite like educating our youth does.  In fact, if you’re really pretentious, you could test students weekly, or even daily, to make sure that they’re listening to every precious word you say.  Being a college professor is the best, though, because you won’t have to worry about those pesky collaborative teaching and learning projects forced down the throats of elementary and high school teachers; you could just get up in front of the class and lecture until the time is up, but that takes way too much schooling. You want to land at that big desk centered perfectly in front of thirty smaller ones as soon as possible. You want to impart all the wisdom you have acquired, have someone hang on breathlessly as you pontificate, and help change the life of at least one that you encounter during your thirty-four year reign. That’s why you became a teacher, right?

But what happens to you, the egomaniac, when you realize that teaching is more about what the administration and the school board “can’t” do rather than what they are willing to help you do to educate its kids? How can you function successfully knowing that at any given moment someone with a clipboard can barge into the room, copiously taking notes about the absence of visible daily objectives, lesson plans, and graded student work posted on the mint green walls?  Why weren’t you told that most days you will be an overworked yet underpaid babysitter, busting up fights, repeating directions, and calling parents in a well-meaning yet futile effort to motivate students?

In reality, teaching won’t be anything you imaged it would be.  The glamorous, idyllic life they taught you about in your methods courses will seem more like 1950s sitcoms than any real-life teaching situation you will encounter. After all, that wonderful, age-appropriate novel may have inspired someone somewhere, but the $13.50 it costs prevents your average student from ever reading it–not to mention the fact that only a quarter of your students will ever enter, let alone check out a book from, the library this school year.  Don’t even think about begging your principal; he’ll think the money is better spent on new football uniforms for a failing team.  Buying them yourself means possibly missing a mortgage payment and accepting the verity that a third will be returned in good condition, another third will have missing covers and/or pages, and the last third will be lost or “stolen.” Once again, you’ll be stuck teaching The Lord of the Flies to a bunch of minority urbanites with as much in common with the characters in the novel as mosquitoes and polar bears.

Somehow, though, you’ll make it work. Those British lads stuck alone on the island will be equated to the gang culture in Chicago. Students will explore the motifs of the novel through an intensely personal lens where they examine their own experiences with and beliefs about morality, savagery, order, and government. Students will bring in raps and discuss and analyze how the lyricists assess similar themes. You will supplement with non-fiction pieces, namely articles and essays, which will provide a contemporary, realistic examination of the same topics. Every now and then, you will sprinkle in a poem linked thematically or symbolically to the book. Students will write in a variety of genres as they navigate the novel, providing insight into the content and the reality of their own existences while simultaneously showing their level of “mastery” with the grammatical and syntactical concepts you’ve taught. They will connect with and attempt to inform you about their intellectual and emotional truths as they proceed through the unit. In short, you will do your job, and the students will do theirs because you have established a culture of learning, regardless of outside obstacles, in your classroom.

The seeming ineptitude, callousness, and disregard of students and learning, teachers and education some of your peers, school administrators, and district mandators possess will not deter you from your goal of helping students realize and live their fullest potential. You will once again understand that given the right motivation, age-appropriateness, nurturing, firmness, balance, and fun, virtually any text can be used to help students learn skills and express themselves meaningfully.

You become more aware with each passing day that the very act of trying to be a good teacher necessarily castrates the narcissism youth endows. It’s not about you, what you want, or how you look. The bottom line is that the truly great, impactful teachers are the ones who move single-mindedly toward one end: getting students prepared for the realities of life beyond K-12. Yes, you may cry, beg, and fight (many a good teacher has pushed the boundaries of professionalism with a pompous, uninformed superior) shamelessly for a cause or two, but it won’t be for the aggrandizement of your own ego. Some may extol you and your methods, but you know that their acknowledgement is not necessarily a willingness to support, nor will it necessarily be there tomorrow when you push for something they don’t really understand or care about. Others may secretly (or not so secretly) pray for the allusive boulder to land squarely on you and your ideas to stamp out any signs of revolution (or logic), but you are resilient and dedicated. You won’t be easily silenced. Your work ethic, results, and tact will carry you through even if your voice is muffled in a throng of critics.

You will comprehend with each passing bell that you are not an expert. Every day presents a new challenge, a potential victory that will further improve who you are and what you do. Your dismay with second period not making the same gains as first period will send you into a reflective cycle of reimagining, re-teaching, re-motivating, and reassessing to achieve positive gains. You will be and do everything contrary to your initial self-serving motivation. You will check your ego at the door of adulthood and spring forth into the murky, yet rewarding, work as a teacher.

If not, you will attempt your second career. Dancing is a great option for the eternal narcissist.

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7 thoughts on “Reading, Writing, and Reality: Notes to a New English Teacher

  1. Anonymous on said:

    Every Sunday, a teacher will spend hours preparing for the week ahead (Friday is for breathing a sigh of relief that the week went at least OK and Saturday is for trying to do all the things around the home, trying to catch up on the chores). Come Monday morning, the actor/actress is on stage for the bored, tired, unattentive audience, working this show called education. The message of the daily stage show is important, but the reception is not always clear. A teacher is an entertainer, a moderator, a disciplinarian, a reader of papers, a searcher for what is deep inside those students sitting in class.

    • Today is Sunday, and I am taking a much needed break from the 10 hours I have already put into planning for the upcoming week. I can’t just wing-it, even though sometimes I wish I could. I still have another class to plan for and papers to grade. I’ll be up for the long haul. Wish me luck!

  2. Anonymous on said:

    Thanks for giving a voice to teachers!

  3. LarBro1 on said:

    Wow! This sounds like soooo much fun! Having an audience, moving the minds of others, and creating an atmosphere conducive to the self-fulfillment of success. Where do I sign up? Really? I’ve always loved dance! LOL

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