jimvanpelt (jimvanpelt) wrote,

Teachers: the First of Four Summative Essays on Teaching

I’ve worked with a handful of terrible teachers over the years.  Probably the worst was a teacher who when he neared retirement gave up on teaching altogether.  This was the time when we ordered films we were going to show for the week from the district media office. They’d come in their big silver cans in canvas bags on Monday.  This teacher would go to the delivery room and sort through which films other teachers were using that week that he could show.

Once, he showed FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF for three weeks straight in all of his classes.  He was so bad that in his last year, the administration assigned him only study halls.  He had a master’s degree and over thirty years in the classroom, so he was one of the highest paid teachers in the building, and he was just supervising study halls.

By that last year, he’d piled up so many unused substitute days that he called in sick on the first teaching day in January, and then called in sick for the rest of the year.

There’s a really long story about how a good system to protect teachers from administrative whims ended up protecting this awful teacher long enough that he could end his teaching career that way.

He wasn’t the only bad teacher I worked with, but I bring him up because he was so rare.  I’ve seen so many hard-working, caring teachers over my time that I remember the bad ones vividly.  They stand out.

Overall, my experience with teachers highlighted my career, and I so, so underutilized the opportunity I had to learn from the teachers around me.

A Facebook friend, a former administrator, said that he was interesting in hearing my list of things that can improve education without having to move a mountain.  He called them “easy wins.”

An easy win for me would have been to spend even more time in other teachers’ classrooms.  I know amazing stuff must be going on there, but I was so wrapped up in my own room that I hardly ever observed other teachers teaching.  In the same way, I didn’t invite other teachers in to watch me.  What I wished I had more of was the kind of thing I get from a writers’ workshop.  In a writers’ workshop, a group of peers gets together to review each other’s work. The idea is that we’re too close to our own writing to see what is going on.  We need an outside set of ideas to see where we’re not clear, where we misstep, where we flat out miss the boat.  In my teaching utopia, teachers would act like a workshop.  There would be a lot of observing and a lot of commenting.

Some people criticize writing workshops because they say they can be stifling.  A writer might become too aware of the workshop’s tendencies and start bending the writing to avoid criticism and attract praise, and thereby squelch the writer’s voice.  I think that’s a legitimate concern, but that’s also a bad workshop.

In a good workshop, the writers are all fans of each other’s work. They want the writers’ stories to succeed on their own terms.  They get what the writer is trying to do, and they offer their observations with that goal in mind.  That’s a cool workshop. I think that would be a cool teaching atmosphere too.  I’ve always liked to coach and to be coached.  I wish I’d done more of it with other teachers.

Luckily, I did learn from extraordinary teachers, and what I learned is there are numerous ways to do this job well.  Some of the first teachers I worked with blew me away with their competence: Patty Halloway, who could run small groups and make them shine; Linda Cates, the professional’s professional, who not only dressed more businesslike than anyone I knew, but whose lessons were monuments of planning and clarity; Sandra Haulman, whose intelligence, intensity and passion lit classrooms on fire, and a host of others.  My list of great, influential teachers is long.

I’m working with some of my favorite teachers now.  Thank you, FMHS English Department for being the eccentric, dedicated group you are.

There’s also a small group of teachers I admired because they knew when to quit.  Occasionally, what some teachers want to do, what they know to do is right, runs afoul of circumstances.  I know several teachers who could not work in the current environment.  The constraints of changing curriculum, an emphasis on testing, the vagaries of administration were too much for them.  They walked away from teaching because they didn’t feel like they could do the job they expected of themselves.

I didn’t always agree with them, but I think that anyone who cares enough about doing the job right that they quit is the kind of teacher you want to hang onto.

There’s a great scene in a Nick Nolte film called TEACHERS. An inmate of an insane asylum escapes, and through a series of unlikely events, becomes a long-term sub in a social studies class.  The thing is, in his insanity, he’s brilliant.  He comes to class dressed as historical figures. He makes the kids reenact historical moments.  His approach wakes kids up, gets them involved, leaves them talking about what they learned.  He was awesome!

Of course, it couldn’t last.  The asylum catches up to him.  He’s teaching his class about the Battle of the Little Bighorn dressed as George Armstrong Custer.  The doctors rush in and grab him.  Stunned, the class watches him being lead out.  Custer straightens in their grip.  He says something like, “Unhand me.  Don’t you know who I am?”

We all wait.  He’s wearing buckskin, a 7th Calvary jacket, a blond wig.  He says, “I’m a teacher.”

God, I love that moment.

Tags: teaching, teaching life
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