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I floss daily, brush after every meal, and trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries.

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Friday, June 01, 2007

Why I Love Teaching

Okay, be careful: I am about to geek out. Lisa of Lucky, Lucky Star has asked me the following questions: What is your favorite part of teaching English? Which particular emphasis is the most fun to teach? If reading a nineteenth-century novel is your idea of hell, or you think poetry is a load of crap, then maybe you’d best skip this post. If not, read on…

I really love my job. I have more than once been talking to someone who is considering going into teaching, and found myself waxing downright rhapsodic about the wonders of teaching and how fulfilling it is. And later I always think, “Wait, but I’m talking about me. Would that person love teaching? Hm…” I don’t know. It’s not for everyone, but I love my job.

I sometimes joke with my students that I became a teacher when someone came up to me and said “Psst! Do you want to get paid to talk?” I do love to talk, and teaching gives me plenty of opportunity to do that, not to mention a captive audience. But I get paid to listen as well, which I also enjoy. I like my students. I like kids in the later stages of high school, when they are developed enough to respond complexly to art, literature, and history, to have sustained original ideas, but young enough to be fairly open to new ideas, to be excited about learning for its own sake, yet still to have that spark that makes them want to keep things fun and funny. My students are, on the whole, genuinely funny – we laugh a lot in class. And I can’t deny that my particular brand of humor (call it oddball, call it puerile) seems to strike a note with this age of kid.

Of course, I don’t just love teaching: I love teaching English. I have speculated that I would make a good math teacher, at least for relatively low level math classes, because math has always been hard for me, so I would presumably be able to help explain it to kids who weren’t getting it (once I actually figured it out myself, that is). But I would be miserable teaching math. I love talking about the literature I most adore and why it’s surprising, poignant, hilarious, complex, confounding, or powerful. I even enjoy talking about literature I don’t like, and why it doesn’t do it for me. I’m fascinated by history, and find great satisfaction in fleshing out how a particular text reflects a historical moment or how its historical context illuminates aspects of the text. I’m not fully versed enough in history to actually teach it, but my fascination with the mucky march of human life and culture through the ages fuels my interest in literature, and it certainly makes me a better English teacher.

I’m lucky to teach at a school where many of my students dig literature a lot and are up for a good discussion of an interesting novel or a compelling poem. But I also teach and have taught plenty of students who aren’t initially that into reading, and when I can spark those students’ interest in any work of literature, that’s even more exciting than exploring the joys of Jane Austen’ Persuasion with a group of students who already love Pride and Prejudice. Sometimes teaching the most difficult works is the most rewarding. Teaching Romeo and Juliet to eighth graders in LA who found Shakespeare’s language to be as confounding as a foreign tongue and begged to be allowed to read an “easier version” of the play, I was gratified beyond words when, by the end of the play, they were all reading scenes aloud not only with understanding but with passion. They got comfortable with the unfamiliar sentences structures and strange idioms, and came to discover a work of exquisite art that took seriously the fervor and heartbreak of young lovers no older than themselves. I had a similar experience a couple of years ago when, on the advice of a bold fellow educator (my dear Old Man), I introduced Paradise Lost to my gifted sophomores. At first they groaned under the weight of Milton’s complex sentences and lofty allusions. But still they got the story, and then they got into the dense power of the poetry, and we had incredible discussions about free will, the allure of the Satanic hero, the complex gender dynamic between Adam and Eve, and the question of whether any of us would really want to live in perfect, placid Eden.

Teaching writing is harder than teaching literature. It’s more product-oriented, less exploratory. And it’s made more difficult by the fact that it’s subjective, shifting, dependent on context. I’ve enjoyed teaching writing more since I began to be honest with my students about these facts. Yes, they are figuring out how to write for a particular audience, and that audience will likely change somewhat (or even a whole lot) in another writing class, and change more when they need to write in a real context, for an actual audience. Sure, I can give them some basic rules about writing. But the first rule about writing, for me, is that a really skilled writer who is in command of her craft can break any writing rule you throw at her and still create an effective and elegant work of communication (in fact probably more effective and elegant than the work of the schleps who are dutifully following the rules and thus churning out the expected rather than the breathtaking).

One of the things I like best about teaching English is how much I learn, all the time. I learn new things when I read a new book (or reread an old book) that I’m preparing to teach and research the period, the biography of the author, or some cultural movement or moment that’s pertinent to the text. But I also learn a lot from my students. I regularly see some new aspect of a novel I’ve read a half a dozen times, thanks to a keen observation made by a student reading it for the first time. I often find my eyes opening to a reading of a poem that I’d never considered, a poem I’ve turned over many times on my own and with students. It’s rare that a student’s novel reading of a familiar poem becomes my primary reading, but it may snuggle in there beside my favored interpretation, lending greater resonance to my other ways of seeing the poem. I often tell my students that, for me, a poem in which I find one simple, straightforward meaning is rarely a poem I want to return to again and again. But those sneaky, slippery, shifting poems I do want to visit and revisit seem to have plenty of room for new and various readings, and I welcome them, when the details of the poem seem to accommodate them.

So, that’s a relatively short answer to the question of what I most enjoy about being an English teacher. On a different day, I’m sure I’d answer it a different way. But I would always say “I love it because…” And I’d always want to note how lucky I feel that there has never been a day in my decade and a half teaching career that I’ve felt time passing at work. The day flies by, every day. And the year flies by. And then it’s summer.

And, hey look! It’s summer. I can’t deny that summers off are another thing I love about teaching. But that’s another post for another day.


Blogger Orange said...

Dang, you're eloquent. And wow, do you love teaching! You should sneak that essay into the school paper next year.

10:17 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

It was a blessed day indeed when you took the leap from commenter to full-fledged blogger!

That was just the answer I was looking for! To feel your passion and clarity on this subject is a great moment for me, so thank you--thank you!

9:03 AM  

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