Essential Questions: Confessions of My Life as a Misguided Teacher

My seniors returned yesterday to our ELA methods seminar after an extended 2.5 months of their field placement, our program’s condensed version of what most people would call student teaching.

After teaching high school English for almost two decades, and now an additional 14 years as a teacher educator, I am even more aware of how challenging beginning to teach is.

One of the hurdles to entering the field of teaching is the mentoring paradox. As teacher candidates approach receiving their degrees and attaining teacher certification, they are likely to focus more on how they are taught as well as how their mentors teach.

Their university professors, I regret to say, often appear very polished and expert, but even their education professors fail to practice what they preach—endorsing an array of instructional and assessment practices that the professors do not implement in the course (thus, candidates have never experienced these practices as students, never seen what they look like).

As well, teacher candidates are routinely observing formally and informally experienced teachers, who seem far more casual and extemporaneous than they are; as well, these experienced teachers are the culmination of years of failures, fits and restarts that teacher candidates have no way of knowing, have no access to witnessing.

The same sorts of problems exists when candidates are placed with teachers in field experiences and student teaching. Those teachers of record present similar paradoxes of their experience and expertise—questionable pedagogy or classroom management practices appear effective to the novice teacher candidate, teacher planning and instructional implementation seem effortless.

These issues along with how my program compresses methods coursework (and thus restricts my own ability to model how to teach ELA) have been bothering me in the wake of more than two months of weekly observations of four teacher candidates in secondary ELA.

Since my candidates returned in the middle of National Poetry Month, poetry and the teaching of poetry have been much on my mind as well—leading to my starting our first seminar back with Nick Flynn’s “Forty-Seven Minutes.”

From that, I was planning to confront the problem of the literary technique hunt in ELA courses, especially those courses preparing students for high-stakes testing and not a love of language and literature.

As I waded into my opening comments and questions, the result became a confession of my own journey from a beginning teacher with good intentions who felt and believed one thing but his practices were resulting in the exact opposite of those beliefs.

My young teacher Self was also a young writer, including being a poet, but my young teacher Self strangled any life that was there in both the poetry we decimated or the students’ own affection for words, language, and text of any kind.

My young teacher Self was fully aware that formal schooling was doing something wrong—actually many things wrong—in the context of authentic responses to text and writing.

However, my initial strategy was bound by my missionary zeal (oh my god!) and the seductive allure of a technocratic grip on teaching and students.

Probably the very worst manifestation of this was my early efforts at teaching poetry.

For my candidates yesterday, I outlined my transitions from a teacher destroying a form I love to a teacher who taught poetry with fidelity. Allow me here to offer those briefly:

  • In the beginning, I painstakingly taught students my glorious “four characteristics of poetry”—using a wide range of wonderful (I thought) poems to model these four characteristics. This adventure in transmissional instruction was designed to culminate in students choosing a poem (my very progressive element!) we had not covered in class to write a formal essay illuminating the four characteristics of poetry I had “taught” them. Those essays were abysmal.
  • Failing to see the essential failure of this approach, I tried to resurrect my poetry unit by pairing the songs of the alternative group R.E.M. with the poems we examined in class (see the unit here and There’s Time to Teach: Making Poetry Sing with R.E.M.). And while this certainly infused the unit on poetry with some life, my commitment to transmissional and template pedagogy continued to result in fatal blows to any sort of fidelity to poetry, writing, or humanity.
  • The two key moments of transition for me and my practices (which during my doctoral program became more intentionally critical) included having my former English teacher and mentor Lynn Harrill guest teach Emily Dickinson and then my abandoning the four characteristics of poetry for an essential question: What makes poetry, poetry?
  • As I observed Lynn teach Dickinson, I was able to see, confront, and reject how my teaching practices were trapped in a false linear, sequential, and analytic view of learning. I demanded part-to-whole approaches to text, an approach grounded in an uncritical deference to New Criticism. Lynn, however, allowed and encouraged students to make the responses they felt were important—often huge and sweeping responses that were both cognitive and affective—and then he helped guide them to clarifying—and thus proving—how their responses were valid or not. In short, Lynn honored that most people have holistic responses, working whole-to-part, to make meaning.
  • Related to that epiphany, I simply had to admit that my four characteristics of poetry routine was inane—mostly manageable but quite inauthentic. Embracing the essential question approach to genre, form, and text in general allowed every lesson to be about investigating text and reaching conclusions grounded in those texts and not just reaching conclusions determined for all texts and all students by the teacher as authoritarian. The beauty of “What makes poetry, poetry?” is that with each poem, students and I must confess that it may be the purposeful composing of text in lines and stanzas (in contrast to forming text in sentences and paragraphs for prose), but even that is disrupted by prose poetry.

Teaching poetry with fidelity, then, is about the possibilities of poetry, of language. It is about those investigations and interrogations that we must not prescribe, unless we have resigned ourselves to formal schooling being about compliance.

My young teacher Self dedicated in my belief system (although not yet aware these existed) to social reconstruction and critical pedagogy was implementing practices that resulted in student compliance, student dread, and student apathy for the very stuff I myself embraced with joy, best represented by poetry.

My teacher candidates have never seen that foolish young man with good intentions, missionary zeal, and daily failures.

And despite what a monumental task becoming a teacher is, I am in awe each year of these candidates, already well past that early Me.

After her extended field experience, one candidate told me she has realized teachers really don’t teach anyone anything; she’s already reached an awareness of the paradoxes that took me a decade to confront.

As I continue to contemplate teaching poetry with fidelity, then, I am more cautious and intentional about teaching future teachers with fidelity as well: Are any of us practicing what we preach? Are we stepping back and observing the consequences of what we teach and holding that against what we believe?

Here, then, in teacher education we confront more essential questions.

3 comments

  1. Nancy Flanagan

    Brilliant. Thanks.

    One of my first positions, after I retired, was e-mentoring #TFA and other “savior corps” teachers working in eastern North Carolina, in a region that had once been tobacco plantations, and was still deeply rural and deeply poor. We were hired because these new, temporary teachers had zero–ZERO–plans, ideas, techniques and strategies for teaching, having done their 5-week “training” in urban centers with tiny groups of kids in summer school, a kind of “tutoring with packets” approach. The idea was that we would act as confidential, remote support, but we built a face to face meeting into their first weeks in the classroom.

    They were desperate for ideas about different ways to teach, and flailing, when we met them. What they wanted were sure-fire lesson plan templates, which they felt they could certainly follow and be successful. They were shocked that those templates hadn’t been given to them when they took the job–they were supposed to make up their own? Every day? Really? They were also still feeling, incredibly, that they were somehow “better” teachers than the 100% African-American veteran teachers in their schools, who had mostly gone to Eastern Carolina University then returned to their hometowns to teach.

    My partner consultant was a highly experienced African-American English teacher. She sat on a stool in the middle of one of their classrooms and gave a master class in ten ways to teach “foreshadowing”–one of those Things English Teachers Must Teach. The students were enthralled, attentive and engaged, because the game kept changing–strategy after strategy after strategy. Then, we pulled the newbie teachers into a conference and she said OK–there were a dozen things you could try, but NONE of them will “work” until you can make the kids laugh and trust you–there’s your real job.

    Traditionally trained student teachers learn (from coursework) and pick up (from observation) strategies and techniques and games and the skill of designing lesson plans (at least I hope they do)–all highly underrated competencies, by the way, harder than they look. But all young teachers have to develop that presence, that authenticity–and there’s no short cut. There never will be.

  2. educationrealist

    I just wrote a piece about being a mentor to a student teacher: https://educationrealist.wordpress.com/2016/04/17/teaching-oddness-4-student-teachers/

    I mentioned, too, that connecting with kids is an essential aspect, as is (for lack of a better word) stage presence. It starts there. It’s also been challenging for me to figure out how to advise him on building curriculum, given that I don’t use books much, and planning, since I don’t do much visible planning. But I reached out and found him other resources at my school.

  3. JGowell

    Your line, “one candidate told me she has realized teachers really don’t teach anyone anything,” closely resembles a line from one of the pieces of writing on education that has most influenced me. From “Carl R. Rogers and Non-Directive Teaching”: “Carl Rogers had expressed the belief almost from the outset of the course that no one can teach anyone else anything.”

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