All of a sudden, I have been teaching public school English for a decade. Why am I surprised? I never thought I would be a high school teacher. I never took education courses. Only now am I beginning to reconcile my different professional selves: teacher, adjunct professor, and writer.
For years I avoided writing about my full-time profession. From 7:20 to 2:21 each day, I teach literature and creative writing courses at a large public high school in New Jersey. The day stretches much longer than that, but those are my salaried hours. I love kids, and I love books, and I love writing.
I didn’t avoid writing about teaching because I was ashamed of my profession, though I am aware that save for a handful of other teacher-writers scattered around the country, the majority of my literary peers work in higher education or publishing. They are tenured professors and adjuncts, editors and freelancers. 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.
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.
You need to love words. You don’t need to love a certain type of book or a particular writer, but you need to love letters and phrases and the possibilities of language. You will spend most of your days dealing with words, and students can sense if words do not bring you joy.
Students can sense a lot of things.
Do not confuse reading passions with reading biases. Be aware and upfront about your biases and work to decrease them. Your passions are healthy, as long as you help students understand why certain words stir you. Love Gerard Manley Hopkins? Telling them so won’t do a thing. Blow-up “Pied Beauty” on an 11 X 17 page and show them how a comma can change a moment, turn a breath.
Speaking of poetry: they will hate the idea of it, but they already love and live the soul of it. Condensed narratives and emotions tucked in abstractions? Those are their existences. Give them “Scary, No Scary” by Zachary Schomburg, and see what happens.
“Mostly I want my poems to generate their own energy through confusion. I want my poems to confuse the reader. Not a confusion in a cognitive or narrative sense, but in an emotional sense.” — Zachary Schomburg
Create a space for safe confusion.
Teach Sylvia Plath, but help your students understand that she is more than how she passed from this world. Teach “Blackberrying,” teach “Pheasant,” and, most of all, teach “Sow,” that beautiful and strange poem about a mythical pig hidden by her breeder.
Show them that poetry is about being surprised.
Remember why you are doing this.
Your students are not data.
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.
Teach them writers who look and sound nothing like them, so that they can recognize what we share.
Politicians will misrepresent you. Vote.
Teachers used to be activists. There is a difference between being an activist within your classroom — which is not your role — and being an activist for your profession and your students.
Know what opinions are appropriate to express, and which are not. Respect your students enough to never cross that line.
Students have a reason for everything they do.
You need to be awake. Sleep is essential. Hoard your hours of sleep.
You will make a hundred decisions within a single class period.
You need to somehow give your attention to each individual student without dividing that attention.
Thomas Pynchon is worth teaching. Often confusion breeds later curiosity.
Think about the worst teacher you ever had. Recognize that he or she was probably not as bad as you thought. Think about that teacher’s classroom, students, situation. Were you part of the problem? How would you have helped yourself?
Write. Talk about your writing. Show them your drafts, your edits. Write along with them.
Trade robotic peer editing for writing workshops. Follow the undergraduate model but manipulate it for the needs of your students. Establish clear guidelines and model them during a mock workshop of your own work. Show them that you can be vulnerable, that you can accept criticism.
Never ask students to complete an assignment that you are unable to complete.
You will often have young women in class who love to write, and who outnumber the men, and yet these young women will stop writing. Teach them to keep writing. Show them their words matter. Introduce them to Mary Shelley, Marilynne Robinson, Jayne Anne Phillips, Toni Morrison, Tayari Jones, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Alice Elliott Dark, Virginia Woolf, Stacey D’Erasmo, Roxane Gay, Jamie Quatro, Megan Mayhew Bergman, Mary Karr, Susan Sontag, Natalie Diaz, Emily Dickinson, Kate Chopin, Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, Willa Cather, Joan Didion, Donna Tartt, and, please, Flannery O’Connor.
Do not try to sanitize Flannery. Let her live on the page.
Students want to know about you. Sometimes their personal questions are a clever distraction. Be more mystery than memoir, but never be cold.
If a student wants to engage in small talk at the start of class, they probably have not completed their assignment, and are hoping for some temporary graces. But don’t assume that.
Give them the benefit of the doubt until they will no longer benefit from it.
Avoid instructing your students to use dialogue tags in fiction other than “said.”
Cut their adverbs, but show them how, in the right hands, those words can be powerful.
“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” — “The Dead” by James Joyce.
You may be the only person who will ever read their sonnets, or their prose poems, or their dystopian novellas. Don’t take that privilege lightly.
Teach writing from literary magazines. Encourage your students to read those magazines. If a student comes to class with tomes of speculative fiction, send them to Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons. Show them how literature is built from these little magazines on up, and how they can help maintain the foundation.
Give students the confidence to believe that they might publish their work, but teach them the humility necessary to withstand rejection.
Create meticulous plans for each day.
But be alive in the classroom.
“Through my years of teaching, I learned to walk into a classroom wondering what I would say, rather than knowing what I would say. Then I learned by hearing myself speak; the source of my speaking was our mysterious harmony with truths we know, though very often our knowledge of them is hidden from us. Now, as a retired teacher, I mistrust all prepared statements by anyone, and by me.” — Andre Dubus
Social media and cell phones exist, and neither is going anywhere. Help students use both responsibly.
Teaching is performance, but not the performance of theater; there needs to be genuine interaction. They can tell if you are putting on a show.
Each course is a different world. Each class period is a different world.
There is an art to asking questions. There is a way to ask questions that will only produce answers that you want to hear.
Wait after asking a question. Help show them what silence can reveal.
Math is language. Physics is language. Language is math. Language is physics.
You are there to teach them, not punish them. They need your help.
Read aloud. Every day.
Don’t be so dramatic about drama. Barebones in-class productions can be beautiful.
Of course, read Shakespeare, but also read Ionesco, Beckett, and Shepard.
For the right group of students, No Exit can be perfect.
Teach them how to closely read a text. Not only for the skill, but for the experience of spending time with words. Show them the worth of contemplation.
Be pragmatic and idealistic. If you are too much of one, the students will catch you.
This is not supposed to be easy.
Remember that you, also, are not data.
One day you will no longer be in the classroom. You will be standing in a garden or sitting in front of a television or holding the hand of a grandchild or pulling a plate from a dishwasher, and you will remember those rows and some of the faces. Try to remember none of the distractions; not the shortsighted pedagogical fads or the boorish politicians. Remember the students who thanked you. Trust that you helped the ones who did not.
For some students, you are their only light.