What It’s Like
(Being a Teacher in the U.S. of A.)
In my fifth year of retirement, I’ve decided to look back at my career, my 42 years in the world of (primarily) public school education, and figure out what, if anything, it was all about. In the process of reflecting I decided to apply one of my old teaching techniques to myself. Having taught United States History (or prepared aspiring teachers to teach U.S. History) for the bulk of my career, I always started the course with a simple question: “How did we get here?” Rather than starting in 1492 (or earlier) and plodding through history chronologically, I believed it was important for us (me and the students) to start from where we were (be it 1973, ’83, ’93, 2003, or 2013) and figure out what had happened to deliver us to this place in the American Timeline. In the same way, as I decided to reflect on my years as a teacher, a simple question emerged: How did I get here? Not really a “simple” question. As I approach the 70th anniversary of my (one and only) birth-day, there are many factors that led to how I got here --- a retired public high school teacher living in Norwalk, Connecticut. Of those many factors, the first one that popped to mind was literature: what books were formative in creating who I thought was now, in the almost Spring of 2019?
The first book that flashed before me was James Herndon’s 1971 How to Survive in Your Native Land --- a wonderful tome about what it’s like to be a teacher in America (and probably only read by teachers). For some reason I bought a hardcover edition of the book in the Spring of my Senior year at Yale (1971), anticipating that I might pursue a career in teaching. I have no idea how I even knew about the book, but I consumed it in the Spring of 1971 and, once I actually became a teacher, I read it every August (for about 10 years) before returning to the classroom in the fall. When I was preparing people to become teachers, I either assigned the book to my class or gave copies to those students I thought would most benefit from it. In 1985 Herndon published Notes from a Schoolteacher and, after reading it, came to consider it How to Survive, Part Two.
So, in mid-February 2019, I ambled over to our bookshelf and pulled out both volumes and began re-reading them to see if, indeed, they were as formative as I believed. They were . . . and they are still inspiring. So much so that they’ve led to a notion that I’d like to share what I think I learned about teaching/learning over 42 years --- with direct references to the connection between Herndon’s writing and my practice.
First Things First
For those who have taught public high school here in the United States there are several “givens.” Topping that list are the realities that #1. – you will not make a lot of money, and #2 – you will not get much respect. As we all know, everyone has gone to school and, therefore, believes they know what teaching is: you stand at the front of the room (with the big desk!) and talk about the subject you are assigned to teach. In the broadest sense that may be true, but I would contend that the reason most people remember so little about their academic high school life is because that model of teaching is grossly ineffective. Indeed, if you ask most folks what they really remember about high school the conversation will almost immediately discuss the social (friends, proms, etc.) or the athletic (sports!) or the dramatic/musical (shows!). There will be occasional mention of a special teacher but that often has to do with a personality and, in fact, little is remembered about what you actually learned from that teacher. So, getting back to the point, most people, by virtue of having attended a high school (be it public, private, parochial, charter, whatever) people believe they know what teaching is --- and, therefore, can understand (and condone) why teachers are not well-paid or respected.
To try to dispel these notions I would begin by pointing out that #1 – teaching is not “telling” and, in fact, good teachers inspire, compel, and, most significantly, engage their students. As Ted Sizer, a man who should be on the Mt. Rushmore of Teaching (along with Dewey, Francis W. Parker, Rousseau, and Foucault), noted in his 1984 book Horace’s Compromise, students must learn “to use their minds well.” Few adults live in a world where rote memorization and multiple-choice tests are “usual” (the only adults who do, in fact, are teachers) so it becomes problematic, if we examine our educational system closely, why we believe so much of our system --- even in 2019 --- relies on such antiquated notions! And here’s where going back and reading Herndon struck a most responsive chord for me. Some of my most deeply held tenets about teaching/learning were formulated in the Spring of 1971 when I read How to Survive --- even if I didn’t realize it at the time.
Two important realities Herndon drummed into my embryonic teacher brain were these: school is compulsory and institutions adapt to change, without really altering what they do and how they do it. In the middle of How to Survive, Herndon has a section called “Explanatory Notes” (pages 88 to 121) and the chapters are numbered. While they are all informative (and remain so, almost 50 years later!) “Explanatory Note #2 – Jail” puts compulsory education in clear perspective. Using the term “jail” as a substitute for “juvenile detention,” Herndon notes:
If kids in America do not go to school, they can be put in jail. If they are
tardy a certain number of times, they may go to jail. If they cut enough,
they go to jail. If their parents do not see that they go to school, the parents
may be judged unfit and the kids go to jail. You go to jail. All of the talk
about motivation or inspiring kids to learn or innovative courses which are
relevant is horseshit. It is horseshit because there is no way to know if
students really are interested or not. No matter how bad the school is,
it is better than jail . . . As long as you can threaten people, you can’t tell
whether or not they really want to do what you are proposing they will
do . . . All you can tell is, they’d rather come to your class than go to jail.
Now that is harsh, and a bit exaggerated, but it does sum up a certain reality of public schooling --- kids have to be there, like it or not. And you, as a teacher, if you’re trying to be a good teacher (and not simply a “deliverer of information”) have to face that reality. Combine that with what the kids “expect” when they show up (that you will stand there, near the big desk, and “deliver” a subject to them) and it’s a dilemma and a challenge. As Herndon had noted earlier: “I could have brooded about the gulf between something called learning and something called achieving in school, about the teacher as authority or entertainer or provider of work --- about the razor’s edge you must walk between the expectation of the kids (one to which they cling firmly, even though they may despise it) about what school is and your own conviction that most if that is worthless at best.” (p. 67) But one of your goals is, as he says, to live “easily in the classroom.” So, before I ever set foot in a classroom, these ideas were roiling around in my brain, trying to imagine what it would take for me to become a really good teacher.
Next: School Change/School Reform