The Classroom

I never thought that teaching would feel like Freddy Krueger.

By which I mean: It’s infecting even my dreams!


One of my students writing a college application essay about wanting to be a teacher (yes, I have one) used this quote:

Who dares to teach must never cease to learn.

— John Cotton Dana

It’s so great that to see my motto so widely accepted.

I can’t say I’m always great under pressure, but every so often, I do something in the moment when I am feeling the stress and weight of a difficult class, and it works beautifully. When it does, I just want to share.


I went into this school day thinking that I needed to come down hard on my juniors, that I needed to demonstrate that I am serious about getting things done and will do what it takes to make that happen. Turns out that today wasn’t the day for it.

I decided today that I would begin my junior classes with some introductory writing intended to prime the pump (so to speak) for discussion. In my earlier section, one of my students interrupted me to ask a question…



This past week has been crazy for me, but I can say that I’ve completed 5 of 180 days for this school year. I don’t know if I have any more statements of knowledge to make – actually, no, that’s a lie; I do know, but they are largely inconsequential compared to the ones I’ve already made. My juniors are going to be my difficult classes, my seniors and novel elective the easiest, with the sophomores falling somewhere in between. The juniors are made difficult by a few choice students who are so far finding lots of ways to turn productive discussions into useless diversions, and I’m struggling to keep them on task. I will have to pull my “you have a lot of work to do to prepare for the PSAE/ACT” card more for them, although I know that at least one student won’t care.

So far, I’ve passed out syllabi and texts, discussed a few major projects, given a pre-assessment in all but one class (which I have not yet been able to look at in depth), and had some relatively minor discussions about issues that will get each class thinking about the material at hand. I’ve lost a student, had some switching happening, and got a little bit exasperated with a few others.

I wish I could fairly assess how I’m doing, but I think it’s too soon. I don’t feel like I’m failing yet, which is a good sign, and everything went according to plan for the most part this week. I still have a lot of planning to do for this week, and I’m slightly at a loss for what to do with my autoethnography assignment which I will be teaching to the seniors this week.

I also wish I had something more to say that would seem relevant to other people and not just like I’m blathering on about what’s happening to me as a first-year teacher.

Okay, I will say this: I love the people I work with. Our principal is great for a number of reasons, not the least of which is her unequivocable support for her teachers and her personable nature with students (which of course providing very firm boundaries). And the teachers I work with are equally supportive and just downright fun people – I’ve spent a fair amount of time getting to talk with them over lunches, in the hallways after school, and in other contexts as well. I knew the atmosphere at this tiny little school felt right to me, and I know it is.

It really makes me want to succeed even more – because then I can stay.

I’ll try to remember that as I finish preparing for the week ahead. There are students to teach and a great job to keep!

I was asked how much time I have left the company I’m currently working for by a VP today, and I mentioned that it was only two weeks now. Without much enthusiasm, he asked me if I was excited, and at the risk of actually seeming excited to leave, I gave him a mixed response: I have a lot of work left to do. (Which is true.) I wish I could have been more emphatic, but I didn’t want to seem eager to leave the world of business for the world of education.

But I am.

It would be a lie to say that I’m not a little scared of the fate that awaits me in my new school, in my own classroom, with all of the pressure on me (experience or not). It’s intimidating, and I know I have a lot of work to do before I’ll feel more at ease about everything. And I do feel good about knowing what I’m doing at what I do now, I admit.

Even so, though, there is something about this role I’m taking on, this vocation that I am finally pursuing, that excites me. (Certainly it’s not the money – although that is a step up for me.) I get to go from a job where I help people with things that improve temporary situations, where my effect is minimal and superficial, to one where – if I play my cards right – I can make impressions on individuals that will hopefully leave them better people in the process…and where I can become a better individual as well.

It is easier to make a transition like this when there is hope ahead – even where there is also uncertainty. For now, I can deal with both.

Part of what’s hard (especially in a struggling job market) about being a recent college graduate heading into the world of education is the lack of that all-important “E” word: experience. Teaching, like few other jobs I know (medicine being one that comes immediately to mind), is a job where comparatively little of the theory that you learn will make you competent – it is really one of those jobs that you learn how to do largely by doing it (although much can be learned by the experiences we have being taught and by watching or reading about others’ pedagogical ideas). Consequently, this is why internship experiences are absolutely vital to education programs, giving education majors the opportunity to practice the ideas they learn in philosophy and pedagogy courses.

First-year teachers may have some experience, but by definition, they – we, I need to add – are not as qualified in that department as our colleagues who have been on the front lines for years and have paid their dues (if I might mix my metaphors a bit) as new teachers. The only way to gain experience as a teacher is to teach when you’re relatively inexperienced and hope that you have the tenacity, patience, and a support system (including a mentor or mentors, hopefully) that will see you through the beginning years of your educational career.

What I think we first-year teachers tend to overlook are the skills we bring to the classroom that are relevant but don’t come from curricular studies in pedagogy or a specific content area. As a teacher of literature, I always try to remember that part of how students – anyone, really – respond to literature depends on what they bring to the table as a person, what experiences they have to build on. I think this idea that people are in part a product of what they have experienced is an important consideration for any teacher.

Get past the stuff that is expected: educational philosophy, developmental psych, methods courses, disciplinary and interdisciplinary training. What do you bring to teaching not just as a teacher but as a person?


I’ve thought quite a bit about what teaching is going to be like as a first-year teacher, finally freed from the proverbial shackles – okay, that’s a little bit hyperbolic – of another teacher’s strictures and style. (Of course, the flip side of that is that the teachers you work with generally have worked to get those sorts of things lined out and know to a degree what does and doesn’t work.)

I want to invite more seasoned teachers to comment on their own first-year experiences, but let me hypothesize for a moment about what I think I need to keep at the forefront of my preparation for this year.


Here’s another open question for educators of any sort, but especially those who specialize in English language arts and/or library science, as well as administrators (if I have any readers who are admins):

I set up my classroom library a few weeks ago – which, unfortunately, looks so meager compared to the shelf I have for books – with a number of my own personal books (and a few that were left in the classroom from previous teachers), except for one book of mine: The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. When I got this book used from the university bookstore for a class I took on adolescent lit, it already had a section of about 30 pages – and the first 30 pages or so, to boot – that had come unglued from the binding and fell out. I still have the section with the rest of the bound book, but it obviously needs repair. (Fortunately, I have an old friend who just got her masters in library science, and I know that she can help with rebinding.)

I was also talking with my wife about the possibility of having my seniors read a novel, except that I don’t have any class sets of a “world lit” book (other than a couple of canonical British novels, but I would like a little more diversity than that). I mentioned that I’ve heard great things about Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (as well as A Thousand Splendid Suns) but that there was some controversy about the fact that it depicts a boy being raped. A discussion then ensued about being careful about content, and I remarked that Perks has a rape scene in it as well and covers some mature topics.

So the question I’m asking is this: How far should a teacher, especially a new teacher without tenure, go to limit the availability of books in their own classroom library? (I’m not even raising the question of required material at this point, just what students could have access to in the classroom either for personal reading or for reading assignments where students can choose what they read.) I’m of the mind that all material should be age-appropriate – and for that reason, I decided to leave David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day and Chuck Palahnuik’s Stranger Than Fiction at home for material that is too mature for high schoolers – but I think that students should have some freedom to read about things they’re interested in. I even think that parents should probably have the right to limit their children’s access to certain things if they have some sort of moral/religious conviction against it. (Note that I don’t find that prohibiting students from doing something, especially reading some certain type of literature, is productive at all – in fact, it will probably just make them want to read it more.)

I know of at least a handful of books in my classroom library that would fit this: Perks, John Green’s Looking for Alaska and possibly even his An Abundance of Katherines (there is a very small amount of sexual conduct involved, although it’s never graphic), and Aidan Chambers’ Postcards from No Man’s Land (which has several gay characters and a moment of confused transgenderism). The thing is, though, that I don’t want to get rid of any of these books – none of them are inappropriate for high school students (and in fact, all are intended for high school students and feature high school age characters). They are all great books (although I confess I’m not a huge fan of Perks – I find it tedious at points) that I think students would enjoy and be interested by. And even some of the classics like The Catcher in the Rye end up being challenged – where do you draw the line? Sexual references? (As if high schoolers don’t get that.) Drugs? Alcohol? (Yeah, high schoolers never know anyone who does drugs or abuses alcohol.) GLBT issues? (Or do we want to emulate Iran and simply not acknowledge our GLBT students’ existence?)

I’m pretty conflicted. Please, my faithful readers, leave me comments and let me know your thoughts.

Looking at my blog stats (which I confess I’m a bit obsessive about), I notice that many of my posts with the most traffic have been ones about student teaching. So, in an attempt to write about things that I know something about (and to keep things going through this somewhat dry phase of planning-but-not-yet-teaching), I’m planning on writing a series of entries with advice for upcoming student teachers to consider before they start this invaluable (but stressful) experience.

First up is a topic I feel very strongly about: preparing materials for classroom use.


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