Enthusiasm


I know that I will have to watch out for my two biggest classes (which are still smaller than almost every other class I’ve taught before now) because they will have a tendency to run away with me if I’m not on my game.

I know that I will have to watch one of these classes in particular because of a high male-to-female ratio. (I had a similar composition with my problem group of seniors from student teaching, so I’ve experienced how bad this can get.)

I know that I will have to watch the other class because, well, they’re seniors.

I know that I have leverage over both my seniors and my juniors: the seniors need to be ready to step out of high school in May and into college or “the real world” (and by that, I mean “the workforce,” most likely), and the juniors need to be ready for the PSAE/ACT in April. Both groups know that they are way behind the curve, generally speaking.

I know that I will need to be strict in general.

I know that I will have to make at least one significant change to my novels elective: I got complaints less than a minute after handing out syllabi about reading The Scarlet Letter because the previous teacher taught it to juniors. There goes another book, and worse yet, it was the first one I intended to teach. Looks like Of Mice and Men will be first up instead.

I also suspect (what, did you think everything was going to be certain here?) that I will end up teaching one of the chick lit novels (Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights) because my novels course is virtually all girls – only two boys at the moment, I think. Still working on getting Frankenstein, but something makes me think that won’t cut it.

I know that the Easy Button™ I bought last semester was probably one of the best investments I’ve ever made. (Remarkably, one student was very confused about the purpose – or lack thereof – of the Easy Button™ and presumed that you had to make a wish before you hit it.)

I know that I will have to watch how I respond to the smart-alecks in my classes that make me respond with sarcasm, something that my principal explicitly warned against. (But come on, it’s hard to respond with anything other than sarcasm when a student notes that he goes by Joe, “with a J.” I guess I need to be more self-disciplined and to keep my razor wit sheathed for more appropriate moments.)

Best of all, I know that I can do this: that there are students who are looking forward to learning from me, that I have incredibly supportive colleagues and administration who are looking out for me, and that I can manage to keep things together. How well I keep together – well, that will be the test of my time this first year.

Look out tomorrow, I’m coming back for more.

Join me for this innovative and highly educational webinar at…okay, perhaps not. Probably, if I could fully demonstrate how to do inspiring things with an uninspiring curriculum, I wouldn’t be blogging about it here. (Then again, maybe there’s a philanthropist in me somewhere – after all, I’m not in teaching for the money…)

I think most teachers, at least in the early rosy-eyed days of their careers, want to inspire students. (Some teachers may have lower expectations about how many students will realistically be inspired: the student who is inspired by integrals or conic sections might be rarer than the student who is inspired by the poetry of Emily Dickinson or the fiction of Kate Chopin.) Yes, education is our primary goal, and of course we want students to develop greater academic prowess, yadda yadda, but I think there’s a deep part of us – the student part – that remembers (if it has happened to us, and hopefully it has) being inspired by teachers to love literature, language, history, the human body, nature, chemical reactions, etc., and that “inner student,” until it is stifled by the outer cynic, sits on our shoulder whispering, Hey, you make these kids feel the awe of what you do. You gotta make them understand why you love what you do. Be that teacher.

And we all start out wanting to be that teacher. We know what good teaching is from having had good teachers, and (as an education professor of mine uncontroversially pointed out) no one goes into teaching wanting to emulate the awful teachers they had.

Okay, that’s good – make the students understand why you love what you do. But what if you aren’t inspired by what you’re going to teach?

I found out last night that I was having trouble finding my own Muse for a course as I was planning the first week of classes. (I find that poetry writing and lesson planning actually aren’t all that different – you have to have a grand vision, direction, and some creative drive in addition to the structure and execution of the thing. At least, you do if you want to be inspiring…) With all of my classes, I started off saying, “Where is this course going in the long run, and what would be the best way to get us started thinking about it?” For my senior world lit, the answer was culture; we will be doing an autoethnography project in the first few weeks, and there is a lot of analysis of our own cultures to get us thinking about how culture and literature intertwine. For my sophomores, the idea was to invoke universal themes, facilitated by my (somewhat) inspired idea to have students discover the sort of themes that emerge through a more approachable medium for them: songs. (Think about themes that transcend musical genre: Do we only hear about unrequited love in country songs?) Even for my juniors (perhaps the most difficult of the three), the idea of challenging notions of what makes literature “American” provides a jumping ground into Native American creation stories.

And then I got to my novels course and thought, Wait, what direction do we have? We’re reading a bunch of mostly unrelated canonical novels…

And my inner student whispers, Hey, just because it’s an elective doesn’t mean these kids don’t deserve to be inspired…

And I wonder how I will find my Muse in material whose only substantial connecting thread is the length of the works.

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Like so many things in teaching, I don’t think there is an easy answer to my proposed idea. It’s hard enough to inspire even a majority of students with the most inspiring material – some students just aren’t easily impressed – but doing it with a lackluster curriculum presents an additional handicap. Maybe there’s a reason why the wizened cynic starts shouting down the inner student; maybe it’s easier that way.

All I know is that there’s an insistent voice still urging me on, and the only thing I know how to do is to listen – and think.

…I am done with this summer job.

On to the final preparations for the real job.

I am ready to get this thing going.

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