August 09, 2011

A Letter From The Teacher, #13: New Year's Resolutions

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Bob, My Most Steamed Colleague
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: What Teachers Know

Dear Bob:

Well, it's that time again. Just four days from now, we're back in in-service classes and a week beyond that, the kids return. I've been working, as you know, most of the summer on preparing for this year, and I've been in my classroom for the last weekand I will be there all of this weekgetting things ready. I wonder why people think teachers spend months laying around and soaking up sun in the summer? I can't ever recall having done that. You?

Anyway, most people make their new year's resolutions in late December, but I make mine in early August. I worried a great deal about last year. I just didn't ever feel settled. The year seemed to be passing by very rapidly and always just beyond my grasp. I worry that I didn't do all that I could have done. I worry that I didn't teach the right things in the right ways. I worry that I didn't demand enough of the kids.

I've always believed that the art of teaching lies in mastering the small things, the details. So here are my top ten resolutions for the new year. May it be better and more productive than the last.

(1) When we are, once again, forced to sit through in service classes that not only insult our intelligence but actually lower our IQs, I resolve to do one of two things: Have a heart to heart chat with our Superintendent where I introduce him to realityin the nicest possible way, of course. I suspect my initial question to him might go something like this: "What the hell is wrong with you people?!" Or I'll simply endure it as always, surreptitiously doing preparation work while a grossly overpaid "consultant" drones on and on, and successfully resist the almost overpowering urge to kill myself to end the pain. OK, OK! So I'll do the latter. I need the job.

(2) I resolve to spend those extra few minutes, no matter how busy I am, to talk with kids, listen to their concerns, and simply ask them questions about their favorite topic: themselves. It's so easy to allow ourselves to be completely caught up in the work of education and to forget some of the process, to simply delight in the kids.

(3) I resolve to force myself to spend at least ten minutes each and every day simply sitting and thinking about what I'm doing. I did so little of that last year, and I think when we don't take that time, we're all the poorer for it. In secondary education we're so busy with classes--one after the other all day--we sometimes forget to think. Aren't we supposed to be thinkers? I know I'm not satisfied with just delivering content.

(4) I resolve to keep close track of all of the interruptions and disruptions that keep me from teaching and my kids from learning every day. I did that about 10 years back and was appalled at the unbelievable amount of time that assemblies, pep rallies, messengers, unnecessary testing and retesting, announcements, and myriad other small annoyances occupy. I'll give the results to the principal at the end of the year. He has promised to reduce that sort of thing this year, but I think it won't hurt to be able to quantify things.

(5) I resolve to spend a little more timeas much as I canwriting back comments to my kids. I already do a great deal of that when I grade their papers, but sometimes, I feel as though I'm rushing, doing it more to get done than to stimulate their thinking. Yes, I know that many don't care, but some do. Don't they deserve our best?

(6) I resolve to continue to do Talk Like A Pirate Day again this year. There is just something about dressing and talking like pirates that the kids love, and their little skits are hilarious. Of course, once they perform for the class that way, they don't bat an eye about doing anything else before the class for the rest of the year. I thought about passing on it this year, but hey, if you can't be a little goofy every once in awhile, what's the point of living? Besides, teachers in other departments always tells me that it's fun to hear the kids talking like pirates around the halls that week, and it does help them to think about language differently. Arrrrrrrrr!

(7) I'm going to have the kids act out "Forbidden Planet" again this year. I've wanted to incorporate more science fiction into the curriculumall we usually do is "Fahrenheit 451"and that movie seems to work. The kids enjoy acting out the script, and they really enjoy seeing the moviewith the actors saying "their" linesafterward. I like the fact that it's also a detective story and that it deals with the fundamental nature of man.

(8) I resolve to give the kids a little less time to complete their research paper this year. Like you, I try new things each and every year and get identicalmediocreresults. As you know, we do other things simultaneously, but I think I'll try focusing their work in a shorter time frame and see if that is useful.

(9) I resolve to be more serious on the broken window issues this year. You know what I mean, right? It's an old law enforcement concept: If a building, even if not currently in use, has a broken window that goes unrepaired, soon all of the windows will be broken. It's human nature, or at least the more perverse portion of it. Handle the small things and the larger behavioral issues tend not to manifest themselves. So I'll enforce the dress code a bit more strictly, and demand that the kids keep their hands and lips off each other a bit more strictly. I do that more than most already, but I suspect it might help everyone with disciplinary issues if we all were just a bit more vigilant about such things.

(10) I firmly resolve to accent basic civics more completely this year. You know that I always do that, but with our current political situation, with our economic mess, with people believing that America is in decline, I need to remind the kids how fortunate they are to be Americans. I need to use our literature to remind them of the better angels of human nature, and to reinforce their role in the social contract. I need to help them to become better people, better citizens, and better Americans. Above all, I need to help them to believe in the idea of America, and to understand why America truly is the one indispensable, unique nation in world history. If they don't know it, if they don't believe it, were truly lost. I'm not going down without a fight.

I'm also going to try to spend more time actually speaking to people rather than e-mailing them, and I'm even going to try to go to the occasional pep rally, but I'll have to buy new ear plugs if I hope to retain what little hearing I have left, to say nothing of what little sanity I have left. And I think I'll try to take the time to actually say hello to all my colleagues every morning. A smile is a nice way to start the day.

So there you go. I expect you'll help to keep me on track to uphold these good intentions. I'm going to have fun in every class every day, as always. In the study of Kendo, I often tell my Sensei that I will reach perfection tomorrow, always tomorrow. For all of us, it's not reaching perfection, but making the effort and what we learn and become on the journey that's important. I'll be a perfect teacher tomorrow. You?


Mr. English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at August 9, 2011 12:20 AM

Re resolve (1), what texts do you have in mind?


Posted by: Art at August 9, 2011 12:12 PM

I truly hate the thought that so much money is wasted (#1) on such nonsense as 'consultants'! They waste valuable time and money that could be better spent in so many other places. The various Dept. of Ed push this stuff to help build bigger empires. Someone correct me if I am wrong, but I believe most of this stuff is pushed from the federal government so that local school districts meet requirements generated from the feds.
Oh, if only all teachers were as dedicated as "Mr. English Teacher" our children would truly receive an excellent education!!!

Posted by: carol at August 9, 2011 08:21 PM

Dear Art:

As I didn't mention texts in #1, I'm afraid I can't respond. Can you clarify your question please?

Posted by: Mike Mc at August 9, 2011 08:38 PM

Sorry Mike.

No. 10 was listed as "1" and I did not notice the mistake. It is number 10 where you intend to introduce more civic awareness into your English class. What texts do you have in mind for this?


Posted by: Art at August 9, 2011 08:54 PM

Dear Art:

Ah! Now I know what you mean. In education, we generally have only one public-supplied textbook of literature. They're generally not terrible, but are big on multi-culti sort of stuff. What I'm referring to is using all of the literature, even writing assignments, to deal with the realities of human nature and what that means in daily living rather than utopian theories of perfecting people. Of course, I'll remind the kids of the virtue we should expect in every American, such as self-reliance, altruism, courage, honesty, honor, self-respect (not self-esteem), and an appreciation for all that makes America unique.

I hope this gives you a better idea of my intentions. Thanks for asking!

Posted by: Mike Mc at August 10, 2011 01:36 AM