Friday, May 18, 2012

Consider Teaching

I recently spoke at my school's senior dinner.

In August of 1989 I began a year of student teaching at West High School in Knoxville, Tennessee. I was 26, and, of course, very nervous. I had staked almost everything on becoming a high school English teacher, and the next few months in this school would go a long way toward determining whether my ambition was reachable.

I would spend my first few weeks at West in Ms. Beth Kent’s classroom, watching and learning, and after a while take over a couple of her classes. On my first day at West, a friendly ninth grade girl came up to me and said a curious thing: “You remind me of someone from the movies.”

It being 1989, and human vanity being what it is, I imagined she was thinking of someone like Tom Cruise or Patrick Swayze. “Really?” I replied. “Who?”

“That man from Psycho.”

O.K. Norman Bates. So I was off and rolling.

I survived that year without stabbing anyone in the shower and with my career ambition intact.

Now let’s fast forward about ten years. Another first day of school. I was well into my thirteen years at Meadowcreek High School in Gwinnett County, feeling established and confident. The fear was gone. Our twin daughters had been born the previous year, and one of my senior classes wanted to hear what things were like at home. I told them about the trials of simultaneously caring for two babies. The lack of silence, the lack of sleep, the lack of time for oneself. Before long I was giving them a high handed lecture about their personal lives. I said, “One thing I have definitely learned is that HAVING CHILDREN IS FOR GROWNUPS.”

And a voice from the back said, “So you think you should have waited a little longer?”

Teaching will humble you. And that second experience permanently spooked me about giving advice to teenagers. Nonetheless, here goes.

My topic this evening relates to those experiences, but it really spirals out of something else that happened during my two years in Knoxville. I met a man named Ted Hipple. He was a professor in the College of Education of the University of Tennessee. He was a national leader in the field of adolescent literature. In this time, when there are shelves and shelves of fresh new young adult novels in every public library and bookstore, it is difficult to imagine a time when the young adult canon consisted of The Outsiders, The Pigman, and few other titles, most of them forgettable.  You, on the other hand, have grown up in a golden age of adolescent literature, starting with Harry Potter. Hipple was a champion of the kind of books you grew up reading. It would be an overstatement to say he was responsible for them, but when it came to the matter of you having good books to read, books written just for you and others your age, he was on your side before you were even born.

But what Hipple was to me, mainly, was a smart, lively professor. I took every class from him that I could.

He said many things in those classes that live in my memory, including this very pointed remark: “Teachers are the worst ambassadors for their own profession.”

We all know exactly what he was talking about. Everybody has met the teacher who describes his or her work as an unending ordeal of disobedient children, demanding parents, moronic administrators, mountains of grading, and lousy pay. I can’t say I have found teachers like that at Paideia, but they are plentiful in the world at large. We teachers seem to take a perverse pleasure in making our jobs sound like hell, and then we wonder why it is so hard to get bright young people to consider a career in teaching.

Like just about everything else Hipple said, his admonition to be a good ambassador for teaching made an impression on me. Throughout my career, no matter how bad things have gotten, I have tried not to speak cynically or bitterly about my work in the company of people outside education. I try not to sugarcoat things, but I try even harder not to whine, especially now that I haven’t really got anything to whine about. But now I want to take my fidelity to Hipple’s counsel a step further. I’ve got a room full of bright young people about to take their first tentative steps into finding a calling.

 So I’m going to try to convince you to become teachers.

Well, not really. That would be wrong. Furthermore, it isn’t even a realistic goal. But maybe I can convince you to keep an open mind about it. If you have a ranked list of career possibilities in mind, I hope to move teaching up from “not on your life” to “well, you never know.”

Two of you I don’t have to convince to become teachers. Kirby and David, you caught the first eraser. I’m just advising you to embrace your destiny. Don’t fight it.

But as for the rest of you, why should you consider teaching?

You probably know why already. Teachers make a difference and all that. I am not here to make a case that there is something uniquely noble about teaching, because there isn’t. Whatever line of work you choose, it will afford opportunities to enhance the lives of others. But teaching does have its special charms. I’ll add that there are many kinds of teaching, there are many ways of becoming a teacher, and it isn’t something you have to do forever. You can do it before you become a lawyer or after you’ve already been a lawyer. That kind of thing happens all the time. But you probably already knew that. What you may need help with is visualizing a talented, creative, ambitious person like yourself as a teacher. Here’s some help.

In 2000 I had two of my classes read a new play called Wit, about a college professor who is dying of cancer. It had won the Pulitzer Prize for drama the previous year, it was by an Atlanta playwright, Margaret Edson, and it concerned poetry and medical ethics. A great text for my classroom, I thought. Things turned out so well with my class’ study of Wit that one day we were invited to visit Ms. Edson in her home, to this day one of the most thrilling experiences of my career.

There was a curious thing about Margaret Edson. She was not, by profession, a playwright. She was a kindergarten teacher in the Atlanta Public Schools, and she had remained one, despite a play of hers winning the most exalted award in American drama. And she told us why: teaching allowed her to be more creative on a day-to-day basis than being a writer. At first this comment struck me as preposterous, but the more I thought about it and compared it to my own experiences as a teacher, the more it made sense. True, the opportunities for creativity that teaching offers are sort of postmodern. The product of your creative endeavors is not some tangible artifact that is wholly original in itself, like a building or novel, but something ephemeral, a kind of remix. You create an experience for your students, formed out of the disparate curriculum materials you gather, the way you present them, and the way your kids interact with them. And, as Ms. Edson said, you get to be creative that way just about every day.

In conjunction with a recent new production of Wit, the New York Times caught up with Ms. Edson – she’s still in the blackboard jungle, though now she teaches 6th grade social studies at Inman Middle. In the article she says that teaching and drama are similar in that each is a “a public event that leads to understanding.” That’s a pretty good way to think about teaching. And her choice still astounds me. The Pulitzer Prize! Do you know who that puts her in company with? Arthur Miller. Tennessee Williams. August Wilson. But she loves what happens in that classroom too much to leave it. That could be your work life, too.

When it comes to super accomplished people taking on this low prestige work, she’s the most extraordinary case I know of, but she’s far from alone. Have any of you seen the film Race to Nowhere? It is a 2009 documentary whose thesis is that the current generation of achievement-oriented young people – that is, you – has been pushed way too hard. A year and a half ago my wife and I were in the enormous sanctuary of a Buckhead megachurch, in the company of a few hundred other anxious parents, watching the film and stoking our worries. To my astonishment, a familiar face appeared on the screen: he was identified as Jay Chugh, a high school biology teacher in the Bay Area. Like every other teacher interviewed in the film, he was there to advocate a more humane approach to schooling. I knew this man because he had been a student at Meadowcreek in the early nineties. He had not been just any student, though. Jay was brilliant. When it came time for him to go to college, UGa had awarded him a Foundation Fellowship, the most prestigious undergraduate scholarship the university offers. The last time I had seen Jay he was headed to Berkeley for graduate study in genetics.

And here he was in a movie! But that wasn’t really the weird part. The weird part was that he was a not a renowned surgeon or a professor-researcher at some elite university. He was a mere high school teacher. This was like finding a legendary guitarist playing in a motel lounge. As a high school teacher I should have too much pride in my own profession to think like that, but that’s what I thought. What the hell happened?

 Of course the answer is that something great happened: an exceptionally bright young man became a high school teacher, and a good one, too. I googled Jay, contacted him, and we’ve corresponded a couple of times since. Here’s something he wrote to me about the satisfactions of being a teacher:

"I felt a calling early on to serve my community and strengthen the very foundation of democracy. Sure, I considered becoming a doctor, but I realized that I could either treat patients with my own two hands, or I could encourage other bright minds to become doctors, engineers, and scientists, thereby achieving exponential impact. I’m so grateful that I became a teacher. When it comes to immediately experiencing the direct impact of your work, there’s nothing like teaching!"

 There’s a man who really loves his work and believes in its value. That could be your work life, too.

What I’m going to say now should be obvious, but I don’t want to leave it unsaid: to see what Margaret Edson and Jay Chugh represent – people of brilliance choosing to be teachers - you don’t need look any further than the classrooms you’ve been in at Paideia.

Returning to Jay’s testimony, the funny thing is that he and I are somewhat at odds on the matter of teachers experiencing the direct impact of their work. Of course he is right that there is nothing like seeing a light come on for kid, and there are all kinds of lights. Still, it has always seemed to me that we teachers must have faith in the reality of invisible things because so often we can’t see what’s happening between the ears or in the in the hearts of our students, and we can’t see far into the future. A popular inspirational saying goes “Teachers affect eternity. They never know where their influence stops.” That’s true, but the manifestations of that ever-rippling influence are obscured from our sight by time and distance. The other night I was helping one of my daughters with her German homework. I took German in high school, and as I found myself understanding this cheesy little narrative about a teenage fussball spieler scoring the winning goal against Bremen, my excitement grew, and I wished there were some way right then for Mr. Howell, my wonderful but long suffering German teacher, to see that some of what he had taught me really stuck. For thirty years. Poor Herr Howell. He cannot witness the fruits of his labor – excuse me, die Früchte seiner Arbeit. If you become a teacher, you often have to believe in a promised land that you’ll never get to see.

Well – there I go. I set out to recruit you and now I’m brooding on the unfulfillment of teaching. I have betrayed Dr. Hipple. But even he was not one to conceal the trials of being a teacher. He told us once that when he came to U.T. he had launched a College of Education speaker’s bureau. The point was for professors to visit luncheon clubs, like the Kiwanis and the Optimists, and give talks to raise consciousness about school issues. He said his favorite way to start his talks was to say to these middle aged businessmen, “Imagine first thing in the morning walking into a room full of seven year olds. And for the next six hours, you’re not out of their sight and they’re not out of yours.” He said you could see the blood drain from their faces as they contemplated that.

Hey, y’all, imagine first thing in the morning walking into a room full of seven year olds, or twelve year olds, or sixteen year olds. Maybe the blood drains from your face. But maybe it doesn’t. Maybe your mind starts churning with possibilities. Maybe you get excited. Maybe you should be a teacher.

Whatever you choose to do, do it well, do it with passion, take care of yourself, and stay in touch. We’re going to miss you.