Teachers at Work
A column about teaching
Looking Back at a Teaching Career
Shannon Reed has been teaching English and theatre in New York City schools for the past eight years, and for four of them we've been privileged to feature her columns in our Teachers at Work series. Now, however, Shannon is moving on, and here she reflects on lessons learned from her teaching career.
Recently, I had a conversation with one of my former students who has become a teacher herself. She recollected her first day in the front of the classroom and the sheer terror she felt. Suddenly, she remembered that she had been a student in my class on my first day teaching, and asked, wide-eyed, if I had felt as afraid as she had at the onset of my high school teaching career. I thought back and had to say no. I hadn't felt particularly nervous as I faced that first group of teenagers ready for their first-period class for the first time. Of course, I wanted to do well, and I wanted them to have the information they needed, but overall I was relatively calm. I had been pleased with myself for this at the time, but now, eight years later, I had to shake my head in wonderment over all that had happened since that day.
Things to Fear
I should have been scared. There they were lined up in rows in front of me, twenty high school freshmen: plenty nervous, uncharacteristically quiet (for the last time), and collectively sharp-eyed. For the next eight years, they would miss little that I would do in their presence, whether I landed a joke, flubbed a line, miscalculated a grade, or had a fit of temper. They would hear me mispronounce words and assert, boldly, that Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Crucible. They would see me cry, and then crack up with laughter. They would see my unfortunate fashion choices and critique a variety of new hairstyles. They would be present with me the day (times three) after I was broken up with, and the day after one of their own was shot. If I had known how I was going to be laid bare, in a way, in front of them, I would have been scared.
Another thing I'm blessed to not have known that first day are the questions I was going to be asked. Questions about grammar and spelling and literature, of course, of the kind for which I was well-prepared, but there also came the kind that I was clueless to answer. I'd be asked how to do basic math, and to explain the principles of Living Environment, both of which were, and are, anathema to me. I would be asked about relationships, and politics, and religion. I would be asked for opinions on topics far beyond my comfort zone, and be forced to answer them or risk a child's well-being for not doing so. One girl would ask me to help her run away. A young man would ask me to speak at his parole hearing. Dozens asked me to help them with their college essays, and several with letters to the parents they hoped would adopt their babies after they were born. I did my best to answer those questions and help when I could. I was also asked, in various ways, over and over again, why people were so cruel. These questions I could not answer, and offered, instead, a hug, or a calm discussion, or a silent presence to sit beside them.
I should have been scared. But I was not scared on that first day. I had the assurance of youth. At 29, I did not feel I knew it all, but I felt I could probably know enough. I believed that what would pass before me in my classroom was within my control, and that all of my students would be better off for having been such. I loved to read, and I would teach them to, as well. I loved to write, and I would teach them how to be better writers. I loved good grammar for the clarity of expression, and I knew that, once shown the light, they would walk within it.
I was wrong.
At the conclusion of my high school teaching career, all eight years of it, I can look back over my students and know that some of have grown because of their time in my course. I think of the young woman who wrote her first essay in my junior-level class, or the young man who wrote his first (of many) poems on lazy early summer day. I can call up an image of a student informing me that, thanks to me, he wanted to be a playwright, and see, in my mind's eye, the students who told me that they'd become teachers "just like you, Ms. Reed."
But these successes are not really my successes. Yes, I'm happy to have been there at the right moment, and perhaps with the right words. But it was the student who created the work, built the dream, began to know who she was, and good for her for doing so. She deserves the satisfaction of knowing that she took what she needed from who was around her to create who she is. I cannot claim that.
Besides, I know that if I take credit for the successes, I also must claim the failures: the students who would not be engaged, did not pick up the book, rarely moved a cursor across a computer screen, or told me that, "Sorry, Miss, but Our Town is just dumb." In case I forget, my high school teaching career closes with a firm reminder. A week ago, four students who I have known for four years pulled a destructive and hurtful prank on our last day of classes. I was going to pat myself on the back at their graduation, proud for how I helped shape them; mustn't I instead rue the missed lessons on personal responsibility that I didn't teach or didn't teach well?
Still, Some Learning Happened. Mostly Mine.
So, what, at the end of eight years of teaching, can I say I have learned? Many things, of course, but I'll focus on just a few for now. First, I've learned that to share your life with a group of people (e.g., a class) is a sobering thing. Over the course of a year, you see the good and bad in each person around you (and they see the same in you). I never much believed in stereotypes and typecasting, but I do so even less now. People are complex, and teenagers are full of mystery as their personalities bloom into existence within them. It's not to be taken lightly to have the task of leading of them.
Also, I've learned the value of civility. Like many people, I often made choices in manners and bearing that were reflective of how I was treated first. This is a recipe for failure with teenagers, who cycle through arrogance, despair, and cruelty as often as they change socks. I learned to be the bigger (better) person and let rudeness slide. I am better for it.
Another lesson learned: books, those ignored pieces of bric-a-brac that dot my classroom, are more important to me than ever. Not just books, but writing – articles, poems, journals, newspapers, websites: any time thoughts are collected and organized into story or other form. Most of my students scorn reading, and I see how this makes them intellectually weak. I mourn, especially, the razor-sharp brains that come through my class (they are just as plentiful in lower-income communities as those with lots of money) and leave without the love of reading catching hold. It's nearly too late to learn to read for pleasure by the time you're in your late teens, I've found, and it saddens me that these kids have amazing vehicles to drive that they won't gas up, yet also makes me treasure and promote reading all the more.
But the most important lesson I've learned can be captured in a brief story – a story that, I believe, captures the importance of the right words at the right time. Several years ago, I referred to "lightning bugs" when talking with a student, and he said, "What are those, Miss? We don't have those in Brooklyn." I was shocked that he hadn't heard of them, and saddened enough not to finish my story. A life without lightning bugs? I couldn't believe the paucity of experience this boy had, growing up in the poorest part of Brooklyn. How different from my childhood summers spent outdoors in rural Pennsylvania. I often thought about that conversation and felt badly for him and his peers.
A few days ago, I walked out of the Senior Awards Ceremony with this boy, who's now grown into a young man. We were tallying up the awards he'd won, when I saw a flash of phosphorescent light out of the corner of my eye. I grabbed him and spun him towards it, saying, "Steven! Those are lightning bugs!" He barely looked up from his stack of certificates and said, "Oh, fireflies? Yeah, Ms. Reed, seen 'em."
He'd known what they were all along, but I needed to find the right words to locate our shared experience. This is the lesson I most treasure from my time as a high school teacher in New York City. I've learned, again and again, that we are more alike than we first expect, but that we must struggled towards communicating with each other, in order to fully realize this truth.
And So, Adieu.
As my career of teaching high school draws to a close, and I prepare to take up a new role teaching freshman English Composition at the University of Pittsburgh, while also working on my M.F.A. in Creative Writing, I'm also winding up my run of writing regular columns for Teachers at Work. I'll still contribute from time to time, but I feel that this column has run its course.
Thank you to all who have read it, and even more so, to those who took the time to comment on my column. I'm delighted to know I sparked some interesting debates and inspired some changes in classrooms, but I hope that what I made clear to teachers is what you've also made clear to me: You're not alone, and your work, if well-meant, is good.
At the end of every year, I tell my classes that it's been an honor and a privilege to teach them. With some classes, I admit, I'm stretching to say that, but I still say choke the words out. It's not at all a stretch to say it here. Thank you to those who've read this column, and those who've commented on it, and those who've shared it…and a special thank you to my editor, Ben Zimmer, who's always made me sound more together than I actually am.
Thank you. It's been an honor and privilege to write for you. Have a great summer.