Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Stop and Think: Looking Back on (and Forward to) Teaching

"Stop and think!" was a phrase deployed numerous times an hour by a former co-teacher, when we worked together in a preschool classroom. Whether it was a girl about to try to eat some sand from the sand table, or a boy seconds away from hurling himself off of the top of a slide, "Stop and think!" would ring out.

I admit that when I first heard it, this phrase irritated me, as all rote phrases are wont to do. With time and observation, though, I realized my co-teacher meant it; she really wanted each child to stop. And then think. ("Then do something different" was implicit.) Most of the time, this instruction worked: sand was dropped, slides were slid, not jumped.

I bring this up because the end of the calendar year is a good time for teachers – perhaps for all of us – to stop and think. By the end of the school year, if I am any model, all we want to do is run helter-skelter out of the school building, to get to the nearest beach as quickly as our little legs will carry us. But now, in late December/early January, we have a little break at nearly halfway through the year, and (for most of us) the prospect of the same kids in the same seats for another 6 months or so. I like to look back at the lessons I've learned, and forward to what else I want to accomplish with my classes.

1. Take risks.

Children are not guinea pigs, and it is not appropriate for me to try out my oddest "What ifs" on them. Thus, the world may never know what might happen if I, without comment, chose to use a different foreign accent every day of the school year. (Hey, I trained as an actor. I could do it. For at least, um, 4 days. Wait, is Norwegian different than Swedish? Then five days.)

However, some of my most rewarding moments as a teacher this year came from taking risks, whether it was insisting that one could, indeed, combine Earth Science content with Playwriting practice to help kids learn more and better, or whether it was believing that my 11th graders could enjoy and learn from Susan Glaspell's Trifles despite not knowing what it's like to live on a farm, or whether it was speculating about whether in-context vocabulary was the only way to learn it.

It seems to me that the key with risk-taking as a teacher is that the risk must be something I feel passionate about and believe in. Constructing a new, innovative practice in the midst of a busy day is already hard enough, especially if it goes against the current practice favored. For a teacher to do that without a real sense of purpose and belief in the practice is a recipe for failing. However, belief and passion is the gas that keeps the motor of innovation, and risk-taking, running.

Resolution: Keep taking risks, but only if I feel passionate about it. For the coming semester, that means dragging my extremely difficult 11th grade class to a series of workshops on spoken word poetry. As far as I know, they haven't written any spoken word poetry, and not one of them has said, "Ms. Reed, I would like to write some spoken word poetry, right after I find out what it is." Yet I believe – passionately, as it happens – that they will be significantly altered and empowered by the experience of writing it. So, onward we go.

2. Don't take risks.

Yes, a wee bit contradictory here. But not an error. Sometimes, risk-taking is not a good idea, and I do not just mean my poor wardrobe choices on "Wacky Tacky Day." Here's a great example: Determined to help my seniors understand allllllll about Macbeth, I threw everything but Banquo's kitchen sink at them. I'm talking choral readings, paired readings, a DVD, a PowerPoint about Scotland, my personal photos from working in Scotland, everything. After three days of this (yes, I managed to pack all of that into three classes), two of my very sweetest students approached me to ask, "Ms. Reed? Couldn't we just sit and read the play?" Thrown off, I went into a discourse on the importance of experiencing the play because Shakespeare's words must be brought to life until one nicely said, "Okay. So, could you explain to me who Macbeth is?" Ah. Whoopsy.

I know those kids well – this is my second year teaching them – but I didn't think about them when I put together the lesson plans. I just thought about my training and what I thought would be fun and impressive. Well, heads up, Ms. Reed. You were in Macbeth. You've read it a hundred times, and even the first time, it wasn't your first Shakespeare play. My kids felt uncertain and scared. They didn't want to be innovative. They wanted to read and understand all the words. Lesson learned. That's what we're doing now.

Resolution: Stop and think. Preferably before spending five hours creating a PowerPoint presentation.

3. Learn to articulate what's happening.

Much as I like to talk, I've learned that I'm not such a good talker when it comes to education. I don't know the educational jargon in use today (and I'm constitutionally ill-suited at using jargon without my tongue planted firmly in my cheek). Every teacher has a stumbling block (or four), and I'm not especially dismayed about mine.

However, I have realized that not being able to use the current words in the right way is a detriment to me, and thus to my students and classroom. For example, an administrator recently suggested I use "anchor papers" in my classroom. I had to confess I had not a clue as to what that phrase meant – only to realize within seconds of his explanation that I did, in fact, use something very akin to anchor papers (essentially, models of how to write a specific paper, distributed to the students before they write) in my classroom frequently. My realization came too late, as have other such moments throughout the year. As the year draws to a close, I can now see that the use of such jargon intimidates me (indeed, sometimes it is meant to), and shuts me down, reducing my ability to articulate the very good work that goes on in my class, through our grant or in my writing about education.

Resolution: Learn to force myself out of the stuttering "ums..." and be able to articulate, clearly and cleanly, what we are doing in my classroom. This means knowing why we are doing what we're doing in the classroom, and believing in it! I need to remember the great lesson of this website – words are power. I want to harness that power, not shy away from it.

Speaking of which...

4. Words are powerful.

The most unexpected lesson I learned this year was via my students: the power of words. Not any old words, although they're mighty powerful too, but rather the power of vocabulary words. I've covered this before in this column, but let it be said that I continue to see that my students are empowered by knowing and using more words, especially words that they've had to stretch a little bit to gain control over. Example one: I took a few students to see a production of Othello. (Othello, for those of you who do not know, is not about word acquisition.) Near the very end of the play, one of the characters refers to the events taking place thus far as "odious," which happened to be one of our vocab words that week, as well as an accurate description. Four heads swiveled to look at me with awe and delight, hopefully out of sight of the actress speaking on-stage. They were so happy – they knew a hard word from a Shakespeare play! Example two: On Facebook, I see that one of my students has told another that the shopping would be good after Christmas, when he would find a "myriad" of gifts. Myriad! Also a vocab word! Also used correctly!

Why does this delight me so much? Well, it is always good to hear my lessons shared, and with accuracy. It makes me feel like I am having an effect, which is sometimes quite difficult to sense. Moreover, I think that the real delight is the feeling that I've given my students – most of them very poor, all of them minorities – a little tool that will help them crack open the box that keeps them down. Maybe one of them will correctly use instigate at a college interview, or mention that they enjoyed the "aesthetic" of the show at a post-performance party. They wouldn't be showing off. They know the words and they know how to use them. I hope they continue to do so.

Resolution: More vocab words. And more taking students to productions of Shakespeare.

5. Don't believe the hype.

Methinks 2010 could well be looked back on as the Year of the Bad Teacher. While I'm sure it's more prominent in New York City than in other parts of the country, there seems to have been a nationwide movement against bad teachers this year, typified by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's and (retiring) NYCDOE School Chancellor Joel Klein's comments throughout the year about making it harder to gain tenure in the NYCDOE and forcing out teachers who should be in other jobs.

Let me be clear: I'm against bad teachers. I've had a few. One ignored my hearing impairment (and resulting speech impediment) to force me to stand in front of my class and say my S's over and over. I couldn't say them. I cried a lot that day. Another asked, on the last day of the semester, if my father was who he had heard he was (a man of some prominence in our small town) and then, on hearing the affirmative, stated, "Guess I'll give you an A then." (I had earned an A.) Even worse, in my opinion, were the teachers who were so dull I learned nothing, for being in their class was like being spoon-fed flavorless Jell-O for a year.

Here's the thing, folks. Most teachers are not bad teachers. Some teachers need help and retraining, and some teachers are going through a rough patch, but that is not the same as a bad teacher. It's worth realizing that most people who start out being teachers are not finishing their careers as teachers. In New York, the rate of teacher attrition is insanely high, and when the job is so difficult, who can blame people for getting out? Honestly, sometimes the press against the apparent epidemic of bad teachers makes me want to grab hands with my colleagues and sing a version of Sting's "Russians": "Believe me when I say to you, I bet the teachers love their children too."

We are people, and our job is hard, and what is asked of us is often the impossible. Yet we still deliver at least part of the time. Please stop targeting us, politicians and pundits, or at least expand your purview – look at the bad principals, the terrible APs, the lazy superintendents, the negligent school boards, the train wrecks of parents, and the specific kids with specific issues. Let's remember the fact that each one of us is a unique blend of good and ill — yet we have shown up, with the intent of helping children. Let's work together. That means that you meet us halfway, without threats and conditions.

Resolution: Speak up for teachers more often. It'd be great if you'd join me in doing so.

Five lessons, one year. I'm sure that there are more. One lesson I seem to be continually relearning is that setting up anything electronic is going to take 50% longer than I think it will (and involve the help of at least two students). Another lesson is that when I get one of those rare days in which the kids are mellow and they feel like writing, let them write, no matter what the lesson plan is. And another...

Well, enough. Teaching truly is learning. My days are long and hard, but my brain and heart are full. Onwards to 2011! Come with me?

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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday December 28th 2010, 8:38 AM
Comment by: nannywoo (Wilmington, NC)
This essay was far from mediocre. It was superb. Words I learned from teachers, almost sixty years ago. Teaching lasts forever.
Tuesday December 28th 2010, 10:52 AM
Comment by: Kenneth K.
I always enjoy reading Shannon Reed's articles and this one may have surpassed them all. I will share this article with many colleagues because it has so many important messages.
Tuesday December 28th 2010, 11:06 AM
Comment by: Nancy M. (Tulsa, OK)
Would love to be in your class - I was reminded of my excellent high school Honors English teachers - truly the reason I can write well today.
Tuesday December 28th 2010, 11:42 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
My great teacher didn't happen until college, and that's another lesson -- but for students. You CAN get things learned for yourself; it helps if your parents help, but YOU can do it, too.

Perhaps, the greatest lesson a teacher can impart is 'love of learning' and it's part 2, 'learning is forever'.

Thanks for a great column, and yes, I'll come along! I need 2011 as 2010 was NOT a banner year. It's time for a change for me, and time to leave the cacoon provided by my late husband for over 50 years!

Thank you!
Tuesday December 28th 2010, 2:19 PM
Comment by: Darla L. (Columbus, OH)
Nice reflection on the past year. You are so correct that teaching is learning--all the time! I admire you for staying with it and for attempting to "grow" your students in many different ways. They will be better citizens for it and you will receive a crown of gold some day. Thank you for sharing a teacher's perspective on the current education situation; I completely agree that we all need to work together and remember that teachers are only human like the rest of us. It irritates me when I hear teachers blamed for all of the ills within the system, especially when I know parents who have dropped out of parenting and expect the public school system to raise their children for them. I, for one, will do my part to meet you half way!

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Shannon describes incorporating playwriting into science curriculum.
Shannon asks, can students be convinced that learning new words is fun?
When it comes to teaching vocabulary, Shannon found, context isn't always key.