Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Teaching: FInding the New

I remember when--and maybe this still happens--people looked upon a job in education as "safe."

Once you get in, the conventional wisdom went, you'd be safe. Tenure and all that. The payoff after paying your dues. You could plan it out once and be done, and do the same thing in class week after week, year after year. (Some teachers really do this. I personally couldn't live this way.)

What's wrong with doing it right the first time? If it's really right, you never need to change it, do you?

This is what non-teachers probably think teachers do. But it's usually not the case. It should not be the case--not anymore.

In the enrichment school where I teach on weekends, we train students to ace the SAT. "One and done," is the mantra. (There is also, "Hit it hard and get the hell out of there.")

If you've studied your tush off, you can ideally take the official SAT once, score very well, and never take it again. That's how it went for me in high school, and if the work is boring (let's be honest: the SAT is not fun), this is a good tactic. Knowing there's relief and respite makes the hard work tolerable.

Yet even there, in a tried-and-true test prep program, teachers study all the time. We take the tests, too--every week. We develop new ways to help our students increase their scores. "Practice makes perfect" is how the classes go, but even the practice is varied. 

In the normal schools where I teach both high school and college, I have also never taught the same way every year or even every day. I have never had tenure. (I am a private school teacher and adjunct. Why? That's another story.) I don't believe in teaching-as-if-I-were-in-a-factory, and I change it up as much as I can. I do this for myself as well as for my students. 

Teaching is not an assembly line job.

My aim in the classroom, and in life, is to be flexible and able to pivot when necessary. But that's just me. Keeping it interesting is a challenge, and this is one of the things that keeps me on my toes and helps me to be a better teacher.

But a teacher does need a lesson plan, and a teacher does need a script. As I told my college students recently, before they gave group presentations: "You each have to speak to the class for five minutes. How many pages of notes do you need?"

The answer: more than you think. (At least three pages. Possibly four.)

If I have a 40-minute class to teach, how many pages of notes do I need? Many pages. At least seven. Single spaced.

Notes aside--because we are not supposed to lecture these days; we are supposed to flip our classrooms and "have the students lead the class"--teaching takes mucho forethought. Even if you've taught a book before, you still, as a teacher, have to study up again before you begin the novel's unit.

For example, I often teach American Lit, and every year, I re-read Ethan Frome, The Great Gatsby, The Scarlet Letter (and more). 

I worked with a teacher a few years ago who'd also taught these classics for a long time (try 25 years). We discussed them. I admitted I've read the books about 15 times by now. At least 15 times. He said he'd read them once, when he was in school, as a lad. "You only need to read the books once," he said, chastising me a bit. "Don't work so hard!"

Read once? Don't work so hard? Nice ideas, but I don't think so. Not if I seriously want to understand these novels--and a lifelong learner finds something new each time she reads.

We need to find the new and share the new or else we are...wait for it...teaching like it's a factory job.