Like many, I believed that crossing the threshold of the downward ramp, and passing my tassel, meant that I was a full-blown teacher. I had graduated, and amidst the roar of Duluth’s stadium arena, I reflected on all that I had worked for. Each day spent in my cooperating teacher’s classroom, each paper I had submitted at 3:00am, each defense of my best practice as a teacher, was summed up by the increasingly loud screaming and chanting as reality snapped back into place. Massive posters depicting bulldogs fit in between a plethora of maroon and gold banners. It was a lot to take in.
Fast forward three months to the first week of Teacher Workshop in my first district as a real-life teacher, and I’m sitting in a barren room. My room. Four brown walls trapping silence, with remnants of tape from previous years, chipped paint, and a pathetic half piece of bulletin border drooping to the ground. I stood in the center of the room, dumbfounded that it didn’t come pre-decorated. Of course it didn’t; “the teacher decorates the room.” Finally the dots connected, and I realized that my students wouldn’t come pre-taught, and that I (much like my classroom) was responsible for cultivating an environment where students felt comfortable learning.
“Surely I can’t be the only one,” I thought, scouring the rooms of my fellow first-year teachers in the building, all of whom had M.Ed. at the end of their email signatures. To my disappointment, their classrooms greeted me with pods of desks, brightly colored bulletins, and beautifully written “First Week Agenda” signs. At lunchtime, teachers who had moved from other districts were spitballing engaging “get to know you” lessons and reviewing the first month’s curricula while I stared at their collectedness in awe. I found sanctuary in my classroom, and agreed that it did look a bit depressing when empty. I hung up a few posters, wrote my name at the top of the whiteboard, and stapled some edging to the bulletin sheets I had thumbtacked in place. Despite this, I left the first day of teacher workshop feeling defeated, and doubtful that I had picked the career I had claimed I was “fit for” three months prior.
Another week passed, and during open house (a chance for parents to hear from the experienced and knowledgeable instructors) I counted my stammers. I got lost staring into a sea of thirty-five 9th graders (105 people in total if you count guardians, and I did) awaiting direction and instruction, and was frustrated that their names didn’t come pre-programmed into my brain. Thankfully, between the beginning of teacher workshop and this open house, my 9th grade team had helped me set up my gradebook and had explained the core texts for 9th grade English, as well as the main standards which are assessed. Thus, blinking sweat away from my eyelids, I started by outlining how English 9 is structured (our school uses trimesters, and requires students to take two trimesters of English 9, an “A” section, and a “B” section), as well as the necessary materials: pen, pencil, notebook, and folder. I further explained that we’d be reading a novel called Speak, reading a set of short stories, writing a personal narrative, and close-reading poetry. Breaking one of the core rules of teaching (never say something important while passing out papers), I handed out the syllabi during this well-rehearsed speech. Later on, somewhere in the nervous utterance of classroom guidelines/expectations, I let slip my graduation date. Body language shifted in the classroom. Then I got the next inevitable question that makes first year teachers shake in their boots: “How many years have you been teaching?” I responded honestly, and added that I had experience teaching during my undergraduate years. I now had full student/parent attention. After finishing the introduction to English 9A, I drove home as quickly as possible and was too tired to change into pajamas before collapsing into bed.
Still not entirely confident in my ability to teach, I knew that the first day would only be spent getting to know each student (including, apparently, their names). I asked about hobbies, plans for the year, excitement/anxiety over starting high school, and what my students needed from me. After a solid three minutes of crickets, I re-phrased the question. “What did you do over summer break?” This yielded a drastically different response from students, who began raising hands one by one to share what they had done over summer break, and their favorite pastimes.
“I drove with my mom to practice for driver’s ed.”
“I went to MOA!”
“I went to football camp for a week in southern Minnesota.”
“I had knee surgery.”
As someone who had just undergone knee surgery not too long ago myself, I followed up with “what did you injure? And how?” As my student explained his ACL tear due to basketball practice, I began to realize that my students were more than just students. Athletes, gamers, young academics, club participants. All of these impressionable minds had character to them, and priorities, and hobbies, and dislikes. This put things into perspective. Then and there I knew I was not going to be able to talk about English, and all the English-y things I loved, without being able to connect with these students first. That took priority.
Fast forward a few weeks, and 9th grade English was in full swing. Our unit was to write a personal narrative, and students suddenly needed and wanted my input on their essays to overcome the obstacle I had placed in their path. This was my ticket in. I got to know names, styles of writing, affect, and temperaments. Additionally, because students were to write a personal narrative, I was able to learn more about my students than a questionnaire could ever provide. Student A loves hockey, but was recently injured because another player checked him on the ice. “I view the game differently now,” he wrote. “Now I play to win, and forget being friendly.” Student B went to state championships for gymnastics and “just couldn’t get the nervous butterflies to go away” as she anticipated her routine on the balance beam. Student C isn’t sure what to write about, because he’s convinced that nothing he’s done so far has really changed him as a person. It wasn’t until I spoke with him about his life, and what has happened, that he realized he has had some incredibly supportive friends who have gotten him through tough times.
As I instigated more and more conversations, students started to reciprocate. I started to get questions not quite related to the unit. “What’s your favorite book?” I stammered once more, before saying that I wasn’t that big a reader. Watching the words float into their ears, I backpedaled as quickly as I could before I was overrun with exclamations like “What do you mean you don’t read? You’re an English teacher.” With pause, I then replied that I prefer movies, which was cut off by “I agree! I don’t know why we have to read books when we can watch movies.” Recognizing where this was going, I felt morally obligated to stick up for literature. “There is so much to be learned from books that you can’t get from movies.” Much back and forth passed before I could convince students that books articulate language in a way movies cannot always convey. I added that I was working on growing my classroom library because, at the core, I truly did enjoy reading as long as it felt like a movie. That is to say, if the book could trick me into thinking I was watching a movie, it must be a good book and thus worth my time. Students agreed, and I concluded that I just convinced 35 people that reading was worth your time, though selecting a book can be difficult; this is why choosing the right reading material is so crucial. Feeling accomplished, I celebrated in my head and then tried my best to direct students back to their essays.
Just as some of my insecurities about my ability to teach began to dissolve, I had a pivotal conversation with a family friend. The subject of work arose, and with it, the subject matter I was teaching. Part of my 9th grade team’s English curriculum includes using the novel Speak to bring up and discuss topics like coming of age, self-affliction, mental illness, sexual assault, peer-pressure, and social exclusion. In particular, this book opens opportunities for counselors, psychologists, and other mental health clinicians to speak to students as professionals in their field and offer support to students who may need it.
While I was in the midst of scheduling these mental health professionals to come into my classroom, I told my friend about this upcoming discussion. My friend said, “9th grade seems far too early a year to introduce the real world to students.” A small comment, and I responded that our curricula also is required to follow Minnesota State Standards, and that the novel also fits all of those standards, while being an interesting read. Still, on the drive home, I immediately began to question whether or not 9th grade is too young to have discussions like these, and whether or not I was executing and facilitating these discussions in a way that was healthy and productive for students.
A few weeks later, I was grabbing coffee with a friend from college, who I had not seen in some time. Again, as the conversation became work-related, I had said I was actively looking for short stories we could read that were authored by people of color.
“Because most of the authors we have now are old dead white guys.”
“Is there something wrong with that? What about Shakespeare? The Catcher in the Rye? 1984? Those are great pieces of literature, written by white authors. Ooh, ooh, what’s that one about the rich guy who hosts parties at his house so he can flirt with that lady? The Great Gatsby! That’s a great book!”
It was clear to me that my friend was not interested in my students’ demographics. He was interested in reading books he enjoyed throughout his high school experience. There is nothing wrong with that. However, 45% of my school’s population is not white, and are between the ages of 13-17. If nearly half of the student body is not white, it is beneficial to bring into the classroom authors of color who write engaging, interesting, fun pieces of literature. I didn’t have the energy or the time to explain that I want my students to see themselves in what they read, and that by excluding authors of color, or defaulting to the same old pieces of literature we’ve used in the past, it alienates students who are turning 14 in the year 2020. Many of my students have never heard of 1984, or The Catcher in the Rye, or The Great Gatsby. Furthermore, if all that our students read are white authors, if all they study in biology are white scientists, if they only play music scored by white composers, the idea seeps in slowly that people of color do not belong in a scholastic realm. By the time I had thought of this entire comeback, he was finished with his latte, and my teeth were tired of grinding.
Conversation after conversation, I began to realize that as a profession, teaching is one of the most criticized and scrutinized trades. My brother and mother are nurses. Never would I suggest that they administer one medicine over another, because they are professionals in their field. I don’t know the law like lawyers do, I don’t know roads and weather patterns like truck drivers do, and I cannot play any sport like professional athletes can. So why was someone, completely well-intentioned, trying to tell me what was best for my students? The answer, I believe, is that teaching is a public profession subject to criticism by everyone who attended high school, or knows someone in high school. They believe that their time spent in high school, or their relation to someone who is in high school, means that they know what is appropriate material for high school. Comically, of course, everyone’s suggestions—the essential topics they believe are not being taught—are different every time. Furthermore, people seem to reduce teaching to the material being taught, without considering the art of teaching in and of itself. Of course these reflections did not come to me instantly. Instead, at the time, each new “suggestion” of what or how I ought to be teaching just lowered my confidence in my own ability.
Insecurity, paired with what is referred to in the teaching world as “decision fatigue,” brought me closer to my pillow than I had been in my life. Thirty-five students per class period, asking a minimum of 1-2 questions each, means that as an educator you answer 140-280 questions in a 7-hour period. None of these questions may have a simple answer. For example, a month ago I had a student walk up and ask me, “What do I put for ‘Symbolism?’” Students are not always the best communicators, so often you have to unpack their queries before you can assist them. After a 30-second exchange, I learned that the student was referring to the reading guide, which requires the student to document any symbolism they see in the short story “The Scarlet Ibis.” Once the question has been articulated, I can begin to help. Giving an answer in this case would be simple enough, but that is not your responsibility as a teacher. You must allow students to discover answers for themselves, which often means letting students struggle as you watch them work through their own questions. His body language and facial expressions suggesting that he might not remember the definition of a symbol, I provide him with one. Still, once he realized that I was not going to tell him outright what he should write in his answer box, he sighed. After staring at his sheet for a while, he wrote something down, then handed it over and asked, “Is this right?” Without even so much as a glance at his sheet, I responded that if he can make a good argument as to why it is a symbol, then I would agree that it’s correct.
He cut me off. “So anything can be a symbol?”
“If you can find good evidence that something is a symbol, I could be convinced that anything could be a symbol.”
This interaction lasted all of 3 minutes. As the student left shaking his head, I tried to remember that this can be a strenuous process for new learners, tackling abstract ideas they’ve never encountered before, and it is only human to want to give students guiding questions to help them arrive at a resolution more quickly. Creating guiding questions on the spot, depending on what each student needs throughout the day, resulted in pure exhaustion at the end of mine. Each afternoon, I would proudly drive home, only to nap immediately so that I would have the energy to make a quick meal and plan for the following day. Differentiation suggests that what works for some, doesn’t for others, and you as an educator are responsible for navigating those obstacles to uphold equity in public education. This comes at a cost—often your diet, sleep patterns, and stress levels—because, after all, the teacher is the expert, and is expected to have the right answer no matter the question.
I wasn’t too sure how long I could continue this exhausting routine. After spending so much time thinking about how I could better answer my students’ onslaught of questions, it occurred to me to do the same. I thought back to my teacher mantra: steal everything good, and let anyone steal from you. At this point, I should stress that all of my coworkers were and are incredibly supportive of me. My mentor teacher would often ask me if I had any questions, and it took me a couple weeks to realize that the only thing holding me back from growth was myself. The constant questions my students would ask me led me to believe that each question needed a correct answer, immediately. Crumbling under the pressure, I began to ask my coworkers how they had met the demands of students in their early years of teaching. I began to ask questions.
Just to clarify, I began to ask a lot of questions. Every day, I’d have to remind myself to greet my mentor teacher before asking her for help. The running joke is still, “I have a ques….. Sorry… Good morning! I have a question!” Most of my questions had to do with classroom management, i.e., “I have a rowdy bunch 4th hour, and was curious to know how you manage to quell student chatter before you introduce an agenda for the day.” Or, “I want to introduce an activity where students are moving around, but I’m not sure how to facilitate it so that students get the most information out of it, do you have any ideas?” With grace, those around me were volunteering ideas for curricula, sharing what has and has not worked in the classroom, and validating my learning by telling me that I was hired for a reason.
They also let me know that my fresh perspective was highly valued in academia; I was able to introduce new ideas of engaging students in classroom activities that disrupted the monotony of direct instruction. Journal conversations between teacher and student, standing high-five think/pair/shares, and modified socratic seminars brought about a breath of fresh air to teachers who had perhaps become comfortable with their teaching style. Additionally, I was alert and willing to question whether or not lesson plans were culturally inclusive of all.
In short, while my students were soaking up tons of new information, I too, was learning daily, as were my coworkers. It wasn’t until my mentor teacher and those around me could no longer answer my questions in one or two sentences that I began to realize it is acceptable to not know something.
Eager to apply this in the classroom, I began to answer student inquiry honestly, by appreciating their level of curiosity, followed with “I don’t have the answer to that question, but I’d be happy to help you answer it.” Applying transparency in the classroom innately bred a culture of inquiry, and (as a result) a culture of problem solving and discussion. Still in our personal narrative unit, I began to show my students what it looks like to struggle in writing, through examples of my own. As our personal narrative unit ended, and our social justice unit began, we began to have lengthy socratic seminars where I celebrated tough questions, and students were encouraged to create their own.
As students asked tougher and more abstract questions such as “when did racism begin?” and “how do we solve racism?” I understood that for many of my students, the topic of racism (and its systemic roots) was an awakening for many of my students, who were beginning to see the similarities between the book they were studying in English class and their personal lives. Following an idea from my school’s literacy coach, I hosted a silent discussion surrounding race and identity. The activity asked students to write anonymous responses to given questions. A question like “Have you, or anyone that you’ve known, been stereotyped because of your race? Why or why not?” began to connect text-related subjects to everyday life. Finishing this round of introspection, I told students it was okay to tear up the piece of paper and deposit it in the recycling bin, thus ensuring that nobody would ever know. I also told students they could keep the paper or share aloud if they chose. To no surprise, but to profound impact, everyone shredded their tattered pages. The sound of 35 pieces of paper collapsing into themselves spoke volumes about the traumas my students had been subjected to as a result of who they are.
If you ask a 9th grader whether or not learning is fun, they will almost always give you a short, predictable answer. Nobody seems to ask 9th grade students whether learning is painful or not.
Again, I left exhausted, but I knew there was work to be done.
My story is one of thousands. There must be many, many teachers who, unsure of what to teach, how to teach it, and when to question their own teaching, sit in the dark doubting their ability. I never liked the phrase “fake it ‘til you make it,” popular among teachers, which normalizes the idea that we will one day go from novice to expert. The phrase seems to set an endpoint for teachers, as though we will one day have 40 years of experience and, thus, no more to learn. That isn’t the teacher I want to be. I’ve erred countless times, and I will continue to err until I retire. I want to be THAT teacher.
Learn more about Kasden Watson on our Contributors page