20 Years in Classrooms — What I Learned in the First Month Still Resonates

In August, 1993, I stepped off of an airplane at Honolulu International Airport to begin a one year assignment as an intern teacher at Punahou School.  I had studied hard for that moment, completing education course work and an English degree at Dartmouth College in 1991 and a Masters in poetry at the Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University.  For a year, I worked at paying off student loans while living with my parents in Massachusetts and searching for teaching jobs, mostly in private schools.  Punahou offered me an amazing opportunity to learn the craft of teaching from one of their veteran English teachers, and what was originally a one year commitment to teaching in Hawai’i became 4 years as I found a new position at the St. Francis School in Manoa Valley after my year at Punahou was up. I have remained in classrooms every year since then — as a graduate student instructor and as a professor.

This month is the end of my 20th anniversary year of teaching, and what I learned that first year in the classroom still resonates deeply and forms a substantial core of my teaching today.  My mentor, Bill, is a marvelous gentleman of English origin who, as we planned our first classes together, told me the core of his teaching philosophy: Teaching happens when interested minds come together to explore interesting content.  It is a simple statement that embodies a great deal, invoking the famous Vgotsky’s triangle and David Hawkins’ essay: “I, Thou, and It”.  Learning in the classroom is different than entirely self-directed learning, because there is a role for an informed “other” to assist the learner and to help shape experiences around a potentially enriching content.  Without the student, the teacher has no work to do, although many forms of teaching rely heavily on ignoring any legitimate role for the student.  Really teaching cannot fall into that.  Of course, it is possible for teacher and student to develop incredibly positive relationships, but for that to become an end in and of itself and set aside the purpose of being there in the first place…is a mistake.  This is why the choice of the “It” is so important as well. Content not only needs to be present for the student/teacher relationship to have a purpose, but also the content itself needs to be full of potential and the object of purposeful work.  Bill’s simple statement opens a world of fascinating conversation, cooperation and projects; it is a platform for a career of teaching.

The second lesson I learned within the first month of teaching had to do with the purposes my students brought to the classroom.  I realized that I had become a high school English teacher because of my long term love affair with reading and writing.  Books are precious to me as a means of gaining information and, probably more importantly, as a way to experience other lives and times and places in depth.  Reading a good book is a means of living in a new world and making new friends.  Writing is a form of personal power.  Richard Lederer’s “The Miracle of Language” was released in 1992, and I still remember an observation it made about the versatility of the English language.  Given the syntax and immense vocabulary available to speakers and writers in English, it is very likely that any time you talk or write that you are putting together the words you use in the order you have used them for the first time in the history of language.  I have always found that intoxicating as a concept — and see writing as a continuation of the human need to put a stamp in the world, to say “I am here” in a way that goes back to the very first cave paintings.

Something became evident to me by the end of my first month teaching: all of my students were NOT going to become high school English teachers.  It would have been so easy to pitch my teaching to the students who most reminded me of myself, but that would not make me an actual teacher.  I needed to not only consider the needs and interests of all of my students, I also needed to invite them all in to experience at least some of what I saw in the subject. This required excitement, innovation, passion, patience, confidence and reflection from me.  It has required it in every since that first one.  The year that I cannot muster those resources to support my knowledge of content and teaching is the year I need to stop.

The third lesson I learned had to do with how sincerely I believed what I said I believed.  Moving 6000 miles from home and taking up the task of teaching other people’s children meant that I not only had to say that I believed in the value of diversity in the classroom, but also I had to do a crash course to learn what I did not know about my students and their many, rich and beautiful, cultures.  Hawai’i is one of the most diverse places in the entire country, and my students could trace ancestry to every corner of the globe.  They were from families who could trace tens of generations in Hawai’i and who had arrived for a multitude of purposes from every inhabited continent since the late 18th century.  They held on to unique cultures from their ancestry and to new cultures that had developed in contact with each other and existed no place else on Earth.

And I, to my substantial humbling, knew absolutely nothing.  In retrospect, I am incredibly grateful for that because even though I know that I could have gone to teach in my hometown and still have a tremendous amount to learn about my students, beginning my teaching in Hawai’i forced me to recognize immediately that you cannot teach without knowing your students and learning from them. I had the astonishing privilege of learning that lesson from some truly remarkable young people.

Focus on the relationship among teacher, student, and content.  Strive to include all students in the beauty and power of your content.  Learn from your students who they are and what they need from you.  It is 2014 and many of the challenges of teaching have changed, but the heart of it has not.  People truly dedicated to this work understand that and project that, and it is the reason, I think, why most parents respect and appreciate their children’s teachers and schools.  It is why the work remains rewarding.

It is why the work is worth defending.

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