Teaching is a lot like childbirth. If we told teachers-to-be the truth about their futures, education majors everywhere would take their college loans and head for the hills.
Instead, we use educator Newspeak, gingerly telling these trainees that “no textbook can fully prepare them,” that their first year will be “baptism by fire,” and even that “it’s a lot of work but so incredibly worth it.”
I heard these same euphemisms as my cape-clad self sauntered into my first classroom. In those early years, the only time I took off my pinkish-hued spectacles was to polish them. Pollyanna or not, I entered teaching to inspire young minds.
Twenty years later, I’m feeling anything but inspiring. Don’t get me wrong: I still honestly love what I do and adore the time I spend with my students. However, tonight is Progress Report Eve, and as I choke and gasp and flail in this sea of grading, I know that most of it will have little to no effect on my students’ term grades. And none of this paints the whole picture of my students’ growth.
If I were completing a progress report on myself, I would use William Arthur Ward’s aphorism as my barometer:
“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”
I used to tell like nobody’s business. With sage-like wisdom, I would tell my students what the symbols were in To Kill a Mockingbird and would even count to five behind my back while they recorded said wisdom. A lot of my telling was housed in beautifully photocopied, created-from-scratch, novel packets. The way a new mother takes pride in making her own organic baby food, I prided myself on the fact that I didn’t photocopy already-created units or scavenge online sources. Instead, I was thinking for myself–the way I wanted my students to approach the texts. (Ironically, now the phrase “smarter not harder” comes to mind.) However, I was still telling my students what to think and how to think it.
In those early years, despite the fact that I only saw daylight through my classroom windows–only to do even more work at home (which I don’t recommend for a young marriage) and despite the fact that I carried, like a badge of honor, the largest school tote L.L. Bean had to offer (the more essay leg room, the better) and despite the fact that I purchased every classroom poster available (er, I may or may not still do this) and despite the fact that I wasn’t sure in April whether or not I wanted to return to a second year of teaching (it hardly felt worth it), Ward was right: I was positively mediocre. Even though I worked so hard.
A few years later, I had blossomed into Ward’s “good” teacher that explained. I don’t know how effectively I explained, mind you; however, I do know that I did less “X is symbolic of Y” and more “Authors use symbolism for many reasons.” I was still telling but was at least supporting my generalizations with textual evidence–the same skill I was asking my students to employ.
Then came the age of “superior” demonstrating, during which I began modeling and using exemplars in my teaching.”This is how you look for symbols in To Kill a Mockingbird. Your turn.” This I-Do-You-Do approach, according to Ward, is the mark of a superior teacher. Now we were getting somewhere. These teachers, Ward asserts, are superior–or at least better than those teachers who simply tell and/or explain. However, they are still not great.
And neither am I.
I don’t play the coquettish teacher very well–the one who feigns humility but knows full well the impact she has on her students. Because I don’t honestly know if I’m leaving an impression on them or not. I desperately hope that I inspire them–or at least that I present literature and life through a fresh, new lens. However, I am definitely not there yet. While I have come a long way
baby, I cautiously navigate each new, detour-laden day with a crumpled-up map in one hand and a correcting pen in the other.
With 125 progress reports still left to complete tonight, I take comfort in knowing that each year in the classroom has brought with it growth–both for me and my students. And that’s what I call progress.