This particular event in my teaching career occured many years ago. I had been a high school music teacher for all of my career to that date. However, the music position had been reduced, due to declining enrollment, to less than full time. And, since I had the apropriate credentials to teach English, my timetable was set up to include teaching two classes of Grace 10 General level English.
That year, together with the year in which I introduced the Reading Tutor programme to my school, was pivotal to my development as a teacher. Teaching outside of my particular comfort zone [not teaching music] caused me to consider what had been my beefs when I was a student and what being an educator truly meant to me.
Although I did not see this year and these classes and students as a gift at the time, in truth they were. Thanks to working with them, I read and talked to good mentors and thought about all that I was taking in. Thanks to this year, I deepened my sense of self as an educator and changed how I worked. I began to change from ‘teacher’ to ‘educator’. It made a world of difference to me and to who I became.
This was that year.
It was my first English class in a semestered system. I had never taught ENG 2G0 before. How was I to fill a seventy-five minute period? How could I get through it? How could I keep their attention? How could I survive?
I consulted my department head and several of the English teachers at school. The advice I received was to keep them working – churning out the product – and to keep them writing.
I spent the summer reading the required course texts and creating worksheets, questions, spelling lists, and grammar drills. I though that I had prepared enough work for the first two months of the semester – that I was prepared for this class.
I was very wrong. All my good intentions could not have prepared me for this class.
I faced a class of twenty boys and seven girls. The room was a disaster: four long closely packed rows, walls a bilious green with a hideous mural on one of them. Only one blackboard was useable. The glare cast by the other one rendered it useless. The room was poorly lit. All in all, as I stood at the front of the class, I felt as though I was at the entrance of a long, threatening tunnel.
I was stymied by this class: by one male student who always called me “Dude”; by another with his unreasonable and uncontrollable temper; by yet another, hyperkinetic and silly. I often felt like a circus performer tossing spelling, literature, grammar, and writing before the class in the hopes of keeping them entertained and at bay.
Early on, my department head asked me if I needed an elephant gun. I replied that I only needed a whip and chair. I wasn’t pleased with what I was doing, but I coped and survived.
I taught the course the way I had been taught: analysis and imitation of models, and didactic teaching style. Writing was not style or voice but, rather, mechanics and grammar. The writing topics as well as the presentation format were entirely laid on by me. Evaluation was very mechanical. Red penned POS’s, TA’s, SVA’s, awk. const., and RO’s garlanded the page. I didn’t consider content and individual style over the demand for grammatical correctness.
Unfortunately, what I was really doing, in spite of all my good intentions, was negative reinforcement. Having something valuable for you to say was not as important as how you said it. Some of my students would inevitably feel that they had ‘missed the mark’ – that they couldn’t write and were incapable (read stupid). Marking their work with red pen, fixing their mistakes (wasn’t that nice of me?) seemed to underscore the tacit assumption that the students could have avoided making these mistakes if they had only been more careful.
Tuesday morning, period one. After reading the morning announcements and getting one student to leave her pen alone (that obnoxious incessant clicking sound is grating!) and another to stop cracking her gum (why can’t kids chew gum with their mouths closed?) and yet another to stop talking to her friends across the room, I would hand out foolscap and give forth with the assigned writing topic for the period – possibly ‘How to Buy a Pet Shark’ or ‘I’ll Never Forget the Day When…’. (Like all teachers, I have a large store of these gimmicks.) I would remind my students that they had one period to formulate, write, and correct a writing assignment that had to be at least one side of a sheet of foolscap, single-spaced in length.
I convinced myself that I was doing my students a service. After all, I had provided them with rules and models to show them how to create narrative, descriptive, and expository paragraphs, hadn’t I? We had discussed point of view, hadn’t we? They had to learn to write under pressure, didn’t they? The end of semester Comprehensive Writing Tests would be on topics that would not be particularly interesting, challenging, or relevant, wouldn’t they?
I was doing my job, wasn’t I? They were writing on a consistent basis (their grumbling notwithstanding). There was a specific function to their writing. In addition to these weekly in-class assignments, there were also assignments which I developed from the literature studied in class. So…I was ‘doing right’ by my students, I thought. By stressing originality and some newness, humour and irony, varied word choice and sentence structure, I was allowing for some individuality and voice.
However, although I would write to each student at the end of the assignment with suggestions and praise, I still had not restrained the urge to mark up their work with red pen. I was still being interventionist by stressing that my students accept my directives (topic, purpose, evaluation criteria) over their own interests.
Although I remembered all the beefs that I had had in high school and my resentment of non-creative, imposed conformity, and although I hypothesized that my students would have many of the same feelings I had had, what I viewed as the pragmatics of the situation to cover the assigned curriculum made me stress to my students that they needed the institutional stamp of approval. They must, therefore, control their responses to the given assignments and to their learning environment and accept that ‘teacher knows best’. I may have relaxed my outlook on things a bit based on my intuitive analysis of the situation but I was still shackled by my sense of the reality of the situation and my understanding of what my students needed to do to play the educational ‘game’.
Writing Folders. It was my job to incorporate the philosophy of the board’s senior management into the routines of my classes. Hence, I had to incorporate writing folders in my English classes. However, I felt intimidated by the fancy blue folders and the list of ideas for writing formats which each contained. There was no discussion or instruction about how to use that list or the folders. Who needed to be in-serviced about writing folders? Me, for one. To me, writing folders seemed to be nothing more than repositories for completed work.
There didn’t seem to be any more student-directed and generated writing although the folder was there and its stated purpose was to encourage this. Some think-tank guru assumed that, given the opportunity, students would choose to write to express their opinions, ideas, and feelings. We may, as this guru posited, need to write to express ourselves and assert out individuality, but I didn’t know how to motivate or encourage my students to explore their world through writing.
Part and parcel with this folder was the use of writing partners and the writing process. Would in-service be provided to understand these? What was I thinking? Again, I had to stumble my way toward some form of truth regarding these. Oedipus or Diogenes often came to mind.
I taught the stages of the writing process as I had come to understand them during my academic travels. Conferences with students about their writing is one of the core elements of the writing process. However, I didn’t know how to conference with students about their writing and so I avoided the process or did it in a way I have come to view poorly, concentrating on mechanical correctness over meaning.
As time progressed, I came to feel that my students’ imaginations were shackled and their individuality deadened by the misinformation and misconceptions of both participants (them and me).
Although I did not see it as such at the time, the experiences of this one year were my ‘road to Damascus’. I wasn’t doing poor work, but I wasn’t doing the work I knew I could do. So began my journey to seek out new ideas, to broaden my understanding, to investigate theories, to observe others. It has been an interesting, enlightening and worthwhile exploration: all starting when I began to teach outside of my experiential comfort zone.