A huge turning point in my life was when I realized that I was a terrible teacher.
I had started off with promise. Out of college, teaching had not been my first career choice — I had decided to take a “break” from a doctoral program that I had entered right out of undergrad because I wanted to move back to New England and because I was wracking up student loan debt despite my fellowship. But my internship year at Boston Latin School, a prestigious exam school from which past presidents and many of Boston’s most prominent citizens had attended, had convinced me that maybe I was born to be a teacher.
I had 7th and 11th grade classes at Boston Latin, and they were all just a delight. Every student was active and engaged, and they responded to my assignments with hard work and enthusiasm. They even complained if I gave TOO LITTLE homework! They hung on my every word and asked to hang out with me after class.
The next year I got a job at a suburban public middle school, and I taught seventh grade English and history. And it was the biggest disaster of my life. Turns out that ordinary seventh graders are nothing like the ones who apply and are accepted to Boston Latin. They were rude, loud, didn’t care at all about colonial history, and — most disturbingly of all — seemed to dislike me intensely. All they cared about was gossiping, talking about school dances, passing notes with their friends, and picking on other kids. I cried in my classroom nearly every day after the students left. This was the first time in my life that I tried to do something that I cared about, and — no matter how hard I worked, no matter how hard I tried — I was a failure.
But then I took two classes over the summer, one on children’s literature and another about how to teach writing workshop. I had a million huge moments of realization that summer. What I brought back into the classroom changed my teaching and changed my view of adolescence and kids’ learning. Most of all, I realized that all the trials and tribulations of being a seventh grader — the daily crisis of confidence, the overwhelming confusion over your role as a friend, the beginnings of sexual attraction and hormonal flux — were not things to fight against or to ignore. Embrace them, in your teaching or your parenting, and use them as points of connection.
1. The first rule of teaching is not to be the best instructor of content matter, but to be the best listener. Children will tell you what they need to learn — maybe not in words — if you are open to hearing them.
2. Model your own thinking and your own writing in the classroom. Show them how you write and what you write about. Show them that you are a real person who uses writing to think deeply. Show your rough drafts, show your brainstorming, show your tossed out scribblings.
3. Allow choice in your assignments. During my first year of teaching, I chose all the novels based on the history curriculum (colonial America). Big mistake. We read Johnny Tremain and other classics of the American Revolution. Great books, but mostly disconnected from the lives of ordinary adolescents. Now I allowed kids to choose the books that they wrote about, and for class discussions, I chose books that touched on themes that were more relevant to their daily lives.
4. Adolescents are not selfish or self-involved. Or, well, maybe they are some of the time, but there are legitimate neurological reasons for this. Our pre-frontal cortex — the part of the brain that controls reasoning, impulse control, and self-reflection — is going through some profound shifts. It’s literally adding the parts that allow us to develop our own self-identity and to be good at self-regulation. Brain chemicals, such as dopamine, are surging during the teenage years, causing every experience to feel more intense, more life and death. The continuous drama of adolescence may literally be programmed into our brains. Just realizing this caused me to be more patient and empathetic with kids.
5. A classroom is a community. Before any learning can take place, you have to develop a sense of trust and caring. And this takes time and must be prioritized just as much as tests and essays.
I did not become a great teacher overnight. But reading about kids’ lives through children’s literature and giving kids a voice in their own learning ultimately made me the kind of teacher that I wanted to become.
I don’t have adolescent children of my own yet. But I think that these suggestions could help parents as well. Yesterday, I wrote about how much I learned about adolescence and how much empathy I developed for their everyday concerns from reading novels with teenage narrators.
- Don’t stop reading children’s literature once your kids are no longer in elementary school. It will help you to understand their lives.
- Prioritize developing a sense of community in your household. Do projects together, and make time for family conversations about family goals and priorities.
- Model your own thinking about how you make decisions and how you puzzle over and solve the issues in your life. My teaching really changed once I started to share my decision-making processes — about writing but also the struggles that I had faced in the past and even in the present.
How do you connect with your kids? What are the qualities of a great teacher, in your view?