Thursday, December 30, 2010

Interview with Mrs. Chili

Mrs. Chili over at A Teacher's Education ( posted her answers to the interview. Interestingly, it followed very similar trends.
My background information is that I am in my 5th year of teaching in a high school (though I have taught at the junior college and university level, as well) in the Northeast. I teach English, writing, literature, poetry, public speaking, critical thinking, and film as literature.


How was actually teaching different from what you expected it to be when you went into teaching?
Teaching is both better and worse than I expected it to be in college. Truly, nothing that happens in a college classroom can prepare one for the experience of being a teacher; despite their best efforts to get us prepared for classroom management and curriculum design and all the day-to-day stuff that happens, there’s really no substitute for being in it. Honestly, I don’t think that someone who hasn’t taught in the field in the last few years has any business teaching a class that prepares teachers for their jobs; I have no problem with someone who’s never (or not recently) taught giving classes in the respective disciplines, but the classes specifically designed to teach people how to function in an honest-to-Goddess classroom should only be taught by people who actually do it (or have recently done it). Maybe that’s just me.

Anyway, I realized that I’m not answering the question. I guess my answer would have to be that I didn’t expect to do as much on-the-fly teaching as I do. I mean, I knew that I wouldn’t be following a plan word-for-word, but I find that I can go off on any of a million different fruitful tangents depending on what interests the students. A kid will pick up on some little detail or ask a question that I didn’t expect, and we’ll spend a whole class period exploring where that takes us. Personally (and professionally), I have no problem with that – in fact, I think it’s really wonderful – but it sometimes leads me to have to recalculate my trajectory for the semester.

What do people not know about schools or teaching that you wish they did?
I wish that people understood how emotionally invested in our work, and our students, we teachers are. Of course, there are the exceptions – I know for sure that I had teachers who were just going through the motions – but I would have to say that the greater percentage of people who go into teaching do it because they love their disciplines and they love their kids. I CARE about how well my students do; I know I have something to give them that will help them get along in the world, something that will ease their way and make their lives richer and more productive. It matters to me that my kids are safe and well cared for. It matters to me that they be given the space they need to grow and change and to sometimes fall flat on their faces. I know I didn’t go into this work for the money (she says with a sharp edge of bitterness in her voice), and I resent the fuck out of people who discount the work that we do because of their perception of the hours that we (supposedly) work. These people take no heed of the fact that teachers are building human beings – the future citizens of our world – and that is no small thing.

What do you think is the biggest problem facing educators today?
The single biggest problem that faces education is that we SAY we value it, but we don’t BEHAVE as though we do. I won’t even tell you how much money I spent out of my own pocket because there are simply no funds for things like paper and pens and books. I hold book fairs and bake sales and I beg my friends and family and the members of my community to give our school the things we need because we don’t have the money to buy them. We talk a good game about how America needs to be on the cutting edge of science and technology, yet we do practically nothing to serve the kids who are in our schools right now.

There’s a bumper sticker that says something like “it will be a great day when schools have all the money they need and the military has to hold a bake sale to buy another bomber.” Our priorities are NOT what we claim them to be, and until we start behaving as though education matters, it will all be just so much lip service.

What is the best thing about teaching?
The kids, without question. I ADORE my students, and I bear each and every one of them a particular variety of maternal love (though I will admit to loving some more than others). I have formed great relationships with most of my students since I began doing this work, and it is the exchanges and interactions I have with my students that I find most rewarding about this job. There is little that equals the high of seeing a kid finally GET something that she’s been struggling with for however long we’ve been working on it; the look of “Oh, my GOD, I GET IT!!” that crosses their faces is just fantastic, and the fact that they’ll never think the same way again is something that I treasure. I’ve been fortunate to witness a lot of those moments (I call them “Helen Keller moments” in honor of the famous scene at the water pump), and the potential for more is what keeps me hooked on this work.

I’m also in love with my discipline, and getting to share that with a new group of kids every year is more fun than I expected it to be. I get to read and talk about books for a living! Really; how can that be bad?!

Where do you see yourself ten years from now?
My intention is to keep doing what I’m doing, though I can’t say for sure that I’ll be doing it WHERE I am now. I teach at a tiny charter high school whose long-term future is somewhat murky (between funding and the disposition of the Department of Ed toward charter schools, we’re not sure whether we’ll see ten years though, in a fit of optimism, the board signed a 20 year lease with our current landlords, so….). Mr. Chili jokes that I’m his retirement plan, so it’s a good thing I like what I do, because he plans on my doing it for a while. I’m okay with that; I’m still excited to get up and go to work every morning. Someone once said that if you find something you love to do, you’ll never work a day in your life. I think that someone was exactly right.

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