Archive for July 2009

I Am a Teacher

At the beginning of my formal studies as a writer, I met a teacher – a college professor to be precise – who told me not to worry, that he wasn’t “one of those jealous teachers who holds his students back…” I thanked him as if it were a reflex, but about forty-seven seconds later I was stunned. I had no idea this was even a consideration with teachers, but I suppose I’ve been naïve in thinking that a teacher’s one and only job is to inspire the next generation to bigger and better things. It can’t only be to fill them with knowledge, because what are facts and concepts anyway? Just things that occupy our very short time on this planet. I mean, who really needs to know what symbolism is? Personification? Simile? I taught all that stuff to seventh graders because a human being put it into the curriculum. Do we really want young people to catch every instance of hyperbole in a book they’re reading?

The more I thought about the college professor the more I realized that there were so many factors for the statement. He was insecure with his own talent. He told me frequently that there were far better writers than he. The difference was that he’s the one who has kept going. The rest quit. He counted on this, welcomed it, he told me. I don’t blame him, but what did he hold back from me as a result of this insecurity?

It’s difficult, I guess, to be a college writing teacher because the students aren’t just competing with one another, but with the professor as well. A writer might be a threat once he’s reached a specific age, and it’s very easy for someone with influence to pull back teachings and stop a student from advancing forward. There are so many millions of variables when it comes to being a good writer, and holding back one of these variables can be the difference between a young writer quitting from lack of confidence and a writer flourishing. Sometimes it takes fifteen or thirty seconds to propel a student forward for decades. What a crime it is to reserve some of these possibilities and allow them to lie dormant in a jealous and insecure mind, because a student can never, ever know what he’s missing.

The job of a teacher is to reveal everything he can – to bend and allow the eager student to stand on his shoulders and allow his knowledge to be a jumping-off point. If this isn’t what you are doing as a teacher, you need to quit right now.

High school teachers tend not to subscribe to this garbage because there’s really no threat, right? I mean, most high school students aren’t necessarily interested in absorbing a teacher’s knowledge to propel them into the future. These students just want it to be over with – want the future to come before the knowledge does.

So what the bad high school teacher does is take her jealousy and insecurity out on her peers – on teachers she sees as a threat. A teacher new to a school, even if he’s not a brand new teacher, is susceptible to this, because all he wants is to fit in and keep the machine moving forward until he can get his bearings and experiment with his own methods – make his mark.

The teacher who has been at the school for years has the power to advance or bury the new teacher, and I’m not suggesting that the older teacher should lay everything out on the table and allow the new teacher to flourish, make more money, and secure his own office at her expense. However, what if the new teacher was given all of this at the start? What if he made more money, had a great office, achieved comfortable trust and popularity with his students right from the start?

A teacher who treats her peers this way, especially if she’s a department chair, a principal, a head of school, or a superintendent, will certainly do this to her students and shouldn’t be allowed to call herself a teacher. A teacher is a leader whose job is to make those around her better, and when she works diligently to do the opposite, when she goes out of her way to make those around her worse, she is a complete and utter failure. She’s almost criminal. And she is a teacher in title only.