Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Connections to Professional Development: A Letter of Questions

[I wrote this for a friend of mine who will be teaching an English Methods course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her class is based around Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet and Freire's Teachers as Cultural Workers: Letters to Those Who Dare to Teach. She asked me to write a letter to a future educator, particularly a future English teacher. I left it intact here, but feel it applies to all educators. I love that it gave me a chance to reflect and consider my values as an educator.]

To Future English Teacher,

It’s 2014 and this year is notably very different from last year.  Last year I had 7th graders who were eager to learn and thrive.  This years batch of 6th graders are still figuring out how to be nice to each other.  This reminds me that we are all a work in progress - even as I am midway through my 25th year of teaching, I am still quite aware of the ebb and flow of my work.  You are on the brink of something really dynamic where answers do not come so easily and the complexities nag you like an attached two year old child.   Although I’ve had different mentors throughout my life, I will say that the true guides have been questions I’ve asked myself and others.  Questions that do not have pat, simplistic answers but ones that cause me discomfort and stress, breakthroughs and inspiration, and always, always abnormal sleep patterns.  Let me just pose them here for you to consider as you walk down this incredibly important path doing the greatest work in the world.  

The answer to, “Is that the best you could do?” is always no.  At least it is in education.  A better question is, “What resource could help you do that better?”  Depend on people, time, and materials so that you don’t do this work alone.  

Were you in charge of the magic today?  Each of your students come to you with their own stories - they have different needs and need something different from you.  So differentiate.  If there’s anything worth doing really well, it’s learning to teach to the ones on the edges, the ones who get it fast and apply it well, and the ones who need more time to handle it.  Learn to teach the weird.  Get into it with the eccentric and quirky.  You can learn some things from that punk-ass kid who thinks school is a waste of time.   There is no one way to differentiate instruction or curriculum, and the honest truth is it can be large scale disarray.  It can be frustrating and burdensome to prepare different sets of materials and collaborate with colleagues, not to mention the necessary time it takes to collect and analyze student work, but it’s so worth it when your student demonstrates a level of competency. And that’s the hidden secret behind our teacher contracts: We’re super-heroes!

Who has a seat at the table?  Invite your students to learn alongside you.  In a democratic classroom, everyone gets to come to the table.  This means you have to teach the whole kid - not just the brain or the heart, but the whole shebang.  It means that you have to stay up on pop culture, know the names of neighborhood streets and apartment complexes, understand family dynamics and systems, and above all, allow your students to have a say in what they want to learn.  

There’s nothing that makes a teacher feel more vulnerable than times when you just don’t feel like you’re reaching every kid.  What helps is  when you face the question,“Who did you overlook today?” Every day teachers have to push against multiple variables and make instructional decisions that often result in compromising a 5-minute check-in with an attentive student for a 10-minute processing session with one who is struggling.  Embracing this reality is part of the deal, but remember, compromising is not a goal but a temporary solution or diversion.   You’ll get that kid the next day.  

As a future English teacher, you are in charge of words, phrases, literary elements, writing strategies, literature, engaging discussions, multi-media lessons, to name a few.  One of the best guiding questions to ask yourself are three simple ones: “What are my students going to read today?  What are my students going to write today?  What will they talk about today? “  To be really engaging, it’s just as important that you are doing the work you’re requiring of your students.  Would you likely be able to answer these questions for yourself in a way that guides your practice?  The surest way to avoid being that dull English teacher is to make certain you’re reading, writing, and talking - and might I add, creating.  Dust off those blank journals friends and relatives have given you over the years and start recording your stories.  

You’ve gone through schooling and probably some employment so you must know that a dynamic environment can fuel what I call “isms.”  The likes of cynicism, sarcasm, pessimism are torches that can fire you up and burn an unhealthy dose of negativity into your heart, mind, and soul.  Whenever these rise up, you have to wage that battle with yourself to get out of it - you have to ask yourself, “Who did I judge today?”  “What made me feel catty and gossipy?” “What negative emotion or action did I perpetuate?”  And once you’ve had the courage to answer these, you can then self-administer some essence of forgiveness, because tomorrow is a new day.  By the way, be cautious out there - there are those who prefer to live in the world of -isms, so it’s up to you to ask, “How did I experience fair judgement today?”  

It’s almost as if I have to re-learn and re-up my subscription to these questions time and time again. And while the point of this letter is to relate and identify some things I would like pre-service English teachers to know, I hope you understand that content is only part of the practice.  Really, what it really comes down to are introspective questions that are on-going and and risky because it requires communication inwardly and together.  There are times when you will be misunderstood, so if it’s important that you be understood, then say it more clearly.  Say it again.  Then act on it, and live it. Teaching and learning go hand in hand - they’re both verbs and that means that we have to do the conscious work of acting it out.  

And just as I’m coming to a close here, there are still several more questions brewing that I would be remiss not to share.  I leave you with them along with my very best wishes for a risk-filled, active, introspective endeavor.  

What do they believe?
Who do they trust?
What are they afraid of and who do they love?
What are they seeking?
Who are their friends?
Where is the how, the why, and when?


Vera Naputi

6th-7th Grade Teacher
Sherman Middle School

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