Sunday, March 8, 2009

Fact Check

Teaching is so terribly fascinating because I am constantly learning as I am teaching. Here I am. 24. Fresh out of college, getting ready to graduate again and I am a teacher. Teaching is my accidental calling (as I have explained in earlier posts), and I'm good at it so why do I sometimes get so nervous? I'll tell you why: My audience.

As an undergrad and in grad school, you sit in courses with like-minded people. All of you are literally and figuratively on the same page. You all show up to class having read the same novel with vastly different opinions and observations ready to share/contribute. After the first couple of courses/papers, you really don't need to prove yourself to anyone anymore because opinions about you have been solidified. In my case, most of them knew I am stark raving brilliant and that I will go tit for tat with them about how Huck Fin is NOT the Great American Novel. I digress. The point is, you're all pretty much at the same "level." I mean this in an academic sense.

When you enter a high school classroom the playing field is DRASTICALLY different. You think you know all there is no to know about something until you have to teach it to teenagers.

My situation is unique. The job I have now landed on my lap. In preparation for my first day of teaching, I had the Head of the English department tell me to make sure I knew Animal Farm front and back because if I didn't "I was not going to be able to sell it." Sell it. Sell them Animal Farm. What does that even mean?

I figured it out the first time I was stumped on a question or a detail about the novel. I was embarrassed, sure, but I learned from my embarrassment. Now, before I open my mouth, I make damn sure I know all there is to know about what I am teaching. If I don't - the lesson falls apart. My credibility is out the window. Trust is stripped. They are a tough crowd and I have a snowball's chance in hell of getting it back.

To avoid this from happening again, I do fact checks. Often. Theories, definitions, parts of speech, themes, pronunciations, literary terms. You name it. I fact check it. I do this for them. Not only because I love them unconditionally, but because they will eat me alive if I don't know. I don't believe in lying to them. I cannot physically lie to my students, so when faced with something I don't know I tell them I have to research it rather than give them false information or say 'I don't know.'

I fact check because they deserve to have a teacher who, though not formally trained as a teacher, can sell them a novel, short story or poem without so much as blinking an eye. If that doesn't work, I am fortunate enough to work in a school where we can (and do) "phone a friend" when we feel a sale is slipping through our fingers.


  1. This is the pressure of being in an environment like that. You have to be on your A game all the time or they'll pounce on you. However, I don't think you need to be able to sell something front and back and know everything there is to know. Just as important as knowing all the answers is knowing how to redirect the question back on the students. It's good to not be caught off guard but when you are, it's about reacting properly.

  2. Looks as if you are becoming a reflective practitioner. Excellent! Matt is right -- part of the art is to find ways to empower them to construct their own knowledge of the text. Congratulations -- the joy and commitment to your work is evident in your writing.

  3. I'm on the Matt bandwagon here, too. Literature is an art and is subject to as many interpretations as there are readers. How great would it be to redirect the question back to the class and ignite your own point of view through their responses? I'm not a teacher, but I've found that helpful in a variety of work related situations, especially when leading people.

    I get you, though. I'm a perfectionist and feel most confident when I've researched every nook and cranny prior to meeting my audience. Just don't put too much pressure on yourself. I say this not knowing what it's like to sit in front of high school students, but I'm sure there are techniques you can draw from that may make your life a bit easier.

  4. Thank you for all your responses. :)


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