Why Do You Want to Be a Teacher?
It was one of the simplest, yet most complicated questions I ever answered in a job interview: why do you want to be a teacher? My reaction? That’s a good question. It’s a question that I try to keep with me as I teach today.
Up to that point, it might have been a gut feeling. Of course, I thought about it before. Like anyone else, I had to write a personal statement that answered that question in a formal, academic way. But now an actual person wanted to know, not a blank piece of paper.
When I answered, I told stories about filling blue book journals in elementary school, reading From the Mixed-up Files of Basil E. Frankweiler, writing a 20-page research paper on Bob Dylan, discussing F. Scott Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Bishop, and watching Thomas Sayers Ellis teach from a chair on top of a desk because, he said, he felt like it.
In high school, I created a binder filled with my favorite quotes from books, poems, and songs. I loved it when I felt like the writer got it just right, when things came together packaged and delivered in a neat, tidy sentence. I wrote down quotes that challenged how I saw the world, or that I thought contained some deep wisdom about the mysteries of existence.
It wasn’t until I taught for a few years that I realized what teaching is really all about. It’s not about my passion for literature at all. It’s about giving students the opportunity to stumble into a world that, in a small way, they will try to define for themselves.
For a few years, I advised a student-run professional art gallery at the high school where I teach. During the opening night of a show, an art teacher said something I’ll never forget. We were laughing about how loud it was, and she said, “That’s good, it’s all about the conversation.”
Teaching literature might work the same way: we teach literature that not only expresses the idea or emotion in the most beautiful, elegant way, but that generates the best conversations. Outside of class, in coffee houses and on sidewalks, students converse about writers that are sometimes dead and gone but are still worthy of our time because the world wouldn’t be the same without them. Even if the world now exists on a phone and planes can shoot us across the planet in no time, the nature of relationships still hasn’t changed much.
Fiction presents an imaginary place to us and asks us to do the mental work. We have to notice the patterns, ask the questions, and dive into the consciousness of person, real or imaginary. It’s the jump out of our consciousness that matters the most. We hear the innermost thoughts and dreams of characters that are fictional, they’re complete strangers to us. But in the end, we cry about what happens to them, and we laugh about the absurdity of their fate. We are with them in the moments that most define them, and we are with them when they sort it all out and make sense of themselves and the people in their lives. We get to see the full picture of their entire reality, and not just a soundbite.
In college, one of my professors asked that we reduce a page in The Portrait of a Lady to a paragraph. Then a sentence. Then she asked, if that’s all that happened, then why the expansion? And now I know: it’s all about the conversation.
In this book, I’ll talk about all the day-to-day excitement of an English language arts classroom – technology, classroom culture, grades, writing, symbolism, metaphors – but I’ll focus on having good conversations, because that’s where literature and language becomes transformative. Conversation is where one story ends and the next begins. Where we step out of the world we live in and step into the one we want to live in.
high school English teacher
Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers