"The best teacher is the one who suggests rather than dogmatizes, and inspires his listener with the wish to teach himself." . E. B.-L.


What Dreams May Come

* taken from another blog (since deleted); originally posted June 19, 2011

I am delighted by and sometimes plagued with the most confusing, multifarious dreams. Literally, I will dream about some person I might have skulked by in a high school hallway ten years ago, and in the dream, this person will be my best friend. His facial features will be crisp and precise, and I will have with him the sorts of conversations one only does with someone they see almost every day. In my dream, Random Hallway Skulker would likely know aspects of me that no one else save for my mother and husband do - perhaps that I only eat solid, white tuna canned in water, or that I peel grapes. This person who is little more than a blip in my past - this real life, likely living in Connecticut and married with kids person - will know me intimately in my dream. Strange, right? Why does this happen?

Of course, the "random stranger as best friend" makes up only one genre of my dreams. Often, I will dream about people who have made a more everlasting impact on my life, but of whom the thought of thinking subconsciously in my sleep is still a bit unsettling - people like my students. As a high-school English teacher, and a young, female one at that, I might be treading into some uneasy territory by admitting that yes, I have had dreams of my students in the past. Yes, even the male ones. Typically, we're doing the most innocuous things like partaking in a nature hike or moshing at an Anthrax concert, but still, they're there. Oddly enough (as if any part of this was normal), it's usually the quiet ones who sit in the middle of the classroom and are the first out the door everyday, not the kids I get to know on a more personal, friendly level. Again, why? And why do these people make their way into the stories of my nightly slumber in such radically out of context ways? The random blip from high school is my best friend in the coffee shop, and the sullen student in row three is classifying plant-life while I take notes. What is my subconscious trying to tell me?

Now, I'm not one to get all diagnostic on dreams, not for a lack of faith in those diagnoses, but simply because I wouldn't have any idea where to start. I mean, I can handle the cliched "being naked onstage means you're feeling vulnerable," thing, but my dreams are never that 1. simple or 2. short. In any given, uninterrupted dream, I may partake in 20 or so different experiences with 15-40 people in 5-10 different locations. I'm not joking. How do I ever sit down and begin to configure what my subconscious is trying to tell me when we're dealing with feature film-length montages?

Maybe I can't crack the code completely, but that doesn't keep me from trying to break it down, piece by piece. One thing that I do presume is that the out of place presence of random faces from my past may signify a subconscious desire to reconnect with my roots. This makes perfect, logical sense as someone who underwent two major moves in my lifetime, both of which left many questions about what relationships may have flourished had I stayed and the repercussions since I didn't. Both of my moves happened somewhat suddenly, so I cut off a lot of things prematurely - friendships, jobs, routines, etc. Perhaps the frayed ends of those things are grasping back at me years later. Perhaps that random blip was destined to really be my best friend in the coffee shop one day, in conscious time. Maybe we would have even gone grocery shopping, and he would have chuckled at my felinish discrimination of tuna types and brands - did I mention I'm a BumbleBee girl?

As for "sullen in row three," I've supposed that my subconscious is telling me I didn't reach out enough to him, that my attempts to draw him out of his shell and forge a connection were too feeble. My subconscious could be picking up on facets of him that my conscious misses. As I'm shuffling through late passes, sorting handouts, and answering the same question for the umpteenth time for the worrisome front-rower before the bell rings, he could be doodling the Anthrax band logo in his binder margins, or perusing a botany magazine. Maybe the in-the-moment side of me doesn't notice, but the subconscious does, grasping that important tidbit and filing it away, only to unveil it again while I snooze, when I have the time, in some way, to pay attention.

I'm not sure what it is my dreams are trying to tell me, but I believe in earnest that it's something. Experiences this strange that have me so rapt in my waking hours can't be without significance. Of course, maybe I'm just crazy, but I'm nowhere near prepared to open that can of tuna fish.



Today, I ran my first ever 5K. A few months ago, if you'd have asked me if I could do this, if I could run a race without stopping, without walking, without wasting away, I would have chuckled and changed the subject. You see, I am not a "runner." I will never be a "runner." Don't get me wrong; I run. But for me, "run" is a verb. It's not an identity. It's not a part of who I am. "Runners" live in Under Armour and Saucony's. "Runners" have long, sinewy legs devoid of cellulite, taut arms and tummies, and perpetually determined looks on their faces, right? How could I ever include myself among this exclusive pack?

Except, somehow, I think I am. One race down - 31:44. A respectable time for a someone who couldn't run a half mile without stopping a month ago. On top of that, I have two more races (so far) lined up for the next few months, and a goal of a half-marathon in December. Sure, I still have some cellulite to speak of, and probably will for life, and I tend to prefer Nike to Under Armour. But I ran a race today. I finished a race today. Without stopping, without quitting, without ever even entertaining the thought that it couldn't be done. Suddenly, the whole concept is morphing in my mind. Perhaps it's more than a verb for me, this "run" word. Perhaps it's actually a growing part of my identity.

Kind of like how I'm almost a "teacher" now. (Yes, you had to know a runner/teacher analogy was well on its way.)

Over the past few months, when I've been introduced to someone new and they've asked me what it is I do for a living, I've responded with some sputtering, random variation of the following: "Well, I just finished up a year-long teaching internship and I will eventually be an English teacher." And just like that, I throw all potential recognition of how hard I worked last year, how much I've actually taught thus far, and what I have become out the window. Am I not an English teacher because I have yet to find full-time, permanent employment? Does the paycheck define me more than the work I've put in?

Well, no. Of course not. But if I say that I'm a teacher, won't people ask me where I work and what grades I teach and all sorts of perfectly logical questions that I am not currently in a position to answer? Well, yes. Of course. And then I'll eventually have to back up and tell them that actually, I don't have a "real" job yet. Granted, I'm locked in for two long-term sub positions next year, for which I interviewed and was selected from among a pool of other applicants, and for which I will be paid (although sadly not in the realm of what permanent teachers make). But still...does this count? Am I a  fraud if I call myself a "teacher"?

These are the thoughts that have been permeating my brain all summer, and they haven't been put to rest with the acquisition of the subbing opportunities. Similarly to my inner fear over calling myself a "runner" as opposed to "someone who runs," I find myself unnerved by the thought of labeling myself a "teacher." It seems ludicrous when you consider the time, money, effort, and desire I've invested in this whole thing for the last ten years, but there it is. After all this time, I just don't feel worthy yet. My whole life, I've put real teachers on pedestals, admiring their tenacity and struggles and triumphs and thus raising them to a bar that is near impossible for me to reach even now. The same way I've cruised down local surface streets just past dawn and felt pangs of inadequacy watching "runners" go by, I think of all my great "real" teacher friends, most of whom are former colleagues I've watched in action, and worry I'm sort of a fraud. "Teachers" live in comfortable shoes and drink more coffee than I ever could. Their students are devoid of wonder over where their lessons are going, they are always on top of their grading, and they know how to unjam copiers. I mean, I can teach, but I will never be a teacher. Right?

[Insert the sound of every experienced teacher letting out a hearty, collective "BWAHAHA."]

Except, somehow, I think I am. You see, being a runner and being a teacher have more in common than a required affinity for comfortable shoes. Just as the thought of myself as a "runner" has been difficult to come to, the thought of me as a "teacher" is too, because it demands a gradual change. One job offer or paycheck or similar factor does not the title create, and a little piece of me thinks that even if I had a full-time, permanent job in my dream school, I wouldn't yet feel 100% confident in using that term just yet - and that's okay. It'll come naturally, in its own time, when I feel I've sufficiently earned it. Until then, I'll continue plodding away at my training miles, increasing my pace every so slightly over a number of weeks, and eventually, I'll arrive at the first of many finish lines. Without stopping. Without quitting. And without ever entertaining the possibility that it can't be done.

Gosh, I need new shoes.


To Suggest > To Dogmatize: Goals For My First Year

One thing I've noticed as a prospective teacher for the last 7+ years of my life is that there are tons of popular quotations out there which sing the praises and profess the pains of the profession. Everyone from Albert Einstein, JFK, and Khalil Gibran has had something to say about the "art" of education and the artists who work its magic. Most imply not that the job in and of itself is a difficult one, but that doing it well (the measurement of this being a wise, eager, educated group of students) is a major challenge. For instance, consider the following from Dr. Haim Ginott:

"Teachers are expected to reach unattainable goals with inadequate tools. The miracle is that at times they accomplish this impossible task."

Now I only have a year's worth of student teaching and a handful of school placements under my belt, but I completely agree with this assessment. To use a completely non-descriptive, simple and blunt statement (for which I would chastise a student because I am an English teacher!): Teaching is hard. Allow me to break the rules of good writing and fragment that for emphasis: Teaching. Is. Hard. Actually, perhaps the best way to effectively get this point across is to place the adjective before the noun, as is rarely done post-19th century:


If that sentence appears odd to you, bear with me and consider this: Is it possible that anything which we find to be "hard" involves either learning, or facilitating the learning process in another?

But I digress.

The truly amazing thing is that often times, the same people who belittle this profession (why yes, I have heard that those who can't do teach...how clever!) simultaneously hold some pretty heavy and (truthfully) unrealistic expectations of those they deign to look down on. Everything from budget crises, unconcerned parents, and unmotivated students who would rather plug into one of their eleventy bajillion tech gadgets than turn a single page of required text can provide a roadblock to success for any student. And yet, we're still expected to make it happen, against all odds. Truly, I believe when you look at the big picture, the barrage of bad news, the incidental circumstances, it's easy to become jaded, thinking that it's easier for a student to fail than to succeed. And truly, I think it is.

Of course, I'm too young in my career to be jaded. I have yet to enter my first classroom as a real, live (and by that I mean "paid, non-indentured") teacher, have yet to utter my first "Good morning, class" or dole out my first detention. However, those milestones are just around the corner, as I will be subbing long-term in 10th, 11th, and 12th grade English classes for the upcoming year. How do I feel? Excited. Nervous. Humbled. Anxious. But mostly, especially when reading through collections of quotes about teaching and how, well, hard it is, I feel intimidated. After all, JFK thought teaching was hard, and he had arguably the most challenging job known to man (and paid dearly for it).

Luckily for me, there are also those words that inspire. Those encouraging words that infuse me with confidence and a sense of purpose rather than fear and a sense of inadequacy. These are the quotations that shift the focus off of the inherent difficulty of a teacher doing good (noun, not adjective) and instead concentrate on the magic that happens when that occurs. Words like this:

"The best teacher is the one who suggests rather than dogmatizes, and inspires his listener with the wish to teach himself."

Edward Bulwer-Lytton - he sure knew his stuff. In addition to the above-quoted, he gave the world "the pen is mightier than the sword." Truly a man after my own heart. What he's basically saying in much prettier terms is that good teachers make students want to learn authentically, organically, for their own purposes and needs rather than the expectations of some stodgy old teacher or standardized test. A truly beautiful concept, especially when you consider that one of the greatest mysteries befalling teachers today is how to motivate students, not just to learn but to want to learn. I questioned this daily while in my teacher education program and will probably continue to do so forever. I'm positive I'll never have "the answer," mostly due to students all being motivated by different factors such as parental expectations, personal goals, and cultural backgrounds. Every student is different, so common sense tells us we'd be remiss in expecting all students to want the same things for the same reasons.

A possible means to an end, not a solution or answer but a simple possibility, is to provide as many motivators for self-education as you can to your students. Consider that many are motivated by relationships, many by grades, and most by a connection between what they're learning and what they care about. That said, this endeavor is a lot easier said than done when you consider the rigors of standardized tests and following a curriculum, but I've developed some personal goals for my first years of teaching and beyond that will hopefully help:

1. Get to know my students. The more I know about their interests and what they want out of my class (just "to pass it" will simply not fly) and their lives in general at that point, the more I can connect ideas to real-life interests, and help them see how what they're learning is applicable.

2. Work with other teachers. It can be easy for teachers, especially newbs like myself, to forget that their students only spend a small fraction of their day in each teacher's classroom. The student who is sullen and morose in English can be alive and interested in Trigonometry (or vice-versa, as is my biased hope). I plan on keeping up with my students' attitudes by talking to their other teachers about what works and doesn't work in their own classrooms. Teachers are each others' best allies.

3. Start a creative writing club. Last year, I was floored by the number of students I had who were poets, short-story writers, even novelists, purely for pleasure. I even worked in a classroom where a tenth-grade student was writing a novel on his TI-84 calculator! As much as I would love to assign this kind of creative writing more often in my classes, it's not always possible. The demands of research papers, analyses, and journals, unfortunately, come first fairly often. However, I would love interested writers to have a place to share and receive constructive criticism, to know that the writing they do for no grade at all still matters and the writing they do on which they are graded can help them improve what they do for fun.

4. ??? This is where I welcome advice/experiences/suggestions from fellow teachers on how they motivate and inspire their students "to teach themselves." English teachers, math teachers, science teachers - we all have one thing in common. We teach people. How do you suggest? What do you do to inspire?