I’ve got a lot to learn. Even after decades of reading, writing, and learning to be a teacher, I often feel the sinking feeling of inadequate. Every spring she floats to the surface, and sends a garbled message that makes me question: Did I do enough to help my students?
Help them with what?
When I first started teaching high school English, I thought it was all about the books. I loved literature. I wanted them to love literature. How can they love it if I don’t help them see the complex beauty of well-crafted sentences and heart-achingly human plot lines? I was that teacher: I taught books instead of readers. (Many of you have heard me speak about my Dickens’ debacle. Believe me, it was the worst of times.) Like many new teachers, I taught like I had been taught. I did not focus on the learner and her needs. I did not focus on the reader and his interest, ability, or anything that matters to growing readers. My focus squared fully on what I thought a high school English class should be: classic lit (chosen by me), study questions (written by me), analysis essays (prompts by me), and me helping my students “understand” what they had just read. (Not even considering that they may not have read the assigned pages at all.)
Last week I celebrated with family as my daughter and her husband graduated from
Utah State University. We watched close to 2,000 graduates in two different college commencement ceremonies walk the stage and into the next part of their life’s journey. Many of those graduates intend to be teachers. It’s a beautiful thing, really. New blood, new energy, new passion in a very demanding career. I hope it doesn’t eat them alive.
It won’t — if they are better prepared than I was.
That’s what kept hopping through my head as I watched so many young people shake hands and clasp diploma covers — evidence of their academic accomplishment: Has their education prepared them for the realities of teaching? Will those going into ELA classrooms teach books or teach readers? It’s a lot of years later, do they know more than I did? Of course, I know next to nothing about USU’s College of Education, although according to the Dean, they are highly ranked. That’s not the point.
So what is the point?
I’ve still got a lot to learn. But if I can help speed dial the learning for other English teachers, I’ll do it. Here’s four things I know for sure:
- be literacy teachers — not just literature teachers. (I first heard Kelly Gallagher say this at a conference years ago. This shift in perspective changed me. Readicide is still a go to resource.)
- be purposeful in developing readers and writers, and let that be our guide as we plan, prepare, and present lessons. (I thank God for Penny Kittle. Write Beside Them sparked my move into authentic writing instruction. It’s the only professional book I’ve read more than once. Also, Book Love.)
- be inclusive in all aspects of our teaching from the resources we choose to the attitudes we take and how we talk and act and advocate, and how we work to create relationships, break down barriers, fight injustice. (In the past couple of years, I’ve learned a lot from Cornelius Minor about having an inclusive mindset. His book We Got This would be a good gift for new teachers, for every teacher.)
- be reflective, yes, but more vital to meeting the needs of all learners, be responsive. (That’s the intricate simplicity of the workshop model of instruction: We meet the needs of individual students in the moment of their struggles and their strengths.)
You and I both know there’s so much more. The whole teaching gig can be so overwhelming. (Thus, one reason I’ve relished in my gap year.) If nothing else, I hope all ELA teachers, new and not-so-new, will focus on themselves this summer: Read a lot. Write a lot. Think a lot. That’s really all it takes to master #1.)
Amy Rasmussen lives, writes, paints, and gardens in North Texas. She’s taught all levels of high school English, except AP Lit, and now she’s seriously thinking about middle school — or college. She facilitates readers-writers workshop training wherever she’s invited and loves to see ideas percolate and passions ignite as teachers sit in the seats as learners, internalizing the philosophies and routines of RWW. For more info on trainings, check out the 3TT PD page.