This week I tackled a title that’s long been on my to-read list: Public Teaching: One Kid at a Time by Penny Kittle. Published in 2003, it’s Penny’s first book, and has a foreword by Don Graves and an afterword by Don Murray.
(Yeesh…no pressure for when the rest of us thinking about writing our first books, right?!)
I loved this book, a collection of short essays plus an interview with Penny at the end. It was readable, honest, and spectacularly well-written, as everything by Penny is. I smiled as I read every page–except for the pages where I was crying. Even in those essays I found myself impressed by the cleverness of Penny’s craft, both in her teaching and writing.
I bookmarked lots of pages and quotes to share with my preservice teachers this fall, but here are five lessons I took away from the reading that I believe are relevant to teachers of all content areas.
No one is perfect.
Penny begins her book with several amusing essays on mishaps from murderous crickets to accidentally-transparent skirts. She eases us into the notion that even she, the great Penny Kittle, has had some missteps in her career, then launches into a few gut-wrenching essays on what she reflects on as her more weighty teaching failures: a student we never say the right thing to, one we lose patience with, one we never teach to love learning or reading or writing.
We all have memories of those students, and Penny honors this with her writing. I loved these vulnerable, humble essays that remind me we all ride a rollercoaster of success when it comes to our teaching.
Classroom management is a myth.
Penny tells the story of a novice teacher, struggling to manage her classroom, making wrong turn after wrong turn as a battle with her students escalates. She has this to offer:
“Classroom management is really about the management of the heart and soul of your students. The only ‘technique’ that works is a full-hearted human response to their lives, and to the conditions of school. In some schools students sit in rows and listen, then rush to their next class, to sit and listen even more. Try to understand the conditions in your particular school and view the entire day through their eyes. … You aren’t bad. Your students are children, preoccupied with myriad distractions. It is a natural state. School is often the unnatural one.”
This advice was so much better, for me, than the age-old wisdom I got from mentors when I first began teaching and a lesson would crash and burn: “don’t take it personally.” I did take it personally, and still do, when I lose a class’s attention or a lesson falls flat. When I learned the lesson Penny teaches here–“You must teach the students, not the content. I want every student in my class to know that he or she is more important than what I am teaching”–I had far fewer of those flat moments and many more roundly satisfying ones.
Novice teachers need mentors, not critics.
We’ve all heard the statistics that half our teachers will leave the profession within three years. As Penny says, “teaching, like marriage, is best when you make it past the courtship.” The first few years are hard, and what makes them easier is exactly what improves my marriage: talk. As a young teacher simultaneously full of ambition and anxiety, I became more even-keeled when I found mentors. I talked with them, they empathized, they advised. I felt more prepared for my work, but I also felt less alone when I found a group of peers to encourage and support me. “We have to mentor new teachers, listen to them, and I guess, hold hands once in a while,” Penny remarks.
Less is more.
“Somehow we decided that four short stories is better than one rewritten four times, and it’s a huge mistake.”
Penny’s assertion about the way many teachers conceive of writing is so true to my own learning experience, and as a result, my own early teaching experience. I’ve been interested in the idea of simplifying my instruction for a while, and of course, Penny helped me see more clearly how to do it–with revision.
“I needed to have them linger longer over less,” she says, then backs it up with stories about an entire day’s work spent on fragments, the slow process of discovery learning, the work and power of weeks of revision on one genre of writing. We have to jettison some things if we really want students learning, to keep it simple, to remember that less is more.
Teachers need to write.
By joining a writer’s group of teachers at her school, writing an essay for the local paper with her students, and carving out the time from motherhood to write, Penny learned to be a much better teacher by writing. Her peer and student readers, as well as her editors, taught her to “be positive. Encouragement works; criticism hurts. Be careful with words.”
It’s hard to learn this lesson if you’re not a writer yourself, and Penny shows us her journey to becoming one throughout her essays. She describes the early days of her writing group this way:
“Their criticism stung. I didn’t like it. You have to be careful when you’re correcting someone’s work. I don’t think I was careful enough with my students all those years before. It was so easy to just tell them what wasn’t working and think that was helping. In writers’ group I learned quickly that compliments showed me what I could do and gave me confidence, criticism confirmed my fears and left me frustrated. When I confidently approached a piece to revise it, I was playful. When I went back to one in frustration, I usually made it worse.”
We become better teachers when we do what we’re asking our students to do–it’s only then that we can really know what we’re asking of them. I highly recommend reading Public Teaching, doing some writing (how about with us?), and reflecting on your teaching by doing both.
As we near the end of the school year, I hope you can find truth in one of Penny’s final statements: “In my experience, it isn’t the stress that’s left the greatest mark, it is the joy.”
Shana Karnes teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University. She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life. Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader.