Sunday, March 18, 2007

An Apple for the Teacher

As my long-term readers know, I used to teach in the Bronx, an experience that has led to a series of posts on this blog called "Tales from Factory High." I also taught for one semester at Touro College in Brooklyn, before I made aliyah. Quite a long way from the Bronx, to be sure! Teaching at Touro convinced me that I do, indeed, love to teach, but only under specific circumstances.

When I came to Israel, I waited for those circumstances to present themselves, or for me to get to a place where I could create them. Thankfully, a job came my way that met all of my extremely specific and hard-to-meet criteria: I'm teaching native English speakers (that is, I'm not teaching ESL), I have just one class, that class is relatively small (just 17 students), and we meet in the afternoons. Additionally, we meet only three times a week, for 55 minutes each time, a situation perfect for group activities.

My friends seem to have reached a consensus that teaching this class has been very healthy for me. I am happier teaching than I was before I was teaching. I'm exercising a talent, doing something I enjoy, and in a small way making a direct impact on others. It's a good feeling. Thank God I'm not doing it for the money, because, well, it's a teacher's salary . . . .

Anyway, I would like to share a few points about teaching:

1. With only 17 students, I can invest the energy into each student that the student needs. I can meet with students privately, spend significant time providing feedback on papers, call students who are missing assignments or whose class participation could stand to improve, and speak with the administration at length about students who seem to have psychological issues or learning disabilities that might require extra attention. I also have time to research the material I'm teaching and think at length about how to make up lesson plans, which helps since I've never taught any of these particular works before. It's perfect.

2. Corollary to #1: Teaching 17 students properly is about a third-time job by itself. I do not understand how anyone can expect a teacher to take on 5 classes of 15-35 students each, teaching material that is new to him or her, and expect that teacher to excel. Teaching 5 classes, especially with new material, is way more than a full-time job, unless one settles for mediocrity. No wonder, in the Bronx, I was constantly playing catch-up and having anxiety attacks.

3. Teaching new material is quite challenging. In fact, I have never had the experience - the luxury- of re-using a lesson plan. Obviously I research the material ahead of the students. I speak with a more senior teacher who has already taught these texts, and she shares her class handouts so I can get ideas. I try to vary the lesson plans and answer the students' questions accurately. In taxis, in cafes, in the shower, I'm always thinking about how I can teach these texts in more interesting ways. What do I want the students to leave with? To what authors is it most important that they be exposed? Should we spend an extra class on a certain author, at the expense of going over certain grammar rules which most of them need to learn? Where are the holes in my knowledge, and which are most important to fill this term?

But, though I know that I'm way ahead of the students --I certainly know much more about the curriculum than they do-- I do not yet feel that I have "mastery" over it, not at the level of my own expectations. Such mastery will come over time, as I continue to teach the same books, reread them, delve more deeply into scholarly work on the books, the lives of the authors, etc. I'm doing a pretty good job teaching these texts, but I know that next year I'll be about 100 percent more knowledgable about them. And the year after that, perhaps I'll feel that I'm truly fluent in them. So, I feel a bit frustrated and guilty about this year. I wish I could jump ahead 2 years and have the knowledge now that I'm sure to have then.

4. I have a student who sits toward the back of the room and spends most classes staring at me with intense concentration (or taking copious notes) and nodding her head at almost everything I say. I don't think she realizes that she nods so much. It's extremely gratifying for me. See, I can pretty much tell where the students are in terms of liking me or the class. There are students who hate English, have always hated English, and tolerate me and my class as necessary and fairly boring evils. There is a large group of students who respect me as being fair and reasonably interesting, though my class is not necessarily their favorite (if they have a favorite), either because they have had English teachers who were more exciting, or because they think I give them too much work. There are students, usually ones who have always excelled in English, who pay rapturous attention. These students probably have generally positive feelings about me, though I don't know whether they think I'm a great English teacher or just an OK one. In case you haven't noticed, I'm a bit sensitive -- as I think most teachers are -- about having to wonder whether we are actually having an influence on the students, whether any of them are sitting there thinking "Wow. What this teacher is saying is incredibly interesting. I want to know more!" So you can imagine how good it feels to have a student who not only pays careful attention but also nods. It's an indication that someone out there in this room full of teenagers is with me.

5. As always, grading papers is the bane of my existence.

6. It's a credit to the administration and to the kids that I genuinely look forward to going into school. The place has an orderly and positive atmosphere, and my student are truly nice kids. Even the ones who don't like English are respectful. And most of them write at a high level (especially considering they are only in tenth grade!), which makes my job a little easier and more fulfilling. If any of them read this blog, I just have to say, "kudos to you!"

OK, I'm off to read biographical information on A.B. Yehoshua.

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