I started making inroads into the teaching profession at the turn of the century. As I began to traverse the country as a consultant in the travel industry, I realized that I liked having a mike in my hand. After September 11th, when people in the travel business could barely keep their jobs, let alone be paid the big bucks, I decided to parlay my language skills into another profession. At forty-something, in the throes of a divorce, I embarked on a new career. I started small with some teaching and tutoring gigs at both Beverly Hills and Culver City Adult Schools. I eventually got put on payroll as a sub for Culver City. I ended up going back to school (Pepperdine) for a Masters in Education, and, armed with a few credentials, I landed a job mid-year at Culver City Middle School.
That was February, 2004. I took over the 6th-7th Language Arts classroom of a twenty-something teacher who, having surrendered her contract mid-year, desired to live abroad and see the world. I exclaimed that we had changed lives! I’d just seen the world – after twenty years in the travel industry – and was looking for some stability. I was hired by two senior English teachers who had seen the days of the 6th grade migration to “Middle School.” I think they identified with and liked my desire to hunker into the position, at a time when the department was filled with people nearing retirement age.
I had the chance to observe my predecessor for a week before I started; she used words like “awesome,” ( a word I didn’t even have in my vocabulary) she rung a little bell sometimes, and gave out tickets for prizes. I walked into that classroom and put an end to the bells and whistles; I didn’t believe in those kinds of external motivators. My rules were strict: no bathroom “passes,” write only in pen, 150 word journaling at the beginning of every class for 10 minutes (a writing development and classroom management tactic referred to as “Bellwork”), and a diet of 15 vocabulary words a week, with a quiz on the acquisition of them the following Monday. On the other hand, I did believe in extra credit opportunities. Students claim that I gave out more extra credit (a.k.a. alternative roads to academic success) than any teacher they’d ever had.
I heard one of the students say, “She’s old,” shocking my then 45ish self! So I decided to adopt that persona, and, by the following September, I owned my reputation as the “Old Battleaxe.” I wrote up my classroom rules, which I’ve continued to use to this time, and explained them by filibustering through my syllabus on the first day of school. As I told my most recent student teacher, who was ultimately hired to replace me, “don’t smile too much at the beginning.” The adage actually goes, “Don’t smile before Christmas.” But, you know what? I ended up smiling plenty.
The smiles really began when, through my work with the Los Angeles Music Center, I learned to embed or, as we say, “integrate” The Arts in my classroom. This is an easy fit for language arts, but it is actually easy to do for any discipline, once you get used to it. I learned, and am living proof that, there is nothing under the sun that is not enhanced by visual and performing arts, including music, theatre, dance and visual art. In this past year, which may end up having been my last year in the classroom, I put the four domains of English language standards AND the four domains of art up on my board, and checked off which of them had been embedded in every lesson I taught. I consider mixing arts with education to be one of my legacies.
I’ve come to learn that there are three main aspects to the job of being an educator. First and foremost, in the words of my first teaching supervisor, “you have to love the kids.” Second, it helps if you love your subject. And third, you hopefully will love the act of teaching as well.
As I consider some of my own teachers and colleagues, I see the student love very clearly in most, but not all. How do I love my students? I find myself honoring the work done by my students so thoroughly and completely, that I sometimes have trouble parting with it; it remains posted in the walls of my classroom in testament to their accomplishments. I also continue to keep in touch with many who have moved on to higher grades, or even graduated college by now; they consult me for guidance, ask me to write recommendations. For years, I have engaged them in various “service learning” and/or volunteer endeavors. I trust in my students’ ability to make decisions and good choices. When I have taken classes myself, I have been cognizant when encountering a teacher who enjoys teaching more than the students themselves. This may still be an excellent person to learn from, but I always wonder if they see students the way I do: as a constant (free) source of renewable energy. I hope all teachers do, can and will feel the same way.
When it comes to love of subject matter, that didn’t come to me until about halfway through my ten year tenure. It was round about when, as a department, we departed from our marriage to the textbook and other traditions. This was around the time I was skilled enough in the science (as opposed to the art – it’s made of both) of teaching, too, so I didn’t have to worry so much about norms any more. I managed, by that time, to summon up the requisite chutzpah to choose my own material. A mentor teacher of mine came through my classroom just last year and said to me, “Wow, you really have become an English teacher!” I cherish that comment of hers; just when I’m leaving the classroom, I can indeed say, yes, I really do enjoy teaching English!
I’d actually started out wanting to teach Japanese. I was happy for the job I’d landed, but frustrated at first by not being able to teach the subject I was so passionate about. Although I’d been teaching English for a short while, and passed all of the requisite tests, I did not even have a class from UCLA’s English department on my undergraduate transcripts. I satisfied the English I requirement in the summer of 1976 at SMCC before UCLA (didn’t even take AP English in high school) and I had majored in Linguistics and Japanese. After a while, I also felt that I’d like to put to use the managerial skills I’d acquired in the business world, and I began to seek out chances to get into school administration. I worked on big programs and initiatives like our Gifted and Talented Education Program, about which I have written many times in this Culver City Crossroads column. I sometimes referred to teaching English as “the day job.” Things changed, though. The same friend who made that observation about me finally “becoming” an English teacher expressed it to me again this very week; she said, “It was like you’d fallen in love.”
I enjoyed teaching English so much in fact, that I even convinced myself to start writing last year, and I haven’t stopped since. Not that these words you are reading will ever bring in the big bucks, but, I have acquired a love of writing, and came up with an adage or mantra for my students this past summer: “the only kind of writing that is not right, is not writing.” As I began to stand in front of my class as a “super” reader, writer and advocate of the arts in education, my love for the subject I teach finally kicked into gear. I would imagine that this does not happen for everybody, and can change over the years as school requirements sometimes necessitate reassigning a teacher to another grade or subject. In such cases, a teacher may find themselves loving the students and the act of teaching itself, but not necessarily loving their subject all the time. When you do love your subject, however, your enthusiasm is transmitted to the students.
There are teachers who love the kids, and are interested, engaged and zealous experts in their subjects, but they may not actually like…to teach! We’ve debated during my masters program, and in staff meetings, about whether teaching is an art or a science. I will stand on a stack of teaching manuals and proclaim: it is both. I believe, however, that you don’t get to the art part until you have the science part down.
The science portion, to me, is the aspect of classroom management: creating an environment where a teacher can practice their trade. Once the stage has been set, our students can not only take a dip, but become immersed. Half of teaching is determining the structure that your classroom will follow. I have always maintained that actual “teaching” should not commence until your introductions and structure are in place, which usually takes until the second week of the school year.
After week two, a teacher can start concentrating on content. Enjoying classroom set up, the rules of the road and their enforcement, and the planning, even grading papers, speaks to actually enjoying to teach. I’ve had student teachers tell me they became teachers because they enjoy writing on the white board. That is a part of enjoying teaching, but the second part of is the artistic aspect of the job.
In one of my most memorable teacher preparation courses at Pepperdine, the professor told us, “envision what your students are going to make.” Then he’d have us do web searches to attach subject-specific standards to the end goal task, which is opposite of the way many plan. Had I been in the classroom this year, I’d decided to choose ten different famous authors, featuring a different one each month, from Bradbury to Poe to Steinbeck to Wiesel to Angelou and so on. I planned to have the students learn everything about why the authors had become famous, through the eight domains of reading, writing, listening, speaking, music, dance, theatre and visual arts. It would involve reading their works, of course, but also, reading non-fiction about the authors and topics related to them and the time period in which they lived. Students would have various writing activities, presentations where they would speak using theatrical techniques, and even dance. The students would listen to period music, and so on. I believe in the art of waking up the students with all of these sensory activities, so when they are confronted with whatever kind of test is put in front of them, they will have had rich enough life experiences to be able to respond. Each year, each semester, each quarter, each week, each day, I felt like I was working with a white palette and a huge box of colors, which the students and I, together, would apply thickly to that canvas.
Through this essay, I found myself using the phrase “I believe” many times. Teaching kind of reminds me of religion. Interestingly enough, the word “rabbi” means teacher, and if you think of a pastor, minister, priest or imam in a community, their roles are like that of a teacher as well. You care about and appeal to your “congregation” (students) and fill them with hope, confidence, and knowledge, without really knowing what the outcome of your guidance will look like many years later. A teacher must be confident, believe in, and provide justification for what they are doing. These past ten years have been more worthwhile, meaningful and joyous than I’d ever imagined.
The surname I was born with was actually, appropriately enough, “Book.” Our original name had not been changed at Ellis Island; my father just preferred and chose the name. If family names do often have symbolic meaning, this name certainly describes my life. And now, a new chapter begins.