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The Secret Life of Teaching

East German class room in 1951. Any implicit irony is fully intended. Image via Wiki Commons.

My name is Horace Dewey, and I am a high school history teacher at the East Hudson School in New York City. Actually, no—in fact my name is not Horace Dewey, though I really am a high school history teacher (East Hudson is fictive). As you will surely surmise, my pseudonym has symbolic significance. “Dewey” is an act of homage to John Dewey, the 20th century patron saint of progressive education. You might think that “Horace” is a nod toward Horace Mann, the 19th century architect of the modern public school system, an allusion I won’t disavow. But my first name is actually a tribute to education reformer Theodore Sizer (1932-2009) and author of renowned “Horace trilogy” (1984 -1996).

Because I have the privacy of students to protect, names and situations have been changed. I have also resorted to outright invention in a few cases, though everything I describe is rooted in more than a quarter-century’s experience of classroom teaching. My credibility lies in the truth of my storytelling.


* * * * *

“Excellent, Kim. The family structure -- or maybe I should say the lack of family structure -- in Virginia is indeed one of the distinguishing features between New England and the South in the seventeenth century. What are some other differences?”

Two hands go up. One is Sam Stevens, but he’s already spoken too many times today. Uneasy about it, I gesture toward the other kid. “Go ahead -- ”

Shit! What’s his name?

“ -- Yes. You. Go right ahead.”

This is embarrassing. He knows I don’t know. And so does everybody else. Keep going -- you’ve fumbled, but we’re already on to the next play.

“ . . . and the Southern economy is about cotton,” mystery kid is saying.

Bluff. “Yes, good, except that at this point the Chesapeake is really about tobacco, not cotton. Cotton won’t come until much later. Yes, Cara? What do you think?”

Off she goes. Cara tends to unspool for a while before getting to the point. Normally, this is exasperating. But now it gives me a chance to regroup.

It’s week two of the new school year, and the ship whereby I can keep asking kids to identify themselves has already sailed. I’ve got most of them. But there are a couple (Adam Kirby? Who the hell is he? And who’s the other dirty-blonde kid in the corner?) who elude me. But I’ve got to get back in the saddle. Which is going to be hard, because I have no clue what Cara just said.

Phew. Wilhelmina’s raising her hand. Port in a storm.

“What do you think, Willie?”

“Well, I just want to add on to what Adam said -- ”

Adam! Yes! So the other one looking at the clock must be Chris.

Silence: Willie’s done. They’re waiting on me. “Good, Willie.”

I wasn’t paying attention to her. Is that a smirk on Jack Altieri’s face? He’s such a prick. So was his brother. Into Duke on his daddy’s checkbook. “So let me ask you this, gang. If you were a nineteen year-old boy in 1625, where do you think you would rather go -- “colonial Williamsburg or colonial Plymouth?”
Sam’s hand goes up again. I nod at him. Finally. On track.

The only question now is whether I’ll be able to keep Adam and Chris straight this time tomorrow morning. The odds, I think grimly, are 50-50. But on his way out the door, I make a point of saying, “take care, Adam.” Maybe that will buy me a little good will? “OK,” he says. “Schmuck,” he thinks.

* * *

There are many complex relationships in public life that blend the personal and professional in ways that defy easy description. But there’s nothing quite like the dance of intimacy and formality between student and teacher. No teacher who connects emotionally with students will ever be considered a failure by them: something will be learned, and long remembered, whatever the teacher’s competence in a given subject. But no teacher can be an effective educator without sustaining a discrete distance from students, emotional and otherwise. Finding the balance between the two is an unending life’s work.

Students always learn in multiple ways. But it remains a truism that students learn best when they work with a teacher that knows them (their first teachers, of course, are their parents). This of course begs the question of what it means to “know” a student. The most superficial answer is being able to match a name and a face -- which is not superficial at all as far as many students are concerned: if you can’t remember my name, why should I remember anything you tell me? It may be a misguided question, but it’s there all the same, and no teacher who hopes to be effective can long ignore it.

A second level of knowing is similarly superficial, and at the same time even more important: the impression you have of the student as a student. This is often a perception that takes shape even before you know their names: sharp or dull; active or passive; charming or abrasive. (I don’t mean to link these adjectives; sometimes the ones you suspect are smartest hang back, for example.) Oftentimes you pick such impressions up unconsciously, taking your cue from body language, diction, the glaze of an eye. These sensory perceptions can prove quite accurate once you begin to see their work or talk with your colleagues about them. Then again, they may not.

Right or wrong, your initial perceptions often prove significant -- and not always in a good way. Once I get a sense of a kid as a B student, for example, it becomes harder -- not impossible, but harder -- for that kid to get an A, in part because I try to ration the As and am often looking for reasons to deny them in an effort to maintain a sense of standards: I want those As to actually mean something, if for no other reason than a kid who gets one will feel she has earned something. I’m not usually conscious of being easier or tougher on kids I don’t perceive as especially bright -- or more lenient on kids I like for one reason or another -- but on some level I know this must be true. At the same time, my self-image also requires me to show myself that I’m capable of revising my perceptions of a kid. So it is that we see through a glass darkly.

Knowledge of a student is also socially constructed, which is to say the product of perceptions of others you have no way of verifying, but which you nevertheless absorb directly or indirectly. Some reputations reside in the student body: he’s a jock; she’s a slut; they’re geeks. Constructing and maintaining a persona is one of the most important tasks of childhood and (especially) adolescence, and one valuable indicator of intelligence is how effective a student is in modulating social equilibrium with peers and adults, and toggling between them.

One’s colleagues are also an important source of data about students. Some of this is in the official realm of report cards and other feedback that are part of a student’s scholastic record. More often, information is anecdotal, varying greatly in its degree of legitimacy, even propriety. There are times when gossip is genuinely helpful; it may lead one to see a student’s behavior in a larger pattern or context, and in some cases lead you to make allowances you might not otherwise make (his parents are going through a divorce) or take more forceful action (you mean he’s done that to you, too?).

But amid all this contextual knowledge of students, there are also avenues of that can be startlingly direct, even personal. The most obvious form is student writing. For the most part, grading student essays is an unpleasant task, in large part because students say predictable things badly. But every once in a while I’ll be surprised by a revelation of how a student actually thinks that’s arresting for its candor, insight, or both. Even bad writers can convey a disposition or an ideology, whether they intend to reveal it or not. So it is that I occasionally learn just how narcissistic, narrow-minded, empathic or insightful a kid can be. Sometimes I finish reading an essay just liking a student so much, marveling at an inexplicably attained preternatural wisdom and thinking how marvelous it would be to be that person’s friend. I’m reminded of that line from that adolescent perennial, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”

But of course I can’t be such a student’s friend -- not in that way, at least. I will on occasion seek strike up a conversation with a kid about weekend plans, the meaning of a slogan on a T-shirt, hoping something interesting will shake out in the conversation that follows. Under certain circumstances, like walking together on a field trip, I might go further and ask the kid about what the parents do for a living, what schools the kid attended previously, and other biographical details. Occasionally, a student will turn the tables and ask me such questions, which I’ll reluctantly answer, even as my esteem for the kid goes up a notch.

Every once in a while I’ll find myself in among a klatch of students and manage to fade into the woodwork as they talk among themselves. It’s in moments like these that I get a better sense of their standing among each other. There may come a moment when I’m drawn into the conversation -- I’ll agree that this musician really is awful or that movie was quite good -- and for the briefest moment our respective different social positions will vanish. For me these moments are tenuous and brief -- they tended to be tenuous and brief when I was an adolescent, too -- but I’ve never tried very hard to do much better in this regard. The truth is that I don’t really want to be all that close to these kids. Most of the time I can’t really listen to them for more than fifteen minutes or so without getting restless. Part of this is envy -- I don’t want to press my nose against the glass -- and part of is the knowledge that I have happily left some of the work they’re doing happily behind.

Some of my colleagues finesse these interactions with more effortlessly than I do. They seem to be able to tease, scold, cajole, even touch students and have it seem natural, and they can self-disclose with unselfconscious ease. And they do all this without compromising their integrity or authority. Such people, who are almost always a minority in a school, are indispensable. They’re not necessarily good teachers in the conventional sense of the term. But they’re excellent educators, and can make a deeper, more lasting impression than the most dedicated or brilliant instructor.

The final, essential point to be made here that the information between student and teacher flows in two directions. All the ways I’ve been describing in which a teacher comes to know a student -- facial recognition, initial impressions, community reputation, written communication, observed and direct conversation -- also apply to the way a student comes to know a teacher. Indeed, many teachers are “known” to a student long a teacher has any idea who a student is. Individual student opinions can be idiosyncratic, conflicting, and poorly articulated. But the composite picture is usually reasonably accurate -- or, at any rate, often no less so than the reputation a teacher has among peers.

Sometimes, a student will teach you things about yourself. This might happen when you jump to a conclusion with a kid who calls you on it, when you get a back-handed compliment that pains you in ways that weren’t intended, or when you realize that your issues with a particular kid have uncomfortable affinities with other kids in a specific demographic. Addressing such problems is not always easy, and actually correcting them may be impossible. But such feedback can be helpful in checking your impulses and sidestepping at least some mistakes.

Every once in a while you get a gift. Some years back I barked at a student who I felt was dragging her heels on doing her homework. This student didn’t seem particularly engaged by my class, though I recognized an underlying intelligence -- she had a real sense of style that modulated an understated beauty -- and I knew that she was highly regarded by faculty and students as a singer and visual artist. But at that moment I was just annoyed. Later, I learned that my immediate reason for my ire rested on a misunderstanding. But even before that, I knew I’d been unfair -- I’d just been diagnosed as diabetic, and I’d taken my distraction and irritability out on her. So I sent her an email to apologize and explain my outburst. “I knew something was wrong,” she told me the next day when I ran into her in an empty hallway. “That just wasn’t like you.” I found her compassion unexpected and moving, and it led me to disclose that my fear of aging had gotten the best of me. When I paid a visit to the college she went on to attend, I made a point of contacting her and we had a lovely brief chat. I’m not sure I’ll ever see her again (except on facebook -- I do a mass friending of graduating seniors each June -- and she surfaces from time to time). But I’ll always feel a tie to her.

Indeed, a great dividend of teaching is your former students. Sometimes -- especially in the short term -- relations with them can be awkward, because they come back from college all breathless and eager to speak with you, and you’re still deeply immersed in a world they’ve left behind (a reality I imagine is likely to inspire alternating relief and melancholy). But as they ripen into adults you can lower your guard a little and converse with them in a manner that approaches that of peers. Sometimes, their affection for you is unstinting even as they surely see, perhaps with newfound clarity, the contours of your limits. They understand amid their own creeping mortality that it’s important to honor vitality, however partial, wherever they find it (even if only in memory).

In the end, the most important curriculum a teacher will ever study is the student body. In time, the appeal of any given formal curriculum will fade. But as long as you find the students interesting -- as long as they entertain, bemuse, provoke or enlighten -- you’ll have something worthwhile to do.

* * *

“Mr. Dewey!”

“Ella!” We embrace at the top of the stairs near my office. “How are you? How is Wesleyan?”

“Great! You look great!”

“So do you.” She’s lying; I’m not. A woman, not a girl. Short hair is better. The winter coat she’s got on is smashing. The scarf adds a splash of red.

“What are you now, a junior?”

“A senior. Can you believe it?”

“No, but that’s how these things go, Ella. By the way, call me Horace.”

A pained look crosses her face. “How is your sister?” I ask. “And Eddie?”

She brightens again. “Great! Catherine graduated from Amherst two years ago and is applying to law school for next fall. Eddie is working for Goldman Sachs.”

“And you turned out to be a History major -- I remember from your last visit.”

“And I turned out to be a History major,” she repeats wistfully. “I’m thinking about graduate school.”

“In History? God forbid, kiddo. You’ve got better things to do.”

“Do I?” A retort laced with self-doubt. “I had a second major in East Asian Studies. I went to China last year. I’m looking into doctoral programs.”

Yikes. Time to backtrack. “Well if anybody could get a professorship in this market, it would be you.” I mean it. She was a wonderful student.

“I’m also thinking public history or material culture. I’ve got something lined up for this summer at the Met.”

“Good for you.”

“It’s your fault, you know,” she says, breaking into a smile and shaking a finger a gloved finger at me. “Tenth grade. You got me hooked. And it was that paper on the Boxer Rebellion that got me interested in Chinese history.”

“You did a nice job with that.”

“And how about you?” she asks after a pause. “How are things going here?”

“Oh, you know. Same old stuff.”

We’re running out of steam. “Anyway,” she says, gliding her coat sleeve back with one hand so she can see check her watch on the other. “I’ve got to run. But I just wanted to come by and say hello.”

“I’m glad you did. Say hi to your family.”

“I will,” she says, as we hug again. “Great to see you, Mr. Dewey -- I mean Horace.”

“Likewise, Ella. Take care.”

Only after I cease to hear the click of her boots do I remember that her name isn’t Ella.

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