Teacher preparation programs have a common adage: “You don’t teach a subject, you teach kids.”
When I arrived to the Master in Teaching program at The Evergreen State College in 2003, I was prepared to get trained to teach a subject. (I arrogantly arrived thinking there wasn’t that much to learn about teaching in the first place. After all, my great teachers, like Ms. Roux, Ms. Thompson, and Father Leigh, had made it look so easy!)
I couldn’t wait to be the conduit that linked students with Wallace Stevens, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, and others of the great literary American canon.
Evergreen’s great Terry Ford had a different idea: “Not so fast, you hetero, straight, white, urban male! You don’t teach a subject, you teach kids.”
For years, Dr. Ford and other pivotal figures forced me (initially) and guided me (later) to examine my implicit biases, my language, my schema, and expectations so that I was indeed teaching kids. (This process, of course, is necessarily ongoing). Thank goodness. Without this help, I not only would have been an ineffective teacher, I’d be an asshole.
In our classrooms, concrete actions illuminate our abstract values. I have done my best to assure that rubrics, mentor texts, attendance policies, text selections, scope and sequencing, scaffolds, seating, discipline, pulling away scaffolds are in line with a philosophy that supports fairness, respect, and independence.
Just writing about it makes me a) overwhelmed and b) ever impressed at what exceptional teachers do, and the years of practice and patience it takes to be exceptional.
But let me say this: we also do teach subjects.
This summer I studied Shakespeare for two weeks in Brooklyn, New York at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center on a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. (Keep reading so you get information about how YOU will apply). Along with about 25 other teachers from around the United States, I read, discussed, and performed Twelfth Night, Hamlet, and The Winter’s Tale. Led by literary and theater experts in Shakespeare, for 14 immersive and thrilling days we examined symbolism, queer theory, enjambment, and love’s many forms. While it opened my eyes to compare and contrast my teaching experiences in Washington with those in Alaska, Idaho, Georgia, New York, Connecticut, to name a few, we largely made no mention of Common Core nor SBAC nor PBIS. We talked, almost exclusively, of Shakespeare’s writing.
When I was young, words were birds that dove and chirped inside me. They gathered at the birdbath and played and preened. Passenger pigeon delivered messages from distant lands. Seagulls’ barbaric caws ran to my toes. In Brooklyn, collaborating with my peers, words were birds again.
I have always liked Shakespeare. I left loving Shakespeare. My peers generated this love through seminar and arriving prepared and being open. The professors did it through good teaching: scaffolds, clear learning targets, accommodations, and high expectations. They also did it with their expertise on the subject.
I believe that we can love learning about anything when it’s the right time and the teacher is knowledgeable and passionate. In an era in which education is getting increasingly aligned (which I think is a good thing, overall), we must always strive to create passion, and we do that when we teach kids and the subject.
Teachers, now and again, go immerse yourselves in a topic. Get even smarter. Fall in love again with what brought you here. Let your birds sing!
Because, look: What does one need to know to teach well?
Everything. As much as one possibly can.
I just keep coming back to that.
I see no or’s in education, just and’s.
Culturally responsive teaching and curriculum design and assessment and social emotional learning and Shakespeare and…
While that infinite answer may overwhelm, it’s also the gift that makes this the most satisfying profession, and we its fortunate professionals.
***If you want to get really knowledgeable about a subject, I encourage you to apply for summer programs through National Endowment for the Humanities. They are still generating programs for next year, but this link will give you a snapshot of what was offered this past summer. https://www.neh.gov/divisions/education/summer-programs
Latest posts by Sean Riley (see all)
- “You Don’t Teach a Subject, You Teach Kids”: A Counterargument - September 27, 2017
- More Courage and More Urgency: What We Need From Educational Leaders Now - June 27, 2017
- What Culturally Responsive Teaching Sounds Like - May 24, 2017