Friday, July 20, 2018

Alternate Build for a Teacher

I'm a big fan of Curmudgucation, and I've decided to echo its most recent post, How to Build a Teacher. I started teaching in New York City in 1984, and for me it was more of a happy accident than a plan. Like blogger Peter Greene, my undergraduate major was English, not education. Our similarities end there.

I did not plan to be a teacher. I was a working musician, and had a few opportunities to play in Europe, once with the daughter of someone famous(!). When I got back the second time, I couldn't find work anywhere. I had no place to live. The only thing I had was this big old Mercury, and my driver's license had expired. Back then New York City was heavily invested in intergalactic searches for teachers, and I responded to a subway ad I saw on the way back from the DMV in Jamaica.

I went to Court Street and took a writing test. Once they were satisfied I knew a little English, they made me an English teacher. I had no idea what I was doing. On my ninth teaching day, I was observed. My AP wrote that I had no idea what I was doing. I pointed out to her that I'd told her that when she hired me. She then explained to me in great detail about how she made meatballs for her parents.

I transferred to another school, where I taught music for one semester and English for two. At this school, they had broken the English department in two, and I taught in the skills department. This was because no one could seem to get along with my AP, who wore a three-piece tweed suit in any kind of weather, and wrote long, incomprehensible observation reports. A colleague read my first three-page observation and told me the AP liked me. This was because if he didn't like you he tended to write things you could understand.

I enrolled in an MA English program at Queens College, thinking I would do this for a living. But the day I showed up in September I learned I no longer had a job. It was a good thing I'd had the foresight to not yet pay Queens College. I decided I'd had enough of crossing bridges to the Bronx, put on a suit, and walked into every department of every high school in Queens until someone was crazy enough to hire me. The person who did that ran the ESL department in Newtown, and I really loved teaching ESL. Alas, they dropped me at the end of the semester.

I joined the world's worst Irish wedding band. We had an accordion player who played bass on his accordion, and a drummer. They were never exactly in sync somehow. We had a singer who fancied himself Kenny Rogers, popular at the time, and therefore he purchased a $99 white polyester suit at Alexander's and grew a beard to look the part. Alas he couldn't sing in tune. People loved us anyway. He was born in the Bronx, but would show a picture of some home in Mayo and claim to have been born there. He would start a rebel song, "for our boys," turn to the band and say, "Screw 'em all."

This paid my way through an MA in Applied Linguistics. My MA was very good. I learned a whole lot about language structure, language acquisition, and a whole lot of things that the NY Regents, for example, haven't got a clue about. For some reason they didn't offer the last course I needed to complete my MA, and the department head suggested I student teach instead. I said I couldn't because I already had a job by then, but he said that was fine, I could be observed at the job.

My AP was officially my mentor, and won herself a free course at Queens College. The people in my class clued me in that they guy who'd observe us was not, in fact, our teacher. However, it was very important to him that you show a picture, introduce five vocabulary words, and ask three questions. Or something. I did the lesson exactly as requested and the guy thought I was a genius.

One thing that Greene mentioned is key--teaching courses ought to be taught by people who really teach the levels we will. Being a college professor is not the same thing. I recall taking a required education course when I started in the Bronx. The professor suggested we should assemble all our resources and assemble a class library. I didn't have any resources at the time, and I felt lucky to have chalk on the days I did.

She also took me aside and told me that I ought not to teach high school. I'd be better off pursuing a doctorate and teaching college. She wasn't the only professor who told me that either. There's something off-putting about people who train high school teachers but think teaching high school is a dead end. I'd argue we're needed a whole lot more than college professors, and that our jobs are actually more important. We might actually help students make it to college.

I'm really glad to have stumbled onto teaching, and I'm particularly glad I was dropped into ESL. I love teaching students from all over the world. They are really interesting and often have the most amazing stories. I haven't got as many conclusions as Greene did, except to say that this is my story, and I'm sticking to it.

What's your story?
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