Teaching a Humbling Experience for Novice

December 4, 2005

Andrea Neal column for June 2 and thereafter
710 words

INDIANAPOLIS — It was the first day of the 2003-04 school year and my first day as a teacher. As I looked out at a blur of expectant faces, I wondered aloud how long it would take me to learn the names that went with them. My bigger worry, which I kept to myself, was whether I would like these students.

For reasons that only mid-life career changers can appreciate, I left my job as a newspaper editor last summer so I could try my hand in the classroom. St. Richard’s School, a private Episcopal school in Indianapolis, needed a middle school social studies teacher and decided to take a chance on a 45-year-old journalist with a dusty history degree.

Before my career switch, I wrote frequently about education issues and often got mail from educators telling me I didn’t have a clue. Now, people ask me what I’ve learned and if any of my preconceived opinions turned out to be faulty.

Actually, teaching has reinforced most of my biases, like:

–Class size matters. Despite mixed studies on this topic, it’s self-evident that a teacher is more effective when there are fewer students. My largest class has 17 students and it’s hard to interact with each of them in a 40-minute period. I can’t imagine trying to engage 25 or more students, a typical class size for public high schools.

–A teacher’s content knowledge matters more than instructional technique. The more I know about my subject matter, the more flexibility and creativity I can exercise in presenting the material and assessing students. When I teach a topic I’m unfamiliar with, I am wed to whatever book I read last and less able to tailor my teaching to each student’s needs.

–Public school teachers deserve merit pay. Most educators, especially in urban areas, face obstacles far more challenging than what I encountered among my relatively affluent study body. They should be rewarded enough to keep them in the profession.

–Computers, VCRs and other gizmos are nice, but they aren’t necessary to reach students. Communities with limited resources should worry less about facilities and equipment and more about luring the most talented faculty into their buildings.

Teaching has given me the highest-highs and lowest-lows. I relish the day I taught my 8th graders about Manifest Destiny, the mid 19th century belief that America had a God-ordained mission to expand west, spreading freedom and democracy. I told the class that I viewed U.S. history through the lens of this philosophy.

Almost to a person they challenged me. "Manifest Destiny was just an excuse for taking other people’s lands," one student said. "Manifest Destiny is another phrase for imperialism," said another. They were doing the thinking, not me. That’s teaching.

At the other extreme, when a student gets a D on a paper or a test, I’m devastated. Did I fail to tailor a lesson to meet the needs of this student? Was I boring? Did I not spend enough time on the material? Or did the student just not care?

In an article in the January 1996 Phi Delta Kappan magazine, Margaret Metzger, a Massachusetts teacher, wrote: "In the end, the students must decide whether they are ready to give up ignorance and take the scary step into knowledge. Like parenting, teaching makes us humble. There is only so much a teacher can do. A teacher can present learning experiences, but each student must ultimately take responsibility for becoming educated."

I am humbled by my first year as a teacher. Most days I am amazed by my students: by their intelligence, their compassion and their pluck. Some days their hormones drive me crazy, their loud voices appall me and their attitudes enrage me. Some days I want to grab a student by the shoulder and yell at the top of my lungs, "This is great stuff. Don’t you care?" Every day, I look forward to seeing these young people and being a part of their lives.

It’s been said, "Who dares to teach must never cease to learn." I have learned so much during my first year as a teacher, and I have new appreciation for the men and women who have given their lives to this profession.

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