I started teaching in SeaTac, Washington in September of 2006. The iPhone had not come out yet. I subscribed to a three-disc-at-a-time Netflix so I could binge-watch The Wire. The Common Core didn’t exist.
I had no curriculum, not really. There was a vague description of a memoir unit I was supposed to do. I was to make sure students read Always Running.
In my first week I met a junior named Andres. He had rail-thin arms, a neck tattoo, and a disinterest in books. This was the kid I actively avoided when I was a student in school. And now I was to talk to him, learn about him, and teach him.
I was young enough to still run off the thrill of literature read in undergrad, to devote myself to EALRs (thinking they were permanent), young enough to work for hours on a two-page lesson plan, only to realize two minutes into the lesson it was trash. In some cases, when I thought I was victorious, my instructional coach told me otherwise, back in the days when there were such supports to help us novices find our footing in this vocation.
I teach many young people today who are skeptical about literature’s value. When will I use this in real life? Sometimes I drop to their level and answer it: “themes in real life, sharpening your thinking with evidence and reasoning, etc.” To even ask the question reveals the ethos of our era: utility. My gifted students and my students with special needs tend to get literature more. It’s many of my students in the “middle,” kids I would have been part of, who are now my contemporary Andres. How do I reach you? How do I help you see literacy isn’t a means to a job but the means to mental liberation?
I don’t abandon these questions to fate. I work through them. It’s my vocation.
When I came into teaching, I didn’t think about preparing students for college and career. I wanted young people to fall in love with reading and writing. I did understand--my Master in Teaching program instilled it in me--my vision contained landmines of cultural bias and privilege. I knew that; I had to be vigilant. And I still believed in literacy.
There’s been a 56% drop in English majors at the University of Washington, a 46% decrease in History majors. While we teachers get messages about developing 21-century skills, students aren’t buying. They want specialties. I teach is AP Language, a rhetoric class that has clear ties to understanding persuasion, persuading, and reading non-fiction. Students want skills; they want jobs. They like this class because “it’s actually useful.” Their focus both inspires and depresses.
However, as David Brooks notes, just because you’re skilled doesn’t mean you have a purpose. In a recent Pew survey of Americans, only 11 percent said learning added meaning to their lives. Only seven percent said that helping others was a meaningful part of their life.
What happens when we prepare young people for college and career at the expense of meaning?
I recently read the Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. One group he joined early in his life was a group for Mental Improvement.
My wife and I got married at Freeland Hall on Whidbey Island. It was built as a home for the Freeland Improvement Club. Here women came together to discuss “how to manage a husband, medicine and the art of healing, noted women of the world, and property rights of women in the state of Washington.”
Their motto: Think for yourself.
Do we still think of education as mental improvement?
Thought experiment: What happens if we think of setting young people up for a vocation--a calling--rather than a career? Does that change how you think about your classrooms and schools?
Preparing young people for college and career, yes, that’s the job.
But not our vocation.
For us for whom teaching is our vocation, the learning standards are one building material in the cathedral of education. Inspiration, passion, love of the content, high expectations, loving the job are a few others. Our calling--if we treat our work as such--inspires kids to listen for theirs.
What it means to prepare young people for life is the same as what I knew--but didn’t have the expertise to deliver--in 2006: to stay awake and wake others up.
This requires reading, reflection, critique, challenge, humor, community, and hope. Those don’t come from the state. Those come from our wills and our hearts.
Guest Blogger: Sean Riley
9-11 Grade Teacher, West Seattle High School