The other day I was beginning the novel A Separate Peace with my 7th grade English class. They were looking at me quizzically as I tried to explain to seventeen 12 year olds what it is like for time to pass and then to go back to a place you have not seen in years and for which you have felt both love and hate. I suddenly put down the book and said, “Come with me.” Teenagers being teenagers, they were not going to ask too many questions with liberation from the classroom seeming a ready prospect, but one more curious student ventured to ask where we might be going. I looked back at him mysteriously, already ten footfalls ahead, and said again, “Come with me.” Luckily, I teach at The Benjamin School, a private Pre K3 -12 day school, and most of my students have matriculated there since pre-kindergarten days, so it didn’t take them long to figure out our destination, a destination indeed from their past, a destination which even in their small scope of life and experience, could put them in the frame of mind of the fictional Gene Forrester when he looks again after 15 years at those stairs and that tree. The comments were fast in coming as we stood before the great brass bell that the founders of our school, Marshall and Nancy Benjamin, had put in place over 50 years ago after hauling it all the way from Illinois in a Hudson, so weighted down by its cargo that it was stopped by police in Kentucky who suspected that “revenuers” were coming through with a load of moonshine.
“I used to ring the bell at 5th grade patrol.”
Do you remember how in 3rd grade, we wanted to ring the bell and be 5th graders?”
The student who asked where we were going then jumped up, tagged the bell, causing it to ring briefly, and we all ran across the school yard, laughing to avoid detection. As we walked back across the campus, I heard another five or six stories of adventures and mishaps that students had encountered as “little kids.” We went back to class then and resumed reading the novel, a little more in touch with our haunted protagonist, a little closer because of our shared adventure.
Likewise, when we read Book I of The Iliad I stop to tell my students about a show from the olden days called Dallas and how when Season 9 premiered, Bobby, who had died at the end of Season 7, was written back into the show by sloppy writers. “What happened?” they ask, suddenly interested. A moment later, we are unexpectedly, but very germanely, watching Bobby Ewing on YOUTUBE explain to his shocked wife, Pam, as he steps out of a shower stall, that he is not a ghost, that he never died, but that she has merely been dreaming for the entirety of Season 8. The kids, of course, yell things like “That is a rip off!” and they go home that evening and probably tell their bemused parents that they are going to binge watch Dallas on Netflix. But that is alright; they also know what a deus-ex-machina is, a short cut by a lazy writer, and the next time Homer throws Minerva quickly into his epic poem to stop Achilles from killing Agamemnon, they don’t forget the phrase.
The Deus-Ex-Machina of Bobby’s never having died on Dallas and Pam’s shock at finding him in the shower and learning that the entire past year has been a dream.
Often, teachers facing professional development days need drawing along as much as any recalcitrant class. In my capacity as a curriculum coordinator and then an academic dean I have found that the same techniques of eclectic hands on involvement are the necessary hook to open them up to expand and rediscover their own teaching passion and so fuel new learning adventures.
At a recent professional development exercise I held for our faculty in August, staff were asked to bring back synopses of novels and films whose plots center around teaching. Then teachers were asked to envision the film that would be made about their own careers. Who would play them? What would the tagline of their films be? I knew I had them when our sometimes skeptical athletics chair mused aloud as to whether Gloria Estefan (whose music he very much admires) would sing the theme song linked to his film. I told him I thought she would.
The theme song for the film of the same name in which Meryl Streep played Roberta Guaspari , a music teacher who would not give up on her impoverished and unmotivated students until they made it to Carnegie Hall. What’s the name of your teaching bio-pic?
I also try constantly to help our staff re-envision themselves as students and so become better teachers as they experience the difficulties and frustrations of learning things they do not know or find difficult. I have recently been reminded of this phenomenon myself when I presumed to take a Crossfit class far beyond my physical capabilities. Sweating and gasping in an open air warehouse at 5 am and looking quite ungainly, I wondered what my more adept, fitter classmates were thinking about me. I wondered too if the teacher, all of 18 and high fiving the other 18 year old trainers while paying little attention to the individual progress of the likes of me, thought I was stupid, and if I should stop huffing just long enough to explain that sometimes I am a slow starter, but really I would get it. I hoped against hope that when I accomplished some little task correctly, the teacher would notice and say something. Unfortunately,this was not to be. I went away from the class convinced that more than every once in awhile a teacher who has forgotten what it means to be a student, needs to go out and try to learn to do something that he or she is just awful at. Go ahead, spend an hour doing the thing you least excel at. I promise you that when you go back to your classroom the next morning, you will rediscover the best version of yourself as a teacher. You will remember that just because you have a doctorate in your field, the kid sitting in front of you does not; you will remember to not take some little person’s victory for granted; you will praise him or her genuinely, but on the contrary, you won’t devalue that praise by giving it away cheaply like those mocking aphorisms emblazoned on those overpriced t-shirts that they sell in that Crossfit gym of which I am no longer a member.
Administrating. Planning divisional curriculum. Helping other teachers to become the best they can be. Teaching. Inspiring students to find their voice. Why we do it, how we do it…. I could throw a lot of jargon and education experts’ names at you that sound great on a syllabus or a resume or a school website. I could tell you I am a Socratic teacher, that I listen four times more than I talk, that no question is ever stupid and no answer is wrong, that I really don’t teach – I facilitate learning and demand absolute excellence of effort from every student and teacher of whatever ability all the time. But really at the end of the day, it’s only words. This is because I believe the key to teaching and to inspiring other teachers is probably as simple as those three words I uttered before I took my students to see the bell that day or that other day when I got our Athletics coach to start tapping his foot in time to 90’s pop songs, imagining himself a cinematic exemplar.
“Come with me.” If you really mean it, and if you have triggered their imagination, they will come, and they will learn. This is why I teach, and this is how I help others to teach because ain’t no curriculum in the world no matter how great that’s gonna make them feel the wind in their hair if they haven’t gotten in the car with you first.