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Talking Shop: How We Teachers Talk About Our Profession

The time I felt the most confident in my teaching was, oddly, my first semester--arguably when I was least competent. In that first semester, I was blessed with an obedient group of kids who, in hindsight, either really liked me or really pitied me; I'm still not sure which. Despite my lazy assignments (with an over-emphasis on journaling and plot-based questions, as opposed to analytical writing and literary terms, as I learned to emphasize later), they enthusiastically went along with any goofy thing I suggested. That, and they always hugged me in the halls. I concluded, based on my good rapport with the kids and success with implementing even the most shoddily-conceived assignments (I was also suffering from a severe lack of mentoring), that I had to be the reincarnation of Socrates.

The next semester, the other shoe dropped: I had a class of total hellions. My English classroom was actually a science lab with amphitheater style seating, and the kids threw baby carrots at me from the top rows whenever my back was turned. During that semester, my wallet got stolen twice, I don't think we actually finished any of the books we read, and I received the worst evaluation of my entire teaching career.

Was I actually a worse teacher that semester? No. Nor was I in subsequent semesters, where paradoxically, I felt less confident the further along I got. It seemed that the more I knew, the more I realized I didn't know, and I questioned myself constantly, both privately, and when recounting my experiences with other teachers. It was only around the end of my 4th year that my experience and confidence levels finally reached some sort of peaceful parity, wherein I had better awareness of what skills I had as a teacher, what I needed to work on, and how I could make those gains.

An alert reader and fellow teacher (thanks Alicia!) sent me this Atlantic article, about how teachers talk about teaching. Listening to a teacher talk about his or her own class is, as this author points out, often misleading; a teacher who seems to have all the answers in a theoretical way may struggle to manage his or her own classroom, while a self-deprecating teacher who one might think can do nothing right is in fact beloved and admired by students and fellow staff-members. I've seen both, as this author points out, and they're sometimes the same person on different days...or even at different times on the same day. As in each job, there is a learning curve--but we all have successes and failures, and our own representations of how we're doing as teachers may have little bearing on what's actually happening in our classes, for better or worse.

The author of the Slate article suggests that we, as teachers, must tell the most honest stories we can. It's understandable that in the age of widespread teacher-bashing and testing-minded scrutiny by higher-ups at all levels, teachers may feel uncomfortable owning their own weaknesses. And, as this author suggests, many teachers might lack the self-awareness to evaluate their own progress in the class objectively. But experience is a good instructor--and rather than thinking of oneself as "bad" or "good" in a macro way, simply focusing on best practices that have succeeded (and on the ones that have not) in our recounting of our work in the classroom is the most surefire way for us to improve our pedagogy, and to better inform each other's.

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