Yesterday’s snow day brought me a revelation about teaching: teachers need more time to engage in the kind of intellectual activities that we hope to engage our students in.
We teachers need more time to read, write, investigate, research the big questions about our lives, discover new books and new perspectives on those questions, and work on new theories about how we live and work in the world. To be better teachers for our students, we need more time to be learners and seekers of knowledge ourselves!
There are two categories for the kinds of learning a teacher should engage in. First, teachers need time to learn and explore in order to grow in our practice — to increase our pedagogical knowledge. We teachers need more time for this kind of learning because the necessary pedagogical knowledge for urban teachers is so vast; it is so much more than experimenting with new practices regarding instruction and classroom management. Our pedagogical knowledge also involves being up to date on research on how teachers can best obviate the hindrances to learning created when students are dealing with the foster care system, housing issues, inadequate access to quality healthcare, drugs, gang violence, teenage pregnancy, and the myriad of other outside factors that make learning difficult or impossible for them. Some teachers will see upwards of 150 of the city’s neediest children per day. There is literally no limit to what one can learn to become a better teacher for such children.
Second, teachers should be engaged in meaningful learning related to our content areas — not only to increase our content area knowledge, but also for the sake of being engaged in the kind of learning we want our students to be engaged in. When teachers are excited about our own content area learning, our students are more likely to catch on and become excited about what is going on in our classrooms. Our classrooms come to life when we are energized by the inquiry and discovery process; learning becomes contagious.
I was reminded of the importance of content area learning — and the need for teachers to have more time for it — through having extra time on my hands due to this week’s snow day. I decided to spend my snow day time completing an assignment I gave to my students in an AP English class I teach at a high school in East New York, Brooklyn.
Students in my AP English class are currently reading “To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf; and I am asking them to write “dialectical reading journals” as they read. In a dialectical reading journal, the student uses Woolf’s novel to develop a big question that genuinely troubles and intrigues her; she analyzes that question within the multiple contexts that are opened up by the primary text, secondary texts introduced through research, and class discussions; and over time she attempts to construct a theory in response to her question. The journal, in this sense, is a space for the kind of serious grappling with ideas that can lead to an interesting research paper and sometimes even to a transformation in the student’s thinking about language, literature, and life.
I decided the best way to spend my snow day was to begin my own dialectical reading journal on Woolf’s novel. I started out by writing about and questioning a psychological theme that a student identified during a class discussion. I explored my primary questions about that theme in multiple contexts and was inspired to do some research on the Internet to see how scholars in the field have addressed the same ideas. As I continued to research and write, I began to realize that my inquiry process may lead me to some profound discoveries about Woolf’s text: Thinking and struggling through my writing about the central motifs in the novel may have the power to transform the way I think about gender roles, gender-based experience, and how these function within the individual psyche.
I printed out my first journal entries along with two of the texts I researched on the web and plan to bring them to school tomorrow. I am very excited to share my inquiry process and discoveries with my students during our next class session.
Reflecting on all of this now has me wondering, Isn’t this why I became a teacher in the first place, to share the joys of learning with young people? This is, in fact, one of the reasons I became a teacher. But working in a New York City high school, it is often difficult to find time to engage my own content area learning in meaningful ways. While teachers have a free “prep period” every day, that time is usually spent preparing lessons, tutoring, or, if we are lucky, finding a quiet space with which to regain the peace of mind that is prerequisite to being patient and understanding for our students. There is also substantial time allotted to professional development activities. Unfortunately, though, teachers spend most of this time being inundated with urgent and complicated policy mandates that are designed to create the appearance of quality education and make politicians look good — policies and practices that do more to obstruct teachers’ genuine efforts to reach our students than to bolster them.
We teachers, therefore, need more time. As any teacher will tell you, we do have lives outside of school. We have families, friends, and hobbies of our own; and unless we compromise the time we normally devote to these things, we will always encounter difficulty in pursuing inquiry and discovery of our own. It is true, as some social theorists tell us, that teachers are being molded into deskilled clerks rather than transformative intellectuals.
The amount of time and resources that teachers are given to assist them in their job of educating young people is a reflection of how much our society cares about the education of particular groups of young people. In the case of minority and poor children, a more potent compassion needs to become a component of our society’s moral conscience if we are to see an increase in resources that go into their education. Until that happens, we teachers in NYC are likely to encounter more obstacles than support as we work to develop our practice of sharing the love of learning with our students.