As an English teacher, I often find it interesting to pick apart the way we use language. For instance, when asking someone what his or her job is, we usually don’t say: “What is your job?” Instead we say: “What do you do?” In reply, we say something like: “I am a teacher.” I think these phrases are telling. They both imply that a job is not just a thing you do to earn money, but rather your job is what you do, period. (I teach.) The title of your job isn’t just the title of your job, it is who you are. (I am a teacher.)
Because I am a teacher, because teaching is what I do, I should always be looking for ways to upgrade myself and my product. There are techniques I use in my class that need to be improved, lessons that need to be rewritten or customized and processes that I ask my students to work through that often need to be revisited by a teacher. In the summer, I won’t be actively teaching students, but I’ll still be a teacher. It is after all, what I am. So what does being a teacher consist of over the summer?
At my school, we utilize a flexible online curriculum that allows us to customize our courses and create lessons to best meet the needs of our students. So each summer I take a step back and think about what needs to be changed in the courses for the upcoming year. I read through some novels, dramas, short stories and essays that could be interesting to incorporate into lessons. This is fun for me, and certainly improves the classes I teach, but this isn’t enough. After all, since I have the entire summer, each year I should try to tackle at least one ambitious project.
This summer’s project is to address some issues with student writings. Many of my students don’t know how to develop strong points in their compositions. The first places I’m looking for answers to my problem are Aristotle’s “Topics,” and Cicero’s “Treatise on Rhetorical Invention.” Why Aristotle and Cicero? In part because I’m familiar with these authors and find them interesting, and in their works they touch on the students’ problem I’m trying to solve: How do you find the right questions to ask that will prompt a student to expand ideas around a particular subject or stance?
These sources will give me the leads needed to effectively address the above challenge, as well as lead me to other sources or perhaps discover that a lead is a dead end. Whatever the outcome, my experience has been that long-term study (especially of great thinkers) with an eye toward advice for teaching always has good results, even if the results are not the answers to the particular problems you start with. This study is an integral part of what it means to be a teacher. Being a teacher means being a scholar.
Of course, other teachers might naturally study other things according to their interests and needs to solve their respective issues that lead to equally valid results. I’m the only teacher on my campus that studies philosophy and rhetoric on the side, but I’m not the only teacher that comes to the classroom with new and interesting ideas. Other teachers study what they think is most interesting, what will help them develop best, and what will help their classroom and our campus most. This diversity in teachers’ contexts of knowledge is a great advantage on our campus. We bounce ideas off of each other throughout the year, ideas usually coming from radically different places, and it is all of this interesting scholarship that flavors our campus’ intellectual climate.
According to the historian Arthur Bestor, “Liberal education is essentially the communication of intellectual power. That it cannot be communicated by someone who does not possess it — by a teacher who is not also a scholar — is self-evident.” We are teachers. As teachers, we deal with knowledge and thinking. We teach students how to research. We teach how to think critically and how to think creatively. Who then is more responsible than the individual teacher to research, study and innovate for his or her own classroom? What message are we sending to our students if we aren’t the embodiment of this process?
Let’s not forget that part of our job as teachers is to effectively sell learning. It is imperative to convince our students that being a learner and innovator for life is fun, rewarding, and life furthering. The first step in selling this idea of learning is to be a shining example of learning and innovation ourselves.
Mike Saenz is an English (and sometimes piano) teacher at Falls Career High School in Marble Falls, Texas. He is an avid studier of philosophy and all things Ancient Greek, and a sometimes-amateur classical pianist and composer. Falls Career High School uses the web-based platform from Odysseyware to customize courses for students.
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