The same undergraduate methods professor who introduced me to the Henry Adams quote, discussed in prior posts, that guided my teaching, gave the following words of wisdom, which he repeated often throughout our coursework, making them his mantra.
When someone asks you “what” you do, do not respond in terms of what you teach.
Never say,“I teach social studies.”
Always remember. You do not teach a subject. You teach students.
Reply with who you teach.
What do you do?
I teach seventh graders.
If they press for what you teach the seventh graders, then you are free to tell them “social studies.”
At the time, although I “got” what he meant, it seemed as if he were doing nothing more than splitting hairs, making much ado about nothing.
Fortunately, his admonition took root, and those words have provided a compass for me to appraise in what direction my teaching was going.
What was taking more prominence? Was the subject matter serving the students, or were the students (as audience for me) serving the subject matter?
There came a moment of truth for me, mid-way in my career, when I found myself interviewing for a part-time job, as a way of reentering regular classroom teaching after doing other kinds of teaching while our children were growing.
The interviewer asked me about my teaching philosophy, and I confidently said that I took it as my responsibility to ensure that every junior high school student I taught would be more mature in June than they had been in September, and that I would use social studies, with its emphasis on such life skills as withholding judgment, examining both sides of an issues, seeking and evaluating evidence etc. as a means of providing opportunities for that growth.
The interviewer asked me if I were serious about my response.
Thinking she was about to commend me, I assured her that I absolutely was serious in that commitment. I felt an absolute responsibility to do my best to help every student (about 125 per year) to grow. I would count myself as having not done my best job if even one student hadn’t grown in some meaningful way–academically, socially, or in character etc..
Responding that my philosophy and goal was totally unrealistic, she told me in no uncertain terms that the interview was over and that my candidacy was over as well–I would not be considered for the job.
Normally, I would have been totally crushed by such a harsh putdown, but I recall leaving with an interior peace that–call me unrealistic–despite what she said, my teaching philosophy and commitment to students was the right compass for me—even if not for her.
As disappointed as I was, I knew that I would be more disappointed reporting to a supervisor who did not share my values. I counted myself lucky that she was so honest. That left me free to leave with my with professor’s mantra, not only intact, but strengthened. I knew what kind of teacher I wanted to be, and that position was not the right one for me in which to be that kind of teacher.
…I do remember thanking my professor, by then deceased, in my heart, while feeling sorry for the rest of the interviewer’s reports, and for her students.
…I do remember, thinking too, that maybe if the interviewer, a department chair, had had my methods professor, she would have felt differently. Maybe she would have embraced his mantra, too.
Fortunately, I got other opportunities to be the kind of teacher I wanted to be. The kind who teacher for whom the subject taught is the means, not the end. The kind of teacher who keeps in mind that it is fellow human beings–students–that the teacher is privileged to learn from and with–and is privileged to teach.
Have you ever had deep-seated work beliefs ridiculed, misunderstood, or subverted? How did you respond?