Steven Tatum is a graduate of Bard College and the Bard MAT Program. In the following essay, he writes about the beginning of his second year of teaching at Lake Region Union High School in Orleans, Vermont.
I’ve received a lot of conflicting reports about how the second year of teaching compares to the first. “Oh, it’s soooo much easier,” some tell me. Others say I won’t really notice a change in the workload until year five, at which point I will have “started to actually have things figured out.” I’ve even been told to beware of a sophomore slump, which I could imagine happening if I accepted the first opinion as the truth and ignored all evidence that the second is probably far more likely.
My first days of school a year ago were a special kind of nerve wracking. I felt more on-the-spot than ever in front of a room full of my very own students. They suddenly seemed like precious water that I needed to carry with lesson plans that suddenly seemed far leakier than I thought they were. So many human beings in one room, and I was supposed to lead them all through more sophisticated reading, writing, and thinking than I ever remember doing in high school.
Even in those earliest moments when a catastrophic spill seemed imminent, I nevertheless had the sense that I was where I belonged. As I start my second year teaching, I’ve been thinking more about where that sense of belonging comes from for me.
In those first weeks of my first year, one of my unconscious coping strategies was to mimic the professors I had in college who made me love learning. Without really thinking about it, I found myself asking questions the way Daniel did to engage the class and provoke thinking. I re-read significant passages of the texts aloud to the class the way I remembered Roger doing to emphasize a point. I instinctively wrote in response to prompts along with my students the way Phil did to show a certain reverence for words and ideas that I’m still only grasping for. Even when I began to feel more like myself in front of the class and less like a phony copycat, teaching felt right to me because it was an honor to be a part of the work that had so shaped my life. The relationships I formed with my own students over the course of the year only deepened the gratitude I felt for those who taught me. (Note to self: must make time to write to them… those two inspirational videos that were shown during our in-service a couple weeks ago reminded me how much even a simple “thanks” can mean.)
Now a new school year brings a new crew of kids into my room, eager faces turned expectantly toward their new English teacher. A jumble of thoughts always runs through my head in the moments after the bell rings:
so much to get through I wish they’d stop talking “okay, let’s get started” hope this writing prompt will work “what does this line tell us about Simon and his experience of the island?” “what do you think?” the same hands always go up what are others thinking I wish they’d share we need to move on did they get it I hope they got it “okay lets re-read page 143” are they bored did they learn is this interesting it should be interesting…
…and on, and on, and on, the thoughts keep flowing. I feel like I need to be hyper-responsive, ready to change plans at a moment’s notice depending on the flow of the class. If I ever give myself a minute to set these thoughts aside and reflect, I sometimes realize how strange it is to bring twenty plus young people together in a room where someone asks them all to think about something that they probably never would have picked up on their own.
What’s going on here? It’s so easy to shake off this apparently useless philosophical question when I’ve got a long list of assessments to design, activities to plan, and papers to grade. But I’m also beginning to realize that the reason I love of teaching comes from a possible answer to this question.
Just as I’m thankful to my former teachers for the learning experience they created for me, I am thankful for the educators who have written philosophically about their work. They give me guidance whenever I think about what’s going on in education, and this guidance sustains me through my insecurity in the face of responsibility and the late nights I spend planning and grading. Lately I’ve been mulling over the concluding paragraphs of Engaging Minds: Changing Teaching in Complex Times by Brent Davis, Dennis J. Sumara, and Rebecca Luce-Kapler, a text that I read two years ago as a student in Bard’s MAT program. I continue to be challenged and inspired by what these authors have to say about what really makes learning happen. They argue that learning doesn’t have much to do with my ability to convey information and a set of skills to my students: “It is simply wrong to suggest that learning is ‘due to’ experience or teaching,” they maintain. Even if transferring knowledge in such a way was a desirable model of education, the likelihood that all students could learn that way is dubious at best. Rather, the authors argue that learning happens because we are all human beings making sense of an ever-changing world. They write, “learning is ‘due to’ the evolving structures of an agent-in-context” (225). The phrase “evolving structures of an agent-in-context” strikes me as a fancy way of saying that we all find ourselves living as individuals in a world with other actors, influences, and environments to make sense of and respond to. What’s going on here? – whether asked of the world or the classroom – seems to be individual involvement in a complex series of relationships that are always evolving. Learning is due to the messiness of living amid this miracle of plurality.
Looking at the new crew of kids in my classroom, I see a bunch of actors and thinkers hungry to make sense out of the world that only grows more complicated the longer they live in it. The burden of further illuminating this complexity through my subject matter can feel dark and heavy a lot of the time even if I set aside the management issue. But the flipside of these difficulties is a thrilling sense of possibility. As the authors of Engaging Minds put it, teaching can become a job of “expanding the space of the possible and creating conditions for the emergence of the as-yet unimagined” (225). When I present the world to my students, they see it from their diverse and divergent perspectives, and they each have the capacity to re-interpret and re-make it in surprising ways. Who knows how my 9th graders will respond to Odysseus’s determination to return home, or Penelope’s determination to keep that home from falling apart? Who knows what my 11th graders will conclude about the “Broken Window Theory” as a policy for law enforcement in the wake of the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown? What I do know is that bringing these topics and materials into the classroom (“exploring current spaces,” in the words of Engaging Minds) helps my students become capable of achieving things that neither they nor I nor anyone else ever imagined to be possible.
Like all essential questions, the question of what is going on in my classroom can never be answered definitively. It can only be pursued. I love teaching because I love pursuing this question. Teaching at its best does not concern itself so much with “how to control what happens, but how to participate mindfully in the unfolding of possibilities” (226). When I feel like I’m participating in unfolding possibilities, when I open myself to noticing the moment when a student has an idea or makes a connection, when I see how one student’s ideas relate to another’s, and they see it too , that’s when my mouth curls into a smile and I love my job. I am looking to be as mindful as I can of moments like these in my second year. At both the beginning and the end of the day, it’s these moments that keep me going.
Look for Field Notes on the first and third Monday of each month.