I'd Rather Teach High School

College classes explore books; high school classrooms reveal people

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High school teachers are often jealous of college professors. Professors have prestige and offices with telephones. They teach six to nine hours a week. Their students take notes, listen politely, and do what they're told.

But this jealousy is misplaced. I've taught college for 16 years and high school for six, and there is no doubt in my mind that teaching high school is more rewarding.

I will admit that the schedule of the average high school teacher is punishing. We teach four to six classes daily and often have additional duties, not to mention planning and correcting at night. The schedule becomes less brutal over time as we build up stamina, but the incidence of burnout is high. Some burnout is temporary, lasting only a Saturday or a summer. Some lasts longer and forces teachers to find new jobs that make fewer demands and pay more money. But the many good parts of high school teaching easily outweigh this simple bad one.

High school kids have a healthy skepticism about their teachers and a willingness to express it that keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously. My first day of teaching high school, I stood on the front line armed with three Ivy League degrees and good intentions. As I was telling the kids about myself, several began giggling. One said: “You're joking, right? You mean there really are such things as doctors of English?”

College professors, whose doctorates are a given, rarely benefit from this kind of openness. Their students defer to them because of their degrees and positions and because the students want to keep up their GPAs. Professors never know, for instance, whether what they're asking is unreasonable. My high school students keep my expectations in line: “Two acts of Hamlet in one night? Don't you know this guy is hard to read? Do you want us to be superficial or to read in depth?”

This youthful openness does more than just keep high school teachers on their toes; it also generates new insights into works that receive so much respect at the college level that they begin to fossilize. Hamlet, that perennial favorite at all levels, took on new meaning when I introduced it to high school seniors after having taught it to college students for years. “Hold up,” one student said. “You mean to tell me that this dude married his sister-in-law when his brother had been dead only a month? What a hose-bag!” I couldn't have phrased it better myself.

The insights high school students bring to fiction are fraught with a personal pain and ambivalence that they are only beginning to conceal beneath the “cool” exterior college students don for their professors.

Andrew, one of my high school students, writes: “Hamlet's first ploy is to pretend himself insane. This may be simply some peculiar form of Hamlet-logic. To lie to find the truth? It would take someone like Hamlet to devise such a ploy. Hamlet is awfully slow to act; is he being careful? Is he afraid? Is he simply spineless?”

You can see in this student's words a mind searching the possibilities. Because the world of adolescents still revolves around self-image, their analyses of fiction take on a new dimension. They ask questions of fictional characters you know they've asked of themselves. Literature becomes an extension of their world.

This leads to the most rewarding aspect of teaching high school: Teachers get drawn into the process of self-discovery. It's not just that we see our students four times as often as college instructors see theirs. High school students are caught in a moment of transition, rebelling against the adult world even as they seek to join it. But they don't have the perspective to see what they're doing. They just feel confused. So each student experiences crisis after crisis with little break in intensity. Adolescents react with passion to the appearance of a facial blemish, the prospect of a date for Friday's football game, and Dimmesdale's cowardice in his treatment of Hester Prynne. “Why does the woman always bear the brunt?” a student asks. “If he'd come clean maybe he wouldn't have been eaten alive by guilt.”

The adolescent's world is one of confusion, ambivalence, and contradiction. Openly sharing their thoughts in their journal writings, students brutally criticize the third-period teacher and then call themselves jerks for behaving so badly in class. They begin to see that it's not easy to judge and be judged and that it is an awesome responsibility to be in charge of your own destiny. Kristin writes: “I worry too much about the consequences of what I'm about to do. Sometimes, I prevent myself from saying or doing something that I want to do because I'm scared of the possible repercussions.”

This ambivalence reappears in their relationship with me. They tease me, saying English is a waste, irrelevant to the rest of their lives, and then they desperately ask me to help them craft a voice for their college essays that will reveal their best qualities.

Their writing provides irrefutable proof of the contradictions inherent in all adolescents. After complaining that poetry can't ever be understood by anyone except English teachers—”Did Donne put all that imagery in there on purpose, or do English teachers just go looking for it?”—they will produce poems so personal and telling that it's hard to respond adequately. Maureen writes of graduation:

    Unlike years in the past,
    There will be no comma,
    Nothing waiting to foreshadow
    What's ahead,
    Nothing so you can anticipate continuation,
    No pause to catch your breath,
    But rather, at the end,
    There will be a period,
    Sitting alone,
    A sudden halt,
    Blunt and

Because high school students have to make hard choices, they understand Hamlet's indecision only too well. Like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, who takes 540 pages to figure out the right path, adolescents search endlessly for the certainty and peace that elude them. When Stephen Dedalus finally figures out what to do with his life, my students rejoice, partly because they're most of the way through the hardest book they've ever read, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but also because Stephen now knows what they'd love to know.

For high school students, life and art are one, and the teacher has the responsibility to help kids see that the way an author or character pulls the fragments of his or her world together might hold a clue that will help them become less fragmented.

This is why I'll never give up my noisy, irreverent high school classroom for the insulated, intellectual quiet of the university. My university classes explore books. My high school classroom reveals people.

Vol. 02, Issue 04, Pages 60-61

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