I am not the greatest English teacher ever.
I take forever and a day to grade and return student writing assignments. I’m too sensitive, and I take it personally when students aren’t interested in a lesson. I spread myself thin between teaching, coaching the swim team, and trying to keep up with my own reading and writing, not to mention finding time to spend with my wife or to clean the house. When I don’t get enough sleep, it’s easy for me to growl at students for minor infractions. My mind never fails to spin with innovative and engaging ideas, but the time to implement them seems to shrink more and more each year.
It was long past dark when I got home from practice one night this past January. A variety of events had teamed up to earn a “one of those days” label: a lackluster discussion in Period 3 (that had gone well during Period 2), an argument with a student in Period 5, and a long afternoon preparing results for a team meeting. It was only Monday. Four teaching days and three swim meets still loomed ahead of the weekend.
I should have spent an hour whittling down the stack of student papers (which had grown tall enough to peek over the armrest of my recliner) and then gone to bed. Instead, I opened Facebook.
After a few minutes of mindless scrolling, a message popped up.
“MR.GRIFFITH!!! It’s been awhile! But, I’m in desperate need of help for my proposal. I’m stuck.”
Next to the bubbly text was the smiling photo of a former student who had relocated to the west coast a few years after she was in my eighth-grade English class. Does she know what time it is? I thought, but to be fair to the student, it was three hours earlier in California. I suppressed a sigh and asked a few questions to investigate. She had read Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” and her assignment was to write a satirical proposal of her own.
“My teacher didn’t really explain it well, so I have no idea what I should write about.”
I started with a quick account of the brilliance of the essay, which is that Swift combines social criticism with satire by taking an issue from his place and time (the societal burden of the children of underprivileged families) and maintains a straight face as he offers an implausible solution (selling the children to the rich for food), even going so far as to offer methods of preparation.
I asked her to make a short list of current issues that she cared about the most. We batted around an idea that she wasn’t attached to before she decided that she was most passionate about protecting the victims of child abuse. After she explained the societal context of her concern, which I suggested should start her proposal, I asked,
“What totally zany idea can you think of that would solve the problem?”
“Sending every kid in the world to another planet?” she answered.
Her suggestion sparked the memory of a recent article about successful tests on the Virgin Galactic Space Plane. I sent her the link, and she had the guts of her proposal (Richard Branson would fly all the children in the world to another planet to save them from abuse).
After a quick conversation about how she’d flesh out her essay so that her ridiculous proposal was totally possible and logical, thereby encouraging the reader to consider actual solutions, she was set.
“I totally get it now! THANK YOU SO MUCH!! As expected, you’re one of the best English teachers ever!!”
I was appreciative of her gratitude and flattered by her compliment, but what I doubt she realizes is how much our informal tutoring session helped me. Having the chance to help her saved me from a foundering sense of self-worth after a tough teaching day.
At the heart of the complex job of teaching is personal connection with students. Amid a hundred frustrations and a dozen failures, there is still room for one success, and that can make all the difference.
I am not the greatest English teacher ever, but in that one moment, for that one student, I was.
PCTELA member Jason Griffith teaches 10th-grade English at Carlisle High School. A National Board Certified Teacher and a National Writing Project fellow, Jason currently serves on NCTE’s Middle Level Section Steering Committee and the Capital Area Writing Project’s Leadership Team. In 2012, he was awarded NCTE’s Edwin A. Hoey Award for Outstanding Middle Level Educator in the English Language Arts. Follow Jason on twitter @JGriff_Teach or visit him at breathedeepandteach.com