Same difference

Thinking some more about that last candidate.  He had taught for a year at an independent school before going to graduate school.  At lunch, Elinor asked him, “So, what are the differences between teaching college and teaching high school?”

“There really aren’t any,” he told her. “Teaching is teaching.”

For her, that was a clear sign that he really didn’t understand the job he was applying for.  I thought so, too, although I was inclined to give a more charitable interpretation to his comment; he just didn’t understand that she was asking him, Do you understand this job, the daily rigor of it?  The relationship between the teacher and the student?  The involvement of the parents?  The way the teacher fits into the community?  

Of course, even the most charitable interpretation still leaves us with a gap in understanding.  Maybe he was saying, I work just as hard; I have to understand the material just the same; I’m just as creative; I care about the students just as much.   

But even so, there are real differences.

I work just as hard: Sure, but you work hard on different things.  Teaching high school, I don’t feel particularly responsible for mastering the secondary literature (though some familiarity is very helpful), but I do have to come up with vocabulary lists and a certain amount–how much depends on the grade level–of other “objective,” learnable, testable material.  That’s just one difference.

I have to understand the material just the same: You also have to recalibrate what you can expect the students to understand, based on their age and development.  I am teaching Beloved for the second time, reading it for the third or fourth (honestly, I barely remember reading it in college or grad school, but I know I did because I have an old edition with my own handwriting in it).  This book is a work of genius, and it means so much to me as a human being, and as a woman and as a mother.  There is so much in it, as in any work of genius, that is beyond the grasp of a seventeen-year-old.  I have to do some bridging of the gaps (sometimes comically, as when I explained a few facts about childbirth), in a developmentally appropriate way that will not result in any distressed parent phone calls, and I also have to just let some things go.

I care just as much about the students:  Well, I might take issue with this one.  I feel like I have the opportunity to care more, and in different ways, than I did when I taught college.  Teaching in college, or teaching grad students, I mostly connected with their lives beyond the classroom when explicitly invited to do so.  Sometimes this happened in a positive context, like being invited to dinner at a dorm, or being asked for advice about summer programs or internships or jobs.  Sometimes it happened in a negative or scary context, as when a student was in the hospital, or dealing with a family situation, or depressed or suffering from social anxiety.  And sometimes the context was neutral, but the interaction was meaningful, as when a student shared something about family background, or disclosed an LD.

Life beyond the classroom is an explicit part of my job in high school, though.  Even if I assiduously avoided going to performances and athletic events (which I don’t–I like them), I’d still have to chaperone several events a year.  Next week I have morning carpool duty, which means standing where the carpools drop off the kids and greeting them and waving at (sometimes chatting briefly with) their parents.  I’m going to see who is chatting with mom or dad, who is half asleep, who actually drives the car to the carpool stop and then switches places with the parent, who is carrying a birthday cake for a friend, who got a haircut over break.  FERPA doesn’t apply here; I talk to parents quite often, informally and formally, and I talk with other teachers pretty much every day about the kids, what is going on with them.

And this is just outside the classroom.  Inside, of course, some of the interactions are like the interactions in college–especially in my discussion-centered AP classes–but I’m also aware, in a general if not a nuanced way, of their relationships with one another, of their expectations of themselves, of their standard operating procedure (chatty, thoughtful, checked out, mischievous) and of deviations from it–which I try to notice, and remark on (“Hey, you made some fascinating contributions today!” or “You seem a little down today”).

I didn’t know all these things when I began, of course, so I really do have some sympathy for the last candidate, but as I said, we didn’t think he was into it, and we really do need to hire someone who wants to work here.

Next candidate comes in the second week after we get back from break.


One response to this post.

  1. […] actually kind of enjoy this duty most of the time, unless the weather is bad.  There’s one kid whose […]


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