Pearls of Wisdom

A teacher asked me about what he/she might do about keeping the program going. Here’s what I wrote:

Clearly you have done well in recruiting. The numbers in your classes indicate you can also retain them. What you want to do now is feel firmer in what you are doing, in the direction you are taking your students (and yourself along with them).
We all talk a good game about how important teaching is, an honorable profession, a calling, etc., but do we really stop to think how true that is? The whole purpose of adult life boils down to caring for the young ones, the future; we hunt and fight for them, whether it’s stalking game and picking berries or going to the office, and we train them so they can do the same for their off-spring.
In so many cultures “teacher” is a hallowed word. I feel very good about being a teacher…… now. But when my wife urged me, 48 years ago, to get a teaching certificate, I sniffed in scorn. sniff sniff
A teacher!! Yuck!
So to keep myself in check, I look back on my experiences as a kid sitting in a classroom, and I think that’s where I might have one advantage (I have several which I’ll discuss). I was not a “good student”; I was a “good kid” and liked to read, but homework was not a priority and my mom seldom asked me about school. My home was my safe place and my mom didn’t feel good about schools or teachers. Also, many of my teachers failed to engage me.
And that leads to my Big Lesson (drum roll): no matter if you go through declensional chants and insist gender be learned for each word or are a whole language type teacher, if you only engage your students, you will be a successful teacher. You and I might disagree on what constitutes a good Latin curriculum but if your students learn what you teach them, they will be happy with you. One example: they may wind up not knowing how to read Latin but they might score a 4 or 5 on the AP and they’ll be happy.
So, you see, I’m not here preaching method but style. Your style is how you present YOURSELF to your students. How you present the subject, Latin, is up to you (that’s a whole other topic we could discuss), but it’s really how you present yourself that counts with kids. That’s why I urge you to get a friend, a confidant, a mentor (unofficial), preferably another teacher, who you can talk to about all the stuff that goes on, including the administration, the thermostat in your room, next year’s salary negotiations, the little jerk in the back row that all the smart girls seem to like (maddening), the failure of parents to support your instructions, the lousy textbook, and on and on and on. Watch out for people who quickly offer simple solutions like never smile until December, take only half an hour’s worth of grading home, keep silence in your classroom so admins think your kids are working, always write the date on the board, get plenty of sleep, etc.
Now I approve of some of those but they are simple and you have to find what keeps you on an even keel. I found sleep, exercise and a decent diet really helped and keeping the booze in check. But some people thrive on 5 hours sleep and a 7 mile jog. What I’m urging here is that you experiment as much as possible to find what gives you that pleasant churning in your stomach as you contemplate what you’re going to do in class the next day.
One time I was working out with a trainer and mentioned it was near the end of Christmas break and I had no excitement at all about going back to classes. I had always been excited about getting back. He asked me if I had changed anything and I remembered a fellow teacher had suggested I take half an aspirin daily. I almost never take medications, even now, but I had tried that. My trainer said aspirin can depress you, so I quite and within a couple of days I was back to myself.
That’s just a little example of how stuff like that can affect you, so be aware of everything you do. And when you are in the classroom, practice keeping your mind clear. If you’re good at thinking on your feet, great; if not, work at it. Just yesterday I was telling my son, who was working on lesson plans, that some of my best lesson plans lept to my mind between the time I announced, “Take out your books” to the time I had to give them a page number. Now, I sure don’t advise being unprepared and that’s just my point. You may not sit down every day and plan out a lesson, but if you collect ideas from reading, from conferences, and nowadays from YouTube, etc., you’ll have stuff floating around in your head in a semi-organized manner (charts and tables, etc. are good for that, graphic organizers) and you can pull them out.
But that requires that “thinking on your feet” ability, having a clear head and remaining aware of what’s going on around you (I have switched lesson plans just on watching kids enter the classroom, realizing that today was not the day for a lecture on the symbology of Enlightenment iconography based in Classical motiffs – just kidding, I never presented on that). That comes from within you and from feeling you know what you are doing professionally.
That brings me to the professional activities. If you cannot attend conferences and workshops for some reason, you should set aside time for reading in the field. I would recommend stuff but it’s hard for me to gauge where you are academically. What I urge anyone to do is to take everything with a grain of salt, respectfully. But that doesn’t mean you don’t learn from it. Some people in Latin scoff at Grammar/Translation without understanding what there is to scoff at. What were those who created this method trying to do? What were they reacting to? Why did some teachers turn away from it? Is there research on it and histories of the method? Many good books on fl teaching discuss such matters.
While you find your own personal goals for your classes (reading, oral/aural, composition…. is getting the gist enough or do you want sentence diagramming? etc.), i.e. what you think a Latin student should learn, you’ll be swimming in definitions of words like proficiency, grammar, accuracy, focus on form, etc. That’s where discussions with other teachers can help, e.g. on the Latin Teach listserv and a couple of others like BestPractices and Cambridge.
My own background, as I said, was not that of a “good student”; I was never interested in awards or doing my best. I had other priorities and keep in mind that a lot of your students do. Then I worked for 25 years in counseling people, mostly in a mental health center but also job training, child abuse, and so on. I certainly worked with people for whom education as a whole was not a priority; they were just trying to survive. So while I have always been very academic, I knew there was another side to life and that’s what some of my wife’s friends in education saw so that they encouraged me to become a teacher. Having dealt with druggies and gangsters and ex-cons and child abusers, a class of teenagers, even in a tough school, wasn’t going to throw me. So that was an advantage.
That’s where being open to your students is helpful. You perceive what works to motivate various kids and at least acknowledge that in them; it goes a long ways even if you can’t provide exactly what they seem to need. You’re there to teach, not counsel (maybe in a Christian school you might have some counseling to offer on that basis but that’s different from trying to get at a difficult child’s motivation – truly a counseling job for a professional). When I consulted to schools out of the mental health center, I never asked teachers to keep a “behavior log” like so many counselors and psychologists did; they are there to teach and that’s a full-time job.
Phew! That was a lot. I might even put that on my blog. It’s a summary and I don’t think I’ve ever written something that extensive before. I sure want to see your program succeed and for you to succeed. You have a great start and feel free to ask anyone if you can bounce ideas off them.
Good luck with your new year.

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