When you were in college, did you have that one professor who pushed you to want to change the world? Make a difference? Make the future brighter?
For me, this was Dr. Arthur Conigan,* professor of English Education. At first, his teaching seemed absolutely quacky. He’d ask us to sit in a circle each and every class, so no chance of catching a nap in the back of the room. Billy would catch my eye as if to say “What are we in, kindergarten or graduate school?” Janice would whisper, “Is this guy for real?” And Tiffany would mumble, “Maybe we’re going to play duck-duck-goose?” The entire feel of the class was different than any other. But aren’t all the best classes?
Arthur had us free-write at the beginning of every class and then reflect on our thinking. We were to call him Arthur and not Dr. Conigan. We did A LOT of group work, projects, and collaborative presentations. Papers were always to be reflections instead of essays citing and regurgitating notes. There was never any “down-time” and I don’t remember any lengthy lectures. We did most of the talking. He asked numerous open ended questions. At any given moment he’d turn to me and ask, “Well, what do you think about that, Nancy?” so paying attention was a must. He’d plan trips for us all the way uptown Manhattan, knowing most of us worked in Queens! We examined photography at New York Historical Society and Film and dance at Lincoln Center and wrote more reflections. It felt like so much work on our part!
His quirkiness became a cause for stress at times because we didn’t get why he kept showing us all these things and never telling us what to do with them. “We are creatures of habit. We are uncomfortable moving away from ‘normal'” he’d chime after too many sighs and sideway glances. After two semesters with Arthur, I decided to switch out of his program and into a “normal” class.
I sat in a seat in the back of the room the first day of my thesis class. I planned on grading papers if the class moved to slow. But as I listened to this newly appointed professor (whose name I sincerely can’t remember for the life of me) ramble on and on, I finally got what Arthur was doing.
Which type of teacher would I become? Which teacher would I emulate when it was my time to stand in front of a classroom? Which class would foster true learning and which would allow students to tune-out?
I darted to the program offices immediately after to speak with Arthur and ask to be placed back into his classroom. I might have even teared up a little to enhance my request. But he said “No.” He gave me a few resources to help me get through the course and sent me on my way.
Whenever Janice or Billy walked into my classroom and saw the desks arranged in a circle, they’d smile and say “Conigan?” For years I recreated the projects he showed us – personal timeline, portrait of a reader, photography analysis. I took my students on a minimum of two trips per year. I held class outdoors whenever possible and encouraged students to write reflections on their books instead of summaries. I adopted into practice as many activities as I could and adjusted them to my liking.
Somewhere between years 5-7, I stopped. I got bogged down by new curriculum after new curriculum, scripted lessons, test-prep materials, timed-prototypes of the reader’s and writer’s workshop, tests, tests, and more tests. I did less aesthetic learning and more test prep. More scripts. Less trips. Not to mention, I bought a house, got in over my head, took a part-time job at Starbucks and collapsed in exhaustion at the end of every single day. Two things became very clear:
- Teaching is beyond full-time work. The time we spend in the classroom is only a quarter of what we do as educators. It’s another quarter of prep time to keep our lessons engaging. Then another quarter grading and assessing what the students are learning so we can make adjustments.
- Teachers need to be life-long-learners, which is the last quarter of our teaching life. We need to keep learning and not lose sight of what it’s like to be a student. Professional development only goes so far, especially when it’s designed by test prep companies and (cringe) administrators who have forgotten the reality of being in the classroom. We need to know more than just the latest teaching buzzwords. If the learning speaks to our interests and passions, it will transfer to what we are teaching in the classroom.
It took a lot of work to get over that slump, but the pay-off was amazing. My classroom is everything I dreamed it could be. The work continues, however. Fortunately, New York City has so many museums, parks and educational institutes that constantly invite teachers to come in and see what they have to offer. This year alone, I’ve been to The Statue of Liberty, the 9/11 Memorial and Columbia University, Teachers College, for teacher professional development. What does this mean for my classroom? Trips! Guest Speakers! And new stories to read and write about!
While visiting Queens College for the 3rd time in the past three months to obtain yet another document to send to the UAE, I was tempted to poke my head into Arthur’s office. I wanted to know what he thought of teaching abroad. His career was centered on assisting new teachers succeed in urban public schools. I wonder if he’d appreciate hearing from one of those teachers who made it past the first years and perhaps have some insights as to what to do during these middle years. There must be a reason teachers qualify for sabbatical after 14 years. There must be a reason why I feel like I should immerse myself into somethingnew at this point in my career.
*Name Changed for Privacy