the 20th year

by Tal Bright
My parents were both high school teachers, and as a teenager I swore I'd never teach, never be like my father who had worked in the same school -- the same classroom -- since 1967. (He retired in 2003.) And although I have moved schools (and continents) as a teacher, I am beginning my twentieth school year as a high school teacher of English (and sometimes other subjects).

In 1993, I was working for a publisher as a proofreader. I enjoyed some aspects of the job, but it was not fulfilling in any real way. It was easy, boring work. I mostly worked from home, and  just to try something else out, I signed up to do some substituting in a local district. I became friendly with the English department at one of the high schools, an so when a long-term substitute was needed a few months into the 1993-94 school year, I quit my publishing job and took to the classroom, teaching mostly grade 12 English. I faced a lot of challenges and I made a lot of mistakes, but at the same time it felt very natural.

What has changed in those years? In some ways, very little. The basis of my professional and educational philosophy were formed in those first years, and they remain more or less intact:

  • I should not be the teacher I wanted as a student, but the teacher I needed. 
  • Students respond well to respect, and the best way to show them respect is by challenging them and providing the support they need to meet those challenges. 
  • The best means of achieving the 'discipline' needed for students to feel secure in class is through the curriculum I present them. 
  • Textbooks are rarely useful. Give me a text and we'll work out what to do with it. 
  • Laugh more and shout less.

The availability of the Internet moved the goalposts to some degree, as has the availability of word processing software and various publishing platforms, but as I've taught about language in literary contexts and in use, they have changed as tools I use, not the basic approach I have taken since those early years. I've always emphasized ideas over facts and production over consumption: the tools just make that easier.

And in a thousand other ways, I have changed what I do in class, from content to approach. They might be watershed moments, like the year (1999) I decided I would never give a multiple choice exam again. But for the most part, I have moved in one direction or another incrementally, month by month, year by year. I have generally moved toward a more individualized approach, made easier with smaller classes and more necessary by more diverse classes. I have moved toward a broader definition of literature, teaching more about language use as an abstract topic. I have tended to be less dogmatic generally about language use and the creative process.

There are about a thousand other adjustments and changes, but what has changed most is me. In my first year, I was 24 years old, only 6-7 years older than my students. They saw me as a peer in a way that is not credible at this point. For the first time this year, I have a student whose parents are younger than me. (Yes, I ask.) I think of myself as 'young at heart' -- I am listening to 'XXXO' by M.I.A. as I type -- but it's tough to sell that as authentic to my students, even if it is. I am a 42 year old father of four, and I have needed to own that. In the mid 90s, my role was as a mentor a few years ahead of them. Now, I am an accessible peer of their parents.

This is my twentieth year. It has re-awakened me to the dangers of complacency and the need to push myself. As I started the school year two weeks ago, I reviewed my self-evaluation from last May, printed off my 'Plan for Next Year' section and taped it up in my room. I want this year to be special, yes, but I also want to continue to sow the seeds of these same feelings after 40 years in the classroom.