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My experience playing teacher for one year

I went from being a freelance journalist and mom to high school English teacher overnight. The result: ‘Beowulf’ meets performance art.

By Correspondent / December 19, 2008



Norfolk, Va.

One of my 16-year-old creative writing students is lying “dead” on the floor of my classroom, her fluffy black feather halo askew, orange CAUTION tape draped across her like a demented Miss American Teen sash. The class writes furiously on what may have caused this catastrophic, dark angel event.

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Then, suddenly, in walks the headmaster – unannounced – for one of those check-in-on-a-classroom moments. He looks at the student prostrate on the floor. He blinks. Then he nods his approval and leaves us to our work – I think.

It is early winter and by now my English classes in this private school in Norfolk, Va., have become sort of a guilty pleasure for me and my students. We are dutifully covering all the material in the books and mastering the required skills, but in a teen multiplexing kind of way, in which class is a daily miasma of music, words, wit, and other people’s wisdom.

Here, Pink isn’t a color, but a rock star whose songs serve as language lessons blasted from my iPod speakers. Rex Harrison’s lament in “My Fair Lady” – “Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?” – redounds through the classroom each time someone’s grammar goes awry. Writing to a specific audience becomes creating a bedtime story for 5-year-olds, with students taking turns as vexing kindergartners to drive the writers to distraction over detail and description.

No real teacher would do this, but that’s fine because I am not a real teacher. I never thought I would find my calling at age 43 as the result of someone literally calling me to step in to fill the vacant shoes of the English teacher for the freshmen, junior, and senior classes at an urban school for this year.

But recessions make for strange bedfellows. I needed the money and these students needed an English teacher who marched to a different piccolo player. Clearly, it is a match made in heaven and I am the fool who rushed in where angels fear to tread.

•••

I do not have a teaching certificate, nor have I ever trained to be a teacher. Private schools here in Virginia have the leeway to hire based on life experience, rather than book learning. Lesson plans were provided for only one of my four courses, 12th-grade British literature. This is also the only course with a textbook.

I also teach ninth-grade composition, journalism, and creative writing. If it weren’t for 22 years as a crafty freelance journalist who can shake down both the Internet and every available source for pointers, I would be the one on the floor wearing the CAUTION sash. (If anyone out there has any advice to contribute, I am still eager to learn.)

My other useful life experiences include: being the mother of four boys (ages 4, 9, 13, and 15) and having lived for five years aboard a sailboat, learning such invaluable things as, “Sometimes you have to go left to go right,” and “You cannot control the wind, only adjust your sails.”

All that and being a children’s author have somehow melded to form the bedrock of my teaching ethos. I realize the argument can always be made, “Show me a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none and I’ll show you a toilet that flushes when you turn on the stove.” All I can say is, it’s a good thing there’s no stove in my classroom.

Speaking of my teaching space, Oprah would have to give it a total makeover just to bring it up to third-world standards. I never knew how much teachers spend out of their own pockets just to provide basics, from adorning the walls to providing students with educational films and various items of interest.

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