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

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.

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.

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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.

The best way to describe my “teaching method” is performance art. I ended up reading the texts aloud and teaching chess as an inroad to learning about powerful queens in British literature. The greatest find was a podcast by “some guy from New York” who was forced to interpret the classics as an alternative to a prison sentence for an assault charge. He has an uncanny knack for communicating with the teen universe.

Even though this is a private school, most of my students refuse to read books (text applies only to their phones) and have precious little comprehension when they do. “Beowulf” looked like a lost cause. On Day 3, I threw my hands up and sent the students out of our tiny room and into the hallway. Laying “Beowulf” on the threshold, I instructed them to step back in and over the text. I repeated this process several times.

“Why’d we do that, Mrs. Suhay,” one sassy student demanded. I replied calmly, “Now if anyone asks you what we did in class today you can tell them we went over ‘Beowulf’ – thoroughly.” So it began. Wordplay. Word work. I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, but I don’t think you can get anywhere teaching English literature and writing until the students learn how much fun this new language toy can be. Also, I believe to be a creative writer you must first be taught to be a creative thinker.

I have all my classes keep a “commonplace book” like Thomas Jefferson did. I heard about it on National Public Radio while driving to my first teacher orientation in late August. By the time I parked, I had a tool for kids who need to be lured into reading, but who are great at zinging each other. They collect quotes and passages from books, the Internet, conversations, television, songs, and newspapers (A new wonder! Text in print! It could just catch on again).

They put them into their commonplace books, and each Friday we do a Quote Slam in which they try and outsmart each other, and me, using other people’s words.

Every day I have them participate in word theater. Some classes get lists of SAT words and then come up and act them out while we all try and guess the definitions. It’s charades with college in mind. I also keep a prop box. A magic wand works beautifully in demonstrating charismatic as “an almost magical influence.”

In British Lit, I printed out copies of the Lord’s Prayer in Old English, stuck them on envelopes and passed them out. Inside was the modern translation. They had 30 minutes to try and decode it while I played an MP3 file of the Old English being read aloud.

•••

I live in terror of the day I don’t make it to class and some poor substitute has to attempt my “lesson plans,” which he or she will find in my desk amid the fairy star wand and pink tiara.

This week I had my Pinocchio moment when, instead of being a wooden carving in the image of an educator, I felt like a real, live teacher. In my first class of the day, my roll call produced an extra student. This has been happening more frequently, as students attempt to cut other classes as spectators.

This was different because the young man in the chair graduated last year and had come back to sneak into the British literature class he’d been hearing about – heaven knows where.

So, even though I am not a teacher, I now feel like one. My students are truly mine and not just frothing, angry waves breaking over my desks. I will miss this profession terribly next fall when the school will no doubt find someone qualified. For now I can only say thank you to those who suffered me as a student as I have finally learned their lesson.

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