Maverick teacher charts his rookie years

With his shaved head and bright T-shirts, Brendan Halpin in his street clothes looks more like a slightly over-the-hill skateboarder than a high school English teacher with 10 years of experience in the classroom.

In that time, he's taught long enough to evolve from alienated rookie to urban charter-school believer and now to veteran suburban teacher. In between, he has already written one book about his young wife's battle with breast cancer.

In his second book, "Losing my Faculties," Mr. Halpin details his first decade in education - a sometimes bitter and often cynical take on teaching. He discussed the book recently with the Monitor, and excerpts of the interview follow.

This isn't a typical idealistic teacher's tale, is it?

I'm just a bitter little man - that's the book I had in me. I'm also cynical, but not indifferent. If I ever felt I wasn't doing the job as well as I could, then I would leave. Right now, I'm lucky to work in a place that's run well and humanely.

Why did you move from a charter school to a traditional high school?

I soured on the idea of the charter school. That school broke my heart. I believed in what they [described as] the mission of that place. I watched as it was dismantled by the people who were supposed to put it together, and the lack of a union turned out to be a tremendous failing.

A union provides protection so when people who are capricious and incompetent come in as your bosses, you have some job security.

Any guilt in leaving an urban school and switching to a more affluent district?

My heart is still in the city. If I thought there was a place where I could work in the city and not be ground down by the school, I would do it. The experience in the charter school took so much out of me that I needed a break from that intensity to keep doing this.

Is it dangerous being a true believer?

For me, it was about believing in the idea of the school. You can be idealistic about the work you do with kids, but to believe you'll be in a school that will solve the problems of education is setting yourself up for a fall.

How long did it take for you to feel confident in the classroom?

My third year was the first time that I had a class where I was really happy with the way it went from beginning to end. The third to fourth years were when I started to feel more competent than incompetent.

How can new teachers develop a sense of their own worth?

The best thing for me has been to work closely with other teachers - even when it's just planning a class together. If you see someone else working, and the struggles they have, that helps a lot. Mentor programs are a good step. I hope fewer people are thrown in to sink or swim as I was.

When you student teach and meet every week, you know you are not alone in this experience. That would be very helpful to first-year teachers as well.

Are you as engaged with your students after 10 years?

I'm as engaged and more. It's gotten better in some respects. When I started, I was 24 and the kids in the class were 18. Those people are 29 now. We were closer to peers than we should have been.

It was harder for me to create a professional distance when I started out. Being a parent helped that a lot. I feel more confident. It's a different way of relating to kids. I still feel close to them, but it's coming from a different place.

Would you ever want to be a school administrator?

No. To me, that combines the worst aspects of working in an office with the worst aspects of working in a school. I'd never do that.

Best moment as a teacher thus far?

It's great when a class goes well. You get into the job because you think you're doing something important. I still get calls from one advisee from the charter school. She finished her freshmen year in college. The stuff she told me when she graduated was really nice, sincere thanks. It was great just knowing somehow that I'd done something positive.

What was your worst moment in the classroom?

Whenever a class doesn't go well, which happens daily. One of the four I teach every day does not go well. My response is, 'I'll get them tomorrow.' I have accepted there are some things I can't control.

What's your favorite lesson?

I like to do long, narrative poems like "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" or "The Eve of St. Agnes." What's great about them is that there's a lot going on, a lot to talk about, and yet you don't have to struggle with, "Are they keeping up with the reading?" With a poem, there's just as much content.

My favorite thing is always autobiographical writing. You see the most remarkable work, just incredibly moving stuff.

Do you have another education book in you?

I think I'm done. I hope the next 10 years in my teaching career will be a lot less interesting than my first 10 were.

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