The Gifts of Teaching

It’s hard to believe this, but I just completed my twenty-fourth year of teaching. Fourteen of those years I spent in high school classrooms and ten in college classes. These years include eight years teaching in Notre Dame’s Freshman Writing Program, ten years directing the Writing Center and teaching at Carroll High School in Washington, DC, two years in the College Writing Program at American University, and most recently one terrific year at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, DC. In truth, since I was a boy, I never wanted to be anything but a teacher.

As a teacher of English, one has the profound privilege of reading student writing. When reading what students write, I have come to know how they think and reflect on the world, as well as what they love and sometimes what they fear. Another privilege that comes with teaching English is the opportunity to spend time with students engaged with great literature. Few experiences compare with watching a student wrestle with, and then fall in love with, William Shakespeare, or seeing a student find himself in the poems of Lucille Clifton, or learning of a student’s own confidence growing after an encounter with Henry David Thoreau. Engaging with young people over exciting and challenging literature still lights a fire inside me, even after twenty-four years.

As recently as this past school year, my first year at Gonzaga College High School, I rediscovered some experiences I love about teaching. I taught a Senior English class that came alive discussing The Iliad. Examining questions like: “Are we free?” and “What makes a man?” provided some remarkable moments in our classroom. I loved listening to these smart students engage the texts and one another over questions that matter.

I also taught American Literature to juniors and they too lit up the room discovering the power of Frederick Douglass, George Moses Horton, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Martin Espada. We started with Christopher Columbus’ “Letter to the King of Spain” and ended with Lucille Clifton’s poems. Imagine that sweep through American Literature! Nothing matches the joy of seeing a student wrestle with Douglass’ questions in “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” or  watching a student discover an array of quiet human truths from the pen of Emily Dickinson.

Many times, when people discuss the teaching profession, pay and workload are the first topics addressed. And yes, teachers should generally receive better compensation. (Though the school I’m at now treats me very well!) Still, few experiences can match the joys I’ve experienced over twenty-four years, especially this past year. Personally, I’m looking forward to many more class discussions that deepen my own sense of literature. Believe it or not, I’m also looking forward to many more years of reading student writing, soaking up their hope, and understanding their concerns.

Unlike many teachers, I did not come to teaching because I was a great student. Throughout high school, I was generally a “B” student. In college and graduate school though, I found my direction. With amazing English professors like Frank Carothers, Teresita Fay, Robert Caro, and Sharon Locy, (at Loyola Marymount University) and writers and theologians like Catherine La Cugna, Patricia Wismer, Enrique Dussel, and John Collins ( at Notre Dame) I found my place as a poet and teacher. None of us gets here alone. If those great teachers walked into Kohlmann Hall, where I teach now, I hope they would recognize the questions I craft and the passion they stirred in me for writing and literature. No one gets  to their destination alone. We all stand in a line of those who influenced us, those who took time to nurture us. I’m grateful for my mentors and the gifts they gave me which resulted in these past twenty-four years. I look forward to future students I’ve not yet met. We’re going to have a great time.

(Photo Credit: JC/

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Poet & Teacher. Author of four books of poetry: Raising King (2020) Ache (2017) Gospel of Dust (2013) Meeting Bone Man (2012)

5 thoughts on “The Gifts of Teaching

  1. Thank you Joe for these essential truths about classic literature and its transformative power in the human spirit. One line from The Iliad can still send me into such reflections on who we are and what life means in our own empire today.


  2. Reading this makes me want to jump back in. Well, in a few months. I too, was a late bloomer if indeed I have bloomed. It’s one of the first things I share with my students to let them know that our 9 months together is not a competition but a conversation. I am glad you followed your calling, Joe.


  3. So lucky to have been one of your many students and to have been influenced by you and those we read that year – MLK Jr., Dorothy Day, etc.


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