The beginning of a new school year always fills me with hope. What will I learn? Which students will catch fire from one of the authors we read? Whose writing will grow into clarity and beauty? After last year’s difficult and uncertain school year, I am far more hopeful about the one that begins, for me, next week. Yet, this year, I’m feeling more than hope. I feel a deeper sense of responsibility as a teacher. I’ve always felt this, but given the present state of the country, it seems more crucial now.
First, the hope. While teaching American Literature, some students open themselves to one writer or another and they learn deeply. The texts we read in American Literature do just what literature is supposed to do: they confront and console. Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” often helps students ask questions they have not considered before. “The Iroquois Creation Story” opens students’ imaginations in fresh and engaging ways. Emily Dickinson usually grabs a few students with her intense gaze and irreverent manner. Whitman’s powerful beauty and vision of diversity often captivate students. Emerson challenges students’ tendency toward conformity. Frederick Douglass, more than many others, takes students right into the heart of American slavery and reveals, through his own life and observation, the suffering and the liberation he knew and the hope he had for America.
Among the more modern writers, Langston Hughes’ poems put words to anger and joy that many students haven’t felt before. Ta-Nehisi Coates gives students a language and a challenge to think about “race” in new ways. Leslie Marmon Silko offers a beauty and a critique inherent in her Laguna Pueblo Tribe.
It’s always fascinating to see a student come to life, feel the confrontation or the consolation that comes from literature.
This year, there’s more than just the hope. I also feel a somber sense of responsibility. We live in a country where a significant number of people reject expertise, believe conspiracies and rumors that are, frankly, absurd. In some ways, we teachers are responsible for this. It is easy to want to turn the classroom into a feel-good place. It should be a safe place, a place where one feels secure enough to face and explore new ideas. But it should not be a frivolous place. As a young teacher, I wanted students to like me. I still feel that desire a bit. But not much. It’s not important that students like me. It’s important that they learn.
It’s essential to not give students shortcuts. It’s crucial to set high goals for students because they will often reach them. If I decide that we will only go so far in discussing a piece of literature, students might conclude that what we discussed is all there is. Therefore, it’s important for teachers to go deeply, to insist that students get well beyond the surface ideas and explore the deepest places in a work of literature. Similarly, if I give overly-generous grades on poor writing, I am telling students their level of expression is not what it really is. If an essay receives an A grade, it needs to be excellent, not good. As a teacher, it’s easy to reward. It’s harder to push. Both are necessary.
Hope and responsibility. That’s where I am today as I begin my thirty-third year of teaching. I’ll work hard to deliver on both of those realities, even as I’m wearing a mask.