Teaching is an art.

by Linda Christensen

Linda Christensen
Having fun in the classroom.

I love the first days of school.

I love putting the books back on the shelves, polishing the tables, stacking my bins of colored highlighters, sticky notes, and blue tape in the cupboard.

I love arranging and rearranging my tables, chairs, and file cabinets until the room feels right — ready for work.

I love the chalkboards—green and smooth, ready for the first scratch of chalk. Yes, I’m old school: I still have chalkboards.

I love putting up photographs and poems, quotes from scholars and former students.

I love planning: drawing out the four quarters of the year, marking up the board with sticky notes about the units I will teach, noting the writing assignments and extra readings I will use with each unit.

I love to pause and look out at Mt. St. Helens on a clear day, as I listen to the football players on the field beneath my window.

I retired a few years ago from my day job as a classroom teacher, and am now the Director of the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis & Clark College, but I still have a classroom at Jefferson. This year I will co-teach Junior English with an amazing teacher, Dianne Leahy, who is generously sharing her class with me. We’re still in the planning stages. We know how we will open the year to set the stage, welcome the students, and lay out the ground rules for class. We have captured the broad brush strokes of our curriculum, but the details will be written when we meet our students.

Why do I return to the classroom now that I’ve retired to a college setting? Because it is easy to forget how hard teaching is. It is easy to romanticize the classroom and make edicts for others to follow if we aren’t swimming the waters of school.

Portland teachers are returning to huge class sizes, reduced time for planning, and more high stakes testing. More children in Oregon do not have access to food and shelter, so understanding the conditions of teachers helps me draft professional development opportunities that actually meet the needs of students and teachers I’m working with.

About this time last year, I worked with my fellow Rethinking Schools editors on the The New Teacher Book.  In our introduction, we discussed the importance of new teachers staying in the classroom for a number of years.

As I meet more and more administrators, central office staff, state and national “education” officials, who have spent little time in the classroom, I think again about why it is important for teachers to construct their own lessons, but who also become vocal advocates for an education beyond testing.

As I return to the classroom, again, thirty-odd years into my career, the points we make still resonate for me:

The New Teacher Book
The New Teacher Book: Finding Purpose, Balance, and Hope During Your First Years in the Classroom

We wrote this book because it’s important for the profession that new teachers with social justice ideals stay in the classroom. Our communities need teachers who see the beauty and intelligence of every student who walks through their doors and who are willing to keep trying to reach those who have already been told they aren’t worthy. Our students need teachers who value their home cultures and languages and who know how to build academic strength from those roots. We need teachers who learn how to develop curriculum that ties students’ lives, history, and academic disciplines together to demonstrate their expertise when top-down curriculum mandates explode across a district. Our school districts need teachers who can advocate against the dumbing-down of curriculum, against testing mania, and against turning our classrooms over to corporate-created curriculum. Our country needs teachers who understand the connections between race, class, and tracking. How else do we make a lasting change?

We wrote this book because we want you to hold on to those impulses that brought you to teaching: a deep caring for students, the opportunity to be the one who sparks student growth and change, as well as the desire to be involved in work that matters. We need teachers who want to work in a place where human connections matter more than profit.

We wrote this book because we have had days—many days—where our teaching aspirations did not meet the reality of the chaos we encountered. We have experienced those late afternoons crying-alone-in-the-classroom kind of days when a lesson bombed or we felt like our students hosted a party in the room and we were like uninvited guests. We wrote this book hoping it might offer solace and comfort on those long days when you wonder if you are cut out to be a teacher after all.

We also wrote this book because we understand the connection between what happens behind the classroom door and what happens outside of it. A key skill for new teachers is to see oneself as a defender of public schools — looking for allies among parents, community groups, other unions, everyone who has a stake in fighting privatization and corporate rule. Given the full court press against public schools, we need to remind all teachers to not be so classroom-focused that we don’t pay attention to the larger political context that is shaping our lives in the classroom. The other reason to open the classroom door and peer outside is that new teachers’ survival often depends on connecting with other teachers for support and assistance for social, political and pedagogical reasons. Isolated new teachers are bound to burn out.

There is a huge difference between having lots of book knowledge about a given area—literature, history, math, science—and knowing how to translate that knowledge into lessons that help struggling students learn. All teachers—new and veteran—need skills to develop curriculum that celebrates the delightful aspects of our students’ lives. And we need strategies that tie the tragedy of some students’ lives and the tragedy that the world delivers—hurricanes, poverty, famine, war. We need to discover ways to weave these into our curriculum. That takes time.

Rethinking Schools editors have assembled numerous books that focus on creating social justice curriculum: from Rethinking Columbus to Rethinking Mathematics to Rethinking Globalization to Teaching for Joy and Justice.  We hope you will look to them for curricular help. In those books, we celebrate the lessons and units and strategies that worked for our students, that created days when we walked out of the building celebrating the joy of teaching.

And what we know from our years in the classroom is that we only get good at it when we do it year after year. So we wrote this book to tell you that you will get better as the years move on if you continue to study your classroom, hone your craft, read professional literature, and keep up with world news. Teaching is an art. Keep practicing.

Free download from The New Teacher Book: “12 Tips for New Teachers” by Larry Miller.

Note:  In honor of our 25th anniversary, all books and magazine subscriptions are discounted 25% until October 15.  Use code RS25ANN at checkout.

This post represents the views of the author, and not necessarily those of Rethinking Schools.