The Things I Can’t Teach Teachers

I stand before a group of English Education majors, all future middle and high school teachers, dressed in my dark coat and purple tie, black cowboy boots and jeans.  As I describe the course on teaching methodologies in which they have enrolled, I try to cover everything they will have the opportunity to learn this semester.  (I say to them that these are the things “we” will be covering, but I’ve been here before and will be again.  So it’s a “we” that only tangentially seems to include me.)  I talk about classroom management strategies, group work, grammar and the diagramming of sentences, the pedagogy of writing instruction.  I talk a lot on the first day-too much for them to even have time to introduce themselves to me and to their peers.

No matter how much I talk, on the first day or any subsequent day in the term, and no matter what work we-they-do in the course, I know from the outset that there are things these future teachers cannot learn from me, things that cannot be communicated to them in any course of study.  These are the lessons only learned on the job, from day to day and year to year-lessons not addressed in the literature on teaching, not codified in the many and varied professional Position and Outcomes statements, not discussed over coffee or something stronger at conferences, not allowed for in state-mandated assessment of teacher preparation.

I cannot teach these future teachers to become morning people as I, a long-time insomniac, have had to learn to be.  I can’t teach them to focus their attention and energy in the early hours of the day, before students and colleagues arrive and the bell signals the start of business-and the pace of the day becomes increasingly frenetic from the first bell to the end of football practice.  I can’t teach them the tricks to (metaphorically) changing hats throughout the day, as they move from sophomore study of British Literature to AP exam preparation with seniors to faculty curriculum revision meetings to grading freshman compositions to etc.  I cannot teach them to leave their work at work at the end of the day, especially when the end of the day comes at 10:00 pm (after yearbook and the basketball game and chaperoning the bi-weekly dance), although I can warn them about stress, burnout, and the high rates of divorce and heart attack among teachers.  I cannot teach them these things, but these are lessons they will have to learn to be successful teachers.

I cannot teach students the “soft skills”-to use a business term-they will need to master to be good teachers and faculty members, the skills of working and playing well (and professionally) with others.  I can’t teach them ways to share their good ideas, their new ideas, with established faculty members who may negatively perceive their well-intentioned sharing as a lecture on The Right Way to teach.  I can’t teach them to smile and appear gracious when their work of a year is voted into oblivion or nit-picked to death in a faculty meeting.  I can’t teach them to read the times when it is and is not appropriate (and safe) to speak their minds to colleagues, administrators, students, parents, and union officials.  I can’t teach the rhetorical strategies they’ll need to learn, but I can tell them stories about contracts that were not renewed on capable teachers whose hard training could not outweigh their lack of soft skill.