The Former High School Teacher Reflects on College Teaching & Development

When I first started teaching college writing, I did so as a former high school teacher. I was told, both explicitly and implicitly, that I should not identify myself as a secondary teacher. College teaching was more intellectual and exacting; in fact, high school teaching wasn’t even respected enough to be called teaching, especially in university English departments. It was 1998; I was 27 years old and quite perplexed. I just couldn’t get my head around what people were telling me in comparison with what I was seeing at the college: the MOST horrible teaching and curriculum design I had ever encountered.

aolAt the time, Amazon was still relatively new as well as online bookstores. We were, after all, still using dial-up internet and AOL! This means that college bookstores actually ordered all of the books for students and created what were then called “course packets”— the binder that the bookstore created with the photocopied readings that you would use in the semester. That’s probably why I knew my readings and weekly course plans before a semester started… you HAD to back then. There was no possibility of finding a photocopy machine, emailing students in advance of class (not all had email), or using smartboard/electronic lecterns to share a new departure from the syllabus. At that college where I was told to never mention the fact of my high school teaching, I did what I had done as a college student: I went into the bookstore and looked at what every professor at the college assigned for the semester. That’s how I chose my college courses as an undergraduate student— who seemed to actually offer real learning based on what we would read? I remember that day at my new college teaching post very well. There was one professor on the whole campus who assigned a Toni Morrison book. I was THAT professor, the adjunct and former high school teacher supposedly so intellectually challenged by the curricular requirements of college learning and teaching that she was the only one who included Toni Morrison. If the classroom teaching and curriculum was bad, then the “official” faculty professional development was even WORSE!

NYUTo be fair, my Ph.D. is in English Education, not English, so this means my doctoral coursework was inundated, sometimes to an extreme as far as I was concerned, with research related to the preparation and professional development of teachers. To put it most simply, faculty development was treated as a science/inquiry, a history of methodologies and philosophies, and an endless journey of best practices and political critique. For those of us who were thinking about faculty development in the context of serving marginalized youth of color from impoverished backgrounds, our research was even more charged and I don’t think I am being biased here. It seems that any educational researcher— no matter where they are on the political-color spectrum— won’t really deny that intensity even though they might not focus their energies on, for instance, urban and/or impoverished youth of color.

Bad teaching was mapped unto the bad faculty development as far as I was concerned. We would have day-long LECTURES from boring speakers. We were expected to sit quietly and somehow, as if by magic alone, our syllabus and semester events would be improved.  Now it’s not like we didn’t have stuff like that as high school teachers; we did. Those were the required district-sponsored events that we tried to buy our way out of by picking our own professional development events from all over New York City. We would pack into subway trains and travel across the city to avoid the district events— which says a lot about teachers’ investment and definitions of their OWN development.

Critical_pedagogyI suppose what stuns me most given my Ph.D. in English Education is that pedagogy and professional development are not treated as CONTENT KNOWLEDGE at universities. No one expects that you will learn and/or be proficient in sociology from a one-hour lecture once a semester on let’s say “sociology development day.” It even sounds funny. That’s not how we treat the “content areas.” Because the “content areas” are treated as science/inquiry, a history of methodologies and philosophies, and an endless journey of best practices and political critique, you just don’t give the same level of nothingness. This also explains why many colleges don’t always invest in faculty development and, instead, expect that those of us who study, write about, and do faculty development will do it for free, at anyone’s request, on top of our regular research programs, heavy teaching loads, and obligatory service (or for so little money that you may as well consider yourself workin for nuthin).

I only began serious faculty development when I started graduate school. My first solo experience was as a consultant on a community grant for middle schools in Harlem where we designed multimodal history curriculum of Harlem across Humanities and Social science classes. Instead of simply handing teachers a curriculum, the teachers and I built it and its pedagogies. Unlike many colleges, this district understood that my ongoing planning + the weeky implementation of workshops was the equivalent of teaching a graduate course and paid me accordingly . . . and then more when I attended district meetings.  Though there was labor equity there, that alone didn’t humanize the process. Teachers were expected to do this professional development on site right after the school day ended. . . after being in the classroom ALL DAY! I didn’t even have the money to at least bring food to our weekly sessions since I was in graduate school. I was honest with the teachers and told them that I was uncomfortable with this set-up and that my own lack of funds prevented me from even offering snacks. I said we would start half an hour later— just long enough to take a deep breath at the end of the day and/or grab a coffee and butter roll at the corner bodega. I would call this “office hours”: students and faculty could come see me to talk at that time since I was not really “allowed” to do this under the grant stipulations. I told the teachers that I would alone take the heat for the decision if they agreed. To my mind, this blog post is the first time anyone has publicly mentioned the fact that we started half an hour later.   No one ratted me out and, in fact, someone always made sure to buy me a coffee and butter roll too (sometimes that was the only thing I had eaten that day and the teachers knew it). From what I later learned, these teachers had shut everything down before and I mean evvvvvverything. They had not allowed any previous “professional developer” to even finish a sentence if that person had not worked primarily with urban youth of color. And if the workshop leader was not offering curriculum materials that were immediate and relevant, they flat-out stopped the workshop, walked out, and/or complained loudly. Since most of them were from Harlem and were themselves drummers, storytellers, and community organizers, they would not accept just anything that you gave them. I am still friends with many of them today.

memeSometimes I am stunned by how effective the simple gesture of my opening line was: “Let’s start this thing ½ an hour later because I am too broke to feed yall and I know that you been bustin your ass all day long with the young people who this city has thrown away from communities that yall call home, and as if that weren’t enough, you have your own life/home issues to deal with, so much so that you can barely see str8 by the end of the day, and if I get in trouble for this, well then, F- it, I’m grownass woman and can hold my own.” I didn’t think much of it at the time. It was just common sense. Before I knew it, I was invited to district meetings for the simple fact that there was no fallout from these notorious “trouble-makers.” Folk wanted to know what I was doing but it wasn’t a difficult concept: DO. RIGHT. BY. FOLK. . . rather than always trying to pimp them out and they will respond.

My philosophy of faculty development hasn’t changed much since then. Those workshops were my fondest though I won’t act as if all of the teachers cared about curriculum or their students. The right combination was there though: 1) dedicated teachers who refused to tolerate foolishness whether in the form of labor equity or a lack of specific focus on race & youth of color; 2) a system of remuneration that honored the planning and time people put in; 3) official recognition and respect for the soul-energy and expertise that folk have.   Nothing in my time on college campuses has looked like that. Contrary to what people told me when I first began teaching at the college level: I can’t even imagine the limited imagination I would have today if I had only ever taught at U.S. universities. Thank goodness my origins are located elsewhere!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.