55 Thoughts for English Teachers

May 27, 2014 | 1 book mentioned 31 6 min read


All of a sudden, I have been teaching public school English for a decade. Why am I surprised? I never thought I would be a high school teacher. I never took education courses. Only now am I beginning to reconcile my different professional selves: teacher, adjunct professor, and writer.

For years I avoided writing about my full-time profession. From 7:20 to 2:21 each day, I teach literature and creative writing courses at a large public high school in New Jersey. The day stretches much longer than that, but those are my salaried hours. I love kids, and I love books, and I love writing.

I didn’t avoid writing about teaching because I was ashamed of my profession, though I am aware that save for a handful of other teacher-writers scattered around the country, the majority of my literary peers work in higher education or publishing. They are tenured professors and adjuncts, editors and freelancers. When people learn at a book release or reading that I actually teach high school, as in kids, they look confused. I don’t blame them.

There are few professions more confusing, or misrepresented, than high school teaching. Education is a ubiquitous experience — public or private, we are all taught by someone, somewhere — and yet it remains misunderstood. I have now begun to write about teaching because I profoundly respect this vocation. I refuse to allow politicians to corner the rhetorical market on this subject. There are stories that need to be told.

I hesitate to call what follows “advice,” though it might seem as such. There are so many varied experiences during a single teaching day that I am much more comfortable thinking in epigrammatic terms. I have a lot more to say about teaching, and certain reflections will need to wait. But, for now, here are 55 thoughts about teaching English.

You need to love words. You don’t need to love a certain type of book or a particular writer, but you need to love letters and phrases and the possibilities of language. You will spend most of your days dealing with words, and students can sense if words do not bring you joy.

Students can sense a lot of things.

Do not confuse reading passions with reading biases. Be aware and upfront about your biases and work to decrease them. Your passions are healthy, as long as you help students understand why certain words stir you. Love Gerard Manley Hopkins? Telling them so won’t do a thing. Blow-up “Pied Beauty” on an 11 X 17 page and show them how a comma can change a moment, turn a breath.

Speaking of poetry: they will hate the idea of it, but they already love and live the soul of it. Condensed narratives and emotions tucked in abstractions? Those are their existences. Give them “Scary, No Scary” by Zachary Schomburg, and see what happens.

“Mostly I want my poems to generate their own energy through confusion. I want my poems to confuse the reader. Not a confusion in a cognitive or narrative sense, but in an emotional sense.” — Zachary Schomburg

Create a space for safe confusion.

Teach Sylvia Plath, but help your students understand that she is more than how she passed from this world. Teach “Blackberrying,” teach “Pheasant,” and, most of all, teach “Sow,” that beautiful and strange poem about a mythical pig hidden by her breeder.

Show them that poetry is about being surprised.

Remember why you are doing this.

Your students are not data.

Teach them writers who look and sound like them, so that they can believe that their words are the types of words that can be printed and praised.

Teach them writers who look and sound nothing like them, so that they can recognize what we share.

Politicians will misrepresent you. Vote.

Teachers used to be activists. There is a difference between being an activist within your classroom — which is not your role — and being an activist for your profession and your students.

Know what opinions are appropriate to express, and which are not. Respect your students enough to never cross that line.

Students have a reason for everything they do.

You need to be awake. Sleep is essential. Hoard your hours of sleep.

You will make a hundred decisions within a single class period.

You need to somehow give your attention to each individual student without dividing that attention.

Thomas Pynchon is worth teaching. Often confusion breeds later curiosity.

Think about the worst teacher you ever had. Recognize that he or she was probably not as bad as you thought. Think about that teacher’s classroom, students, situation. Were you part of the problem? How would you have helped yourself?

Write. Talk about your writing. Show them your drafts, your edits. Write along with them.

Trade robotic peer editing for writing workshops. Follow the undergraduate model but manipulate it for the needs of your students. Establish clear guidelines and model them during a mock workshop of your own work. Show them that you can be vulnerable, that you can accept criticism.

Never ask students to complete an assignment that you are unable to complete.

You will often have young women in class who love to write, and who outnumber the men, and yet these young women will stop writing. Teach them to keep writing. Show them their words matter. Introduce them to Mary Shelley, Marilynne Robinson, Jayne Anne Phillips, Toni Morrison, Tayari Jones, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Alice Elliott Dark, Virginia Woolf, Stacey D’Erasmo, Roxane Gay, Jamie Quatro, Megan Mayhew Bergman, Mary Karr, Susan Sontag, Natalie Diaz, Emily Dickinson, Kate Chopin, Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, Willa Cather, Joan Didion, Donna Tartt, and, please, Flannery O’Connor.

Do not try to sanitize Flannery. Let her live on the page.

Students want to know about you. Sometimes their personal questions are a clever distraction. Be more mystery than memoir, but never be cold.

If a student wants to engage in small talk at the start of class, they probably have not completed their assignment, and are hoping for some temporary graces. But don’t assume that.

Give them the benefit of the doubt until they will no longer benefit from it.

Avoid instructing your students to use dialogue tags in fiction other than “said.”

Cut their adverbs, but show them how, in the right hands, those words can be powerful.

“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” — “The Dead” by James Joyce.

You may be the only person who will ever read their sonnets, or their prose poems, or their dystopian novellas. Don’t take that privilege lightly.

Teach writing from literary magazines. Encourage your students to read those magazines. If a student comes to class with tomes of speculative fiction, send them to Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons. Show them how literature is built from these little magazines on up, and how they can help maintain the foundation.

Give students the confidence to believe that they might publish their work, but teach them the humility necessary to withstand rejection.

Create meticulous plans for each day.

But be alive in the classroom.

“Through my years of teaching, I learned to walk into a classroom wondering what I would say, rather than knowing what I would say. Then I learned by hearing myself speak; the source of my speaking was our mysterious harmony with truths we know, though very often our knowledge of them is hidden from us. Now, as a retired teacher, I mistrust all prepared statements by anyone, and by me.” — Andre Dubus

Social media and cell phones exist, and neither is going anywhere. Help students use both responsibly.

Teaching is performance, but not the performance of theater; there needs to be genuine interaction. They can tell if you are putting on a show.

Each course is a different world. Each class period is a different world.

There is an art to asking questions. There is a way to ask questions that will only produce answers that you want to hear.

Wait after asking a question. Help show them what silence can reveal.

Math is language. Physics is language. Language is math. Language is physics.

You are there to teach them, not punish them. They need your help.

Read aloud. Every day.

Don’t be so dramatic about drama. Barebones in-class productions can be beautiful.

Of course, read Shakespeare, but also read Ionesco, Beckett, and Shepard.

For the right group of students, No Exit can be perfect.

Teach them how to closely read a text. Not only for the skill, but for the experience of spending time with words. Show them the worth of contemplation.

Be pragmatic and idealistic. If you are too much of one, the students will catch you.

This is not supposed to be easy.

Remember that you, also, are not data.

One day you will no longer be in the classroom. You will be standing in a garden or sitting in front of a television or holding the hand of a grandchild or pulling a plate from a dishwasher, and you will remember those rows and some of the faces. Try to remember none of the distractions; not the shortsighted pedagogical fads or the boorish politicians. Remember the students who thanked you. Trust that you helped the ones who did not.

For some students, you are their only light.

Image via Jayel Aheram/Flickr

is a contributing editor for The Millions. He is the culture editor for Image Journal, and a contributor to the Catholic Herald (UK). He has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Esquire, and the Kenyon Review. He is the author of Longing for an Absent God and Wild Belief. Follow him at @nickripatrazone and find more of his writing at nickripatrazone.com.


  1. I especially love 12 and 13. Possibly disagree slightly with 14–part of my role is being an activist and showing them how a political activist reads the news, thinks about it, does something about it–this doesn’t mean giving them my point of view. But no one has taught them how to be citizens. If we don’t, no one will.

    I think they already get way too much of #11. That means they’re given third-rate poetry and novels because of the content or the background of the writer. Give them only the best–they can be totally confused about every single line of a great poem, yet still “get it” better than some academics will.

    Your students are lucky. This post is helping me face the dreaded first day of summer school.

  2. Excellent article, I envy your students. I’m amazed you can keep such a positive attitude with your governor scapegoating teachers and blaming them for the budgetary mess In New Jersey. I live in Ohio but I read the StarLedger every day. The comments there concerning ‘greedy’ teachers are breathtakingly ignorant and offensive.

  3. I would love to know more about how to run a writing workshop with 27+ children. It sounds really interesting. We have large class sizes. Is it even possible with large groups?

    If you have any resources I would love to see them. At first when I saw this post, I thought TLDR, but it was brilliant and I will be re-reading it.

    Thanks for taking the time to publish it

  4. Nick:

    As someone who is contemplating becoming a teacher, I found your article inspiring and motivating.

    (Also: I’ve greatly enjoyed your other articles, on becoming a pastor/writer, on sentimentalism, and many others. Keep it up! I was especially grateful for your posting Bryan Doyle’s essay on hummingbirds.)


  5. #38 homeboy. You and I talk about that all the time but never in those terms. That one, to me, spoke the loudest. Good job, bruh.

  6. Bless you! Finally, comments about teaching English that include writing, by writers, about writers, for writers. Specifically notes 23, 34, 52, and 55. Students will learn to write in such classrooms, from such teachers. The mantra has to be: Listen to the writers.

  7. Thanks for sharing the thoughts Nick. I personally like 11, 19, 29, 35, 50.

    In 19, sometimes its hard to show attention to each individual as the class sizes are different in different countries & sometimes you handle multiple classes.

  8. I aboslutely loved #5. It is one of the many reasons why I enjoy reading good poetry.

    I hadn’t realized how true #43 is until I realized that my last English teacher did this often. It helped me realize that silence really does reveal a lot.

    And as for # 55, I absolutely agree. Even today, I look back at some of my favorite teachers that were amazing (all in their own ways) and allowed themselves to be my light.
    Wonderful post! Thank you.

  9. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! As a high school English teacher of many years, this beautifully articulates what I strive for in my classroom each day, admittedly, sometimes in vain. Effective teaching isn’t a mechanical skill (as many want to make it). It is an organic art. It shapes itself according to its environs; it grows because it learns to adapt; it gets pruned and shaped by responses, positive and negative, and it grows again in a natural but often unpredictable and unconventional way; its roots grow deeper as it weathers storms and droughts; but even still it grows! If it were mechanical, it would have broken long ago, and someone would have offered, once again, the newfangled “fix-it” gadget, but instead it compensates and adjusts and finds its own instinctive way not just to survive but to thrive! So thank you for this bit of water and sunshine at the end of our season. Here’s to a rejuvenating summer for all.

  10. I needed this. Our school year is over, and my students have graduated. They were a challenging group, and I left my classroom feeling completely exhausted and unusually depressed, wondering if I made a difference at all. There is so much negativity surrounding the world of education lately. Usually I ignore it all, but this year, I let it get to me, and I shouldn’t have. This article reminded me why I became an English teacher in the first place. I saw so much of myself in it. My smile grew and my spirits lifted the more I read. Thank you so very much.

  11. Great timing, Mr. Ripatrazone — this is the last week of classes where I teach, and you have provided important reminders.

    Thank you.


    “We cannot know what precisely the student will do with what we have offered, but we can think with the student about the experience of the offer itself.” — Paul Lynch

  12. I had Mr. Ripatrazone for AP English Lit senior year of high school.
    Can’t say I always understood what he was getting at or shared his taste in literature, but I can say that he taught me a lot.
    He taught me how to close read. How to pick apart a 14-line poem and find a thousand things to say.
    He taught me to take a second look at writing that I thought i didn’t like or understand.
    But most of all, he taught me that you can have fun in the classroom while still accomplishing a lot.
    Also, No Exit was awesome!

    Thanks for everything, Mr. Ripat!

  13. Yes, so true. We have to inspire them to want to read, to write, to learn. Every class is different every day; our time with them is relatively brief so we must do what we can to give them a love and passion for books to be readers for life. Their lives will be richer for knowing Flannery O’Connor, Sylvia Plath, Vonnegut, Eudora Welty, Caldwell, Fitzgerald, etc. The list goes on and on!

  14. I too was a high school English teacher for 3 years for most of the reasons you cited…It is beautiful, strange and magical environment to be surrounded by words and print, and the emotions they evoke. I was glad I was able to inspire a love of reading and writing. We even celebrated Shakespeare’s 409th birthday with T-Shirts printed, a small Globe Theater erected in our study area and a complete love of Romeeo and Juliet. Forty years later these students still seek me out to tell me what animpact this all made on their lives…..

  15. What a wonderful, beautifully written “explanation” of teaching. I lead much younger students in an afterschool writing program — and these same guidelines apply.

    You are surely a light to your students. Thank you.

  16. Thank you. You are an inspiration to me, even in my retirement. (Thirty-four years in special education)

  17. Good list of female authors, but I would add Ann Beattie, Amy Hempel, Maile Meloy and Elissa Schappell.

  18. As a teacher myself, though of littler ones (4th grade), this list made me cry.

    The one about being the only person to read their “sonnets” and “dystopian novellas” totally got me.

    Great work.

  19. I needed this today. I teach 8th graders and I’ve taught 5 years. I’m grateful that I had excellent ELA teachers and professors who modeled this to me. I’m finally figuring out the individual/undivided attention thing–I’m learning that 1 minute of real conversation, without interrupting to look around the room or say something to another student, is far more valuable than it sounds. A well-timed, genuine compliment, taking a question seriously–those work, too.

  20. I was in Mr. Ripatrazone’s Creative Writing class my Junior year of high school, and in many ways I credit him with inspiring me to take my love of storytelling seriously enough to make a career out of it. He strikes a sort of balance between dealing with the logistical demands of day-to-day life, while still respecting and adhering to the equally critical creative process. It’s a difficult lesson to teach, and one that I think any writer in any capacity struggles with, but I feel grateful to have been introduced to it at such a young age. Thank you for all the encouragement and wisdom, Mr. Ripat!

  21. I especially loved 34 and 35. While not all my students have the passion or inclination to become professional writers, most of them have the potential to actually enjoy writing and what it does for them personally.

    I have at countless times experienced the joy and privilege of reading what they have put their sincerest of hearts and minds to. Thank you for sharing and writing this. :)

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