55 More Thoughts for English Teachers

February 10, 2016 | 3 5 min read

A lot has changed in my life since I first offered 55 thoughts to English teachers. After teaching for more than a decade at a high school with over 3,000 students, I now teach at a school with less than 850. I went from a California-style school surrounded by businesses and pharmaceutical companies to a single-building surrounded by woods and mountains. Many teachers would rather retire than start over at a new school, but I believe it is important to teach in one’s own community. I enjoyed my old school, but had a personal reason for the switch: I used to leave the house while my daughters were still asleep. Nothing compares to actually being able to kiss and hug them before the day starts.

I have learned that each school has its own culture, but many elements of good teaching transcend districts — particularly the belief that kids deserve support and love. That change of culture has made me reflect on this most complex profession. Here are 55 more thoughts for English teachers.

Teach the students in front of you, not the students you had last year, not your favorite students from a decade ago.

2. Yours is not the only course students are taking.

3. You’ve been thinking about yesterday’s lesson, about how students must have appreciated those clever lines from Marianne Moore or Natasha Trethewey. Students have been thinking about a thousand other things. That is fine, but learn a method to bring them back into your world of words.

4. Question your standards. Every year, every unit.

5. If you are frustrated by the complaints of students, try this: for one day, write down all of your own complaints. You will quickly reach the bottom of a page. Students will always complain; help them see why what you are doing in class has significance.

6. Often in literature, method is more important to learn than meaning.

7. There is more to a student’s world than your classroom.

8. It is never your job to stop a student from writing.

9. You can dislike William Shakespeare, but your students still need to read him.

10. This is the Humanities. You are showing them possibilities of being human.

11. Don’t try to teach anyone other than your students. Standing in front of a captive audience each day can inflate your sense of self. You are not your spouse’s teacher. Don’t lecture the cashier at the supermarket or your neighbor.

12. Each student is someone’s child.

13. Always prepare them for what comes next. It is tempting to make your students experts at impressing only you.

14. School is not a business.

15. Get some sleep. Naps are divine.

16. Before you respond to an email from a parent, administrator, or student, wait. You teach communication; do it well.

17. Help them see.

18. “When I teach creative writing, I always speak about how you have to learn how to read your work; I don’t mean enjoy it because you wrote it. I mean, go away from it, and read it as though it is the first time you’ve ever seen it.” — Toni Morrison

19. “I try to make writers actually see what they have written, where the strength is. Usually in fiction there’s something that leaps out — an image or a moment that is strong enough to center the story. If they can see it, they can exploit it, enhance it, and build a fiction that is subtle and new. I don’t try to teach technique, because frankly most technical problems go away when a writer realizes where the life of a story lies. I don’t see any reason in fine-tuning something that’s essentially not going anywhere anyway. What they have to do first is interact in a serious way with what they’re putting on a page. When people are fully engaged with what they’re writing, a striking change occurs, a discipline of language and imagination.” — Marilynne Robinson

20. Morrison and Robinson capture the same concept: when a student feels invested in her writing and reading, she will surprise you. She will excel.

21. Help students earn confidence, but realize that confidence is temporary. Humility lasts.

22. If objectives are your only objective, you have become an object.

23. Have students read local words. Find the best articles from your local newspaper. Ask your students: is this how you see the world? Find out what is important to their parents. What are the words used in their home?

24. One single sentence from your mouth, positive or negative, might stay with a student forever. You can joke, but never make a student feel like a joke.

25. Hide metafictive messages in handouts to make sure students are paying attention.

26. If students trust that you care about them, they will often rise to your expectations.

27. Course failure reverberates beyond your course. Have you done everything possible to help them? Forget your pride when it comes to student failure.

28. Political parties are parties that you should crash. They will sell you out, use you as a pawn.

29. If students don’t love stories, make them love pages. If not pages, then paragraphs, sentences, words.

30. Help them explain why they love the stories — films, shows, songs — that they love.

31. Annotations build confidence. They help students talk with a text. Students will resist the practice at first, but make the holding of a pencil while reading a habit.

32. Teach now, not in the past.

33. Some days, all you need to accomplish is to get students to read beautiful sentences.

34. Burn textbook worksheets.

35. If they say you give them too many handouts, they are really thanking you.

36. Read a few sentences of James Baldwin aloud at the start of the course. Read those same sentences again at the end. See if students listen a bit more closely.

37. Teaching is not containment. Embrace the uneven moments.

38. Thank your best former teachers. Forgive your worst.

39. Laugh with them.

40. Students want to hear stories about you, but do so sparingly. You are a performer, but the show is not about you.

41. Give them the “The Ladder of Abstraction” by Roy Peter Clark. Students live and breathe details; show them how those details can transform their writing.

42. You can probably read well, but students need to hear literature read in their own voices.

43. Teach students how to read your comments on their essays. Messy handwriting is fine. Make them work for it. But make sure the work is worth it.

44. If you don’t want to grade it, they probably didn’t want to write it.

45. Remind them what it means to feel wonder.

46. In the grand scheme of literature, novels are novel. Your students don’t need to slog through big books.

47. They are not reading them anyway. They are reading someone else’s misreading of them.

48. If you think you were better than them when you were a teenager, you are wrong.

49. Find your writing from high school. What would have helped you? It will also help them.

50. There are far more dangerous professions than teaching, but few are more difficult.

51. Summer is always coming soon.

52. Have students read to each other. One-to-one. Literature is another level of living. Some days they will drone on.

53. But you know they only need one day, sometimes one minute, for that other world to open. For all it to change.

54. Show students how you think. Write an essay, but show them your notes, plans, drafts, and edits. The mixture of fallibility and expertise will make them trust you.

55. Be good to them.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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.