Nobody’s Martyr: The Millions Interviews Shannon Reed

July 6, 2020 | 1 book mentioned 10 min read

In Why Did I Get a B?, her memoir about teaching, Shannon Reed writes “I enjoy teenagers. I like that they have to be convinced to like you.” It’s one of the many lines in Reed’s book that feels authentic. 

“Authentic” gets thrown around a lot in the world of secondary school teaching because, like the teenagers peering at a new teacher, educators are a skeptical bunch. We’ve been misrepresented by politicians and bombarded with assessment fads. I say this ready—as one can be during a pandemic—to start my 17th year teaching high school English.

I’m happy to report that Reed’s book about her life as a teacher is not only authentic, it’s quite moving. Early in the book, she writes that “to be a good teacher is to care very much about people.” Ultimately, that’s what makes a great teacher: compassion. Kids are often hurting, and we’re not there to simply teach them content—we’re there to help them to live.

Reed is hilarious and humble about the teaching profession: the exact right mix. We see her struggle and thrive, teach and learn, help and hope. It’s a great read for educators—rookies and veterans alike. 

Reed has written for The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, Poets & Writers, Buzzfeed, Vulture, and The Guardian. She is a visiting lecturer in the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh. 

We spoke about the dangerous myth of teacher-as-martyr, the adjunct life, and what this upcoming academic year might look like—in or out of the classroom.

The Millions: When people who don’t work in education pontificate about the profession, I often want to spontaneously combust. So I loved your great and accurate list: “If People Talked to Other Professionals the Way They Talk to Teachers.” Later in the book, you note these myths or perceptions continue for you, even as a professor: “I hate that even in the halls of academia, there are folks who feel teachers should be nice, but not funny; hardworking, but not ambitious; proud of their students but not proud of their own accomplishments.” What are one or two of the most troubling misconceptions about teaching and teachers—and why do you think they persist?

Shannon Reed: Truly, I know that all professionals rightly complain that people make assumptions about their jobs, but is there any other profession about which so many people make so many assumptions than teaching? I suspect not. You’re absolutely right—I am obsessed with the mythologies around teaching, and often ruminate about how they hurt teachers (and, more selfishly, me). What never seems to get factored into the conversation, but which might be changing now, due to what the pandemic has taught us, is that our society cannot function without teachers. We really ought to be doing everything we can to keep good teachers in the profession, including giving them the opportunity to become good teachers, and pulling in as many new ones as we can. Eliminating those belittling misconceptions would so help with that. 

Because I deeply appreciate an opportunity to go off about this, I’ll unpack my three most troubling misconceptions. First, because most people attended school, they think they understand what teaching is as a profession. A moment’s thought shows this is nonsense—I go to my car mechanic all the time, but can barely check the oil—but it’s pervasive. Many peoples’ understanding of teaching is located in their recollection of their least favorite high school teacher. I find that this problem is true for many professions—I’m constantly asking my emerging fiction writers not to set their stories in hospitals unless they’ve spent time in one as an adult—but because school is so much a part of our growing up, many more people have a blind spot about what they don’t know about teaching that they simply do not realize.

Second: the idea that teachers must personally like a student in order to teach them well. This baffles me. If I again go back to the car mechanic, while I expect him to be fair to me, I don’t get upset if he doesn’t want to chill with me outside of the half-hour I spent getting my oil changed every few months. He does his job well, and I get what I needed. We don’t need to be besties. Yet some parents deeply believe that their children’s teachers can only do right by their children if we actually really like them. It’s weird. I wouldn’t trust an adult who wanted to befriend my 12-year-old, you know? But people confuse what good parenting is with what good teaching is. 

And, finally, my biggest annoyance is the idea that a good teacher must be a martyr—always available to students, always giving of herself (Let’s be honest, the martyr teacher is usually a woman), never full of dreams and desires and needs and wants of her own. This is so harmful, both to the students and the teachers, while being extremely helpful to those who’d like teachers to have to work so hard they never have the energy to raise concerns about low salaries and stuff like that. I’d offer just two examples of supporting evidence, and leave the reader to think on the harm this misconception causes. First, when I taught first year composition at Pitt, I’d ask students to write about their favorite teachers in high school. The vast majority of them would write about some poor soul who came in at 6 a.m. to tutor them before swim practice, or who came back to school on weekends for test prep. This, my students would always assert, made them the best teacher, unlike the rest of those who just wanted to go home at the end of the day! In a discussion, I would then ask my students if they would like to have a job like that one. Turns out: they did not. Secondly, I cannot tell you how many times a graduating senior has sat in my office and mentioned that they’d like to be a teacher—they like kids, they like education, etc.—but they don’t want to give up their entire lives to their job… or they’re not going to do it. 

Sigh. 

TM: Your father and your grandfather were pastors. Some people thought you would be one, also: “I liked to be center stage, and pastors often are.” But you never felt that calling. Do you feel like there is a pastoral element to your vision of teaching, and working with students? 

SR: My dad and grandfather were ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) pastors. I’m really proud of being Lutheran, and prouder still of the way the ELCA has become more progressive in my lifetime, ordaining women, performing same-sex marriages, and being a leader in protecting immigrants and refugees. 

To answer the question, yes, I think so. I am not interested in converting my students (or anyone, for that matter), but I welcome the chance to talk about faith and religion with them. They often are struggling to reconcile the principles they were taught by their faith homes with the often-more progressive ideas of academia, and trying to find a way to hold onto both, especially when dealing with a new understanding of their own identity. That’s a tough road to walk, with as many different pathways as there are people, and I hope to be there for them as they do. Of course, this never comes up in the vast majority of student relationships I have, and that’s cool, too. 

For me, being a pastor is rooted in working in love to support your congregation through their life journeys. I see being a teacher very similarly. As I write in the book, I do try to love all of my students, and meet them where they are, then help them move a little bit further down the road. That is a wildly different process—for some students, I may help them discover that they’re fine writers and that they want to start that career path; for others, my big help is to teach them that they have to come to class to pass. It does remind me of what I saw my father trying to do with his congregation—he might have visited a dying member in hospice and then driven directly to counsel a couple getting married, then written a sermon, all in four hours. Flexibility, clarity about the goals of the work, and an overarching desire really help when you’re doing work that varied and intense, whether it’s as a teacher or as a pastor. 

TM: You write about your experiences teaching preschool through college. Were you writing about teaching while teaching primary and secondary students (during lunch, breaks, after school)? Or did these pieces arise afterward?

SR: I’ve been asked this question a number of times, and I think it’s because teachers desperately want to cling to the hope that if they just organize their time correctly, they will be able to pursue an artistic calling while also teaching. So I am truly sorry to say, nope, I didn’t write a single word of this book until I left full-time teaching to go to Pitt’s MFA program. I did teach then, but it was one college course of 20 or so students, not the five different classes of 30 students I was teaching in a New York City high school. I did write a little while I was teaching high school, mostly on weekends and in the summer, but at that time I was focused on writing plays. 

But I don’t want to neglect the other part of your question—I think I would have found it impossible to both teach secondary students and write about teaching secondary students at the same time. (I didn’t think of myself as a writer when I taught preschool, so I don’t know if I would have felt the same.) I remember thinking very carefully about what was happening around me, and writing emails about my work to my parents and friends, and talking to my best friend Andrew about everything, as if I was trying to form the core that I could return to later, when I was ready to write. And when I got to Pitt and finally took a creative nonfiction class in my last year (I was a fiction major) one of the first things I wrote was the first draft of what became “Paulie” in the book. So I think I was subconsciously preparing, and just waiting for the right time to write about teaching. Two years into my three years at Pitt, where I felt safe and appreciated, and knew I would get helpful revision notes from my classmates and professor, then I was ready to dig back into that core. 

TM: You share your experience adjuncting. It’s a perilous situation, as you note, for both exhausted and under-paid (and under-appreciated) adjuncts, as well as the students—who often don’t realize they are being taught by contingent faculty. In “On Adjuncting,” you make an effective case for why the particular sense and security of full-time professors is good for students, so I was wondering: was there a full-time professor during your college years who especially inspired you? 

SR: Thank you for this! I want so much for readers to know and think about adjuncts. I had no idea that all of the professors at my college weren’t full-time, tenured professors, and I think about how differently I would have treated those who were adjuncts if I had recognized that they didn’t have any job security and were paid very little. 

To be honest, I’ve taught in so many schools and gotten several different degrees, so my recollection of specific professors before Pitt is somewhat fuzzy. But I can say that I had amazing professors at Pitt, many of whom are now my colleagues, which is weird, but great! Everyone I took a class from in the MFA program was a full-time, tenured professor, I believe, and not a single one of them failed to teach me a great deal about the work of being a writer. I remain grateful to all of them, but Irina Reyn, Peter Trachtenberg, Angie Cruz, and Michael Meyer really took the time to connect with me and my work. It is a strange thing to teach someone who is around your age, but all of them handled that gracefully with me. In many ways, their belief in my abilities went beyond my own sense of what I would be able to do and gave me the courage to pursue writing as a career. I think that’s a nice thing, to believe in your students a little bit more than they believe in themselves. 

TM: “I think the best part about teaching is the academic year,” you write. “The rise and fall of the seasons.” This is a marked contrast with time spent working in an office, where: “We were never working toward anything—no finals, no breaks. Just a relentless corporate slog to perhaps getting promoted or whatever, something, someday.” I always tell people that the seasons—throughout the academic year, and after—are what make teaching a magical experience for everyone, students included. We are in an unprecedented time, though, for education (and everything else!). What about our seasonless pandemic? How do you feel about the coming academic year?

SR: So unprecedented! I seem to have called down some sort of Office Cubicle Spirit who’s laughing at me now teaching from my home instead of in the midst of Pitt’s beautiful, bustling campus. I apologize, world. This is not what I wanted. 

That said, I don’t see the pandemic as seasonless. Yes, I have spent too much time peering into a laptop from my dining room over the last four months. Yes, there is a strange sameness to the days—I just wondered to myself, “Why are you working so hard on a Saturday afternoon?” It’s Thursday morning.—but I am still aware of the passage of time, and the change of the seasons, and I would encourage everyone to connect with the environment around them if they possibly can, in order to help that awareness grow. I try to take a walk every morning, and note what’s blooming, what’s dying off, how the sun is hitting the sidewalk today. This is the information I’d take in without really realizing it if I was on campus, from the way the acorns bop me on the head early in the semester to my switch to entirely sensible duck boots as we finish off finals in the snow. I’m just trying to be more intentional about seeing its subtleties. 

How to translate that intention into my courses, which are very likely to be online, is something I’m thinking a lot about. Whereas I might have begun an in-person class with a casual comment about the weather, I’ll need to be more intentional about that online and find those little moments of human connection—what are you doing over the weekend, has anyone watched that new Netflix show—that would otherwise not happen. Intentionality can feel forced, but I try to think of it more as a deliberateness, which is not a bad quality in a classroom. I’ll tell my students what I am doing, and why, too. 

I have my concerns about the upcoming school year, as does every educator I know. In many ways, I will have an easier time of it: I do not have kids that will need my supervision, I’m not worried about a partner’s job loss, and I generally teach small classes of motivated students who have elected to be there. All of that will help, and I’m lucky. My deepest concerns are about how my health and disability will affect my students’ experience. Because I augment my bad hearing with lip-reading, classes in which everyone is masked are essentially pointless for me, unless I wanted to lecture for the entire time, which I do not. I also have some autoimmune issues, so I really doubt that I can safely be teaching in person this coming fall. Thus, it’s on me to make my online classes as engaging, worthwhile, and accessible as possible, so I am doing a lot of thinking about that. My supervisors in the English department are, too, and I feel a true confidence that our department’s classes will still be worthwhile for our students. 

At the same time, I try not to sink into despair. While it’s important for teachers and professors to plan as enriching a classroom experience as we possibly can, there are always factors out of our control—if the course meets in a sunny room without air-conditioning, it’s nap time for everyone. If that unique mix of students really hit it off, it doesn’t matter if I’m on my A game or not—they’re going to have amazing discussions. So there are always things out of my control, and those seasons I can’t force are part of the fun of teaching for me: the season of 8 a.m. composition class, and the season of the math professor who never erased the five blackboards he filled with problems before he turned over the classroom to us, and the season of having a student who worked for a pizza place who would bring free pies to Wednesday night classes. This will be a different season of over-earnest how-are-yous and sketchy wifi connections and never really knowing how tall any of my students are, I guess. There will be benefits to teaching online I haven’t thought of yet. I’m still excited about the new school year! 

is a contributing editor for The Millions. He is the culture editor for Image Journal, and has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Esquire, and The Kenyon Review. His newest book is Longing for an Absent God. Follow him at @nickripatrazone and find more of his writing at nickripatrazone.com.

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