Is Teaching for Me?
A Letter to Prospective (and Current) Teachers
By Rachel Basinger, ’14
Dear Prospective Teacher,
So, you want to go into teaching? I speak as one who has a miniscule amount of experience yet who can offer what wisdom I do have, along with the insights of teachers far greater than I.
The first step in considering teaching as a potential vocation is to read a book that one of my exceptional professors recommended to me: The Art of Teaching by Gilbert Highet. Although the book was published over sixty years ago in 1950, its wisdom still rings true. Highet’s work has influenced me greatly. Since last August, I have read the book three times, and I am beginning it for the fourth time this week.
Highet includes copious amounts of perception in The Art of Teaching, including his Three Essentials of Good Teaching: to know the subject, like the subject, and know the pupil. If you are unsure whether you can satisfactorily meet these categories, consider asking yourself some of the following questions:
Regarding your knowledge of the subject, have you studied at least one subject that you might teach? How well acquainted are you with that area? Do you plan to continue to learn more about your discipline?
Concerning your appreciation for your subject, are you interested in at least one particular field? Does this subject correspond with the classes you might teach? How much do you like this discipline? Do you want to continue to learn more about this subject?
Regarding your interest in the pupil, do you like young people? Do you feel at home with groups of ten to thirty children, even when they are at their worst? Or do you have feelings of fear or detachment?
If you answered these questions positively, you may be a good candidate for teaching. Personally, I found Highet’s succinct yet poignant analysis of these three characteristics helpful in ascertaining not only how interested I was in teaching but how I could continue to improve my teaching.
Of the three principles, which one draws you most toward teaching? For many, it is probably an interest in the subject, as was the case for me. I could not imagine not studying history, so I decided to teach it. For others, like one of my coworkers, it is the students. Of course, she loves her subject, but she is truly concerned about developing her students’ hearts and souls and often puts their needs before her own by helping them with recommendation letters, bringing them food, and gently correcting them if they have gone down the wrong path. She would be the first to tell you that students are what she likes most about teaching.
Conversely, of the three principles, which one is most challenging for you? Highet’s three essentials do more than merely indicate interests or likes; they illuminate opportunities for growth. I chose teaching for the subject matter, not necessarily for the students. Although I do not feel ill at ease around the teenagers that I teach, I am learning how to enjoy adolescents in a group more by specifically utilizing Highet’s tips and gaining insights from veteran teachers. Both have encouraged me to get to know the students as individuals to better understand where they’re coming from.
For example, last week, one of my students told me that he had not completed in-class homework because he did not understand pronouns. Although I was slightly frustrated that he had not at least attempted to answer all of the questions, and I felt like he had not paid attention when I explained pronouns in class, I calmly explained the different types of pronouns again. When I returned home in the evening, he had sent me an email: “I did all fifteen problems!” He also said that he finally understood pronouns once we talked through them in class. His email encouraged me that sometimes students need more time on material than I think they do. Thanks to The Art of Teaching, I am more likely to clarify, rather than correct, as a first reaction.
After you have spent a quiet afternoon sipping tea and reading Highet’s book, the next step is quite easy: Carefully observe teachers whom you admire and respect. What do they do that makes their teaching so good? Be attentive for any gems they may offer in class. Remember that I first learned about The Art of Teaching while sitting in one of my college classes (although it took me at least a year to get around to purchasing it).
If you are still interested in teaching after completing these two tasks, be prepared: the first year of teaching is the hardest (again, wisdom from one of my professors). Although I have faced some challenging situations, first-year teaching is unique in its trials, which I suspect is largely due to the intensity and immensity of the new experiences. First-year teaching truly embodies the cliché of drinking water from a fire hose. The steep learning curve appears in many areas from implementing discipline to learning so much new material to dealing with a plethora of parenting styles.
But it gets better. I am only two weeks into my second year, and I can already tell a difference as I have more time to breathe. I am still grading papers and homework, including new material in my lesson plans, working on discipline with my students, and interacting with parents, but I feel less stressed and more restful. I even have time to read Highet’s book for fun!
Miss Basinger (as my students know me)
Rachel Basinger is the ninth- and twelfth-grade humane letters teacher at Providence Classical School and a proud alumna of Hillsdale College. She considers Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince the best book on life besides the Bible.