Let’s Hear it for the Teachers
by Peter Mountford
Most of the blog posts by WITS writers focus, understandably, on our students, but I’d like to take a moment to give a shout-out to the teachers I collaborated with this year at Shorecrest High School. Through the WITS program at Shorecrest—which has a vigorous champion of the program in the person of English teacher Andy Barker—I’ve been able to teach writing to all of the school’s approximately 320 freshman students this year.
My job is to try to get those students to be excited about reading and writing fiction. But there’s no way I could do it without the help of Shorecrest’s ninth grade teachers: Andy Barker, Toni Nyman, Jennifer Etter, Britt Harris, and Catherine Archipley.
Writing fiction is hard to do. On the upside, it’s also a lot of fun, and as a teaching-artist, I get to focus on the fun and encourage the students to experiment more freely than they usually do with their academic writing. “This is not essay writing,” I tell them again and again, imploring them to embrace my mantra of “Write first, think later.” Often, they seem suspicious at first, but eventually they let go and the pencils start moving and soon enough they’ve written several pages of a story—something they didn’t realize they could do. They are inevitably delighted to find out that they can write a story.
Meanwhile their teachers have the unenviable task of following-up with the students when I’m not around—if I tell a class that they need a print-out of their story for next week, it’s their teachers who have to play bad cop in the coming days and wrangle them into printing out those stories. They also sometimes have to provide the students with extra time to work on their stories if they’re behind, or help them learn the necessary but not so enjoyable rules regarding dialogue formatting.
Beyond being task-masters, the teachers at Shorecrest help me craft my curriculum, and adjust my lessons for the specific needs of their particular groups. They know their students incredibly well and can let me know when I should speed up or slow down, or when a student who appears to understand the material is actually falling behind.
At the end of my classes, Toni Nyman often says to me, “That was amazing—what you’re doing here with these kids, I couldn’t ever do that. I would never think of writing that way. It’s so great you’re here.”
Whenever she says this, I feel like saying, “I’m here once a week. The other days I wear my pajamas until noon and I spend my time making up stories and writing them down. It’s very nice that I can be here, I love it, but what’s truly amazing is the work you do, day in and day out.”
Once a semester, I read a stack of 180 student stories, which takes at least 40 hours and provides me an effective excuse for several weeks of self-pity and/or self-congratulation. The teachers I work with at Shorecrest are never without a phonebook-sized stack of student papers and they never complain about it. At least the papers I read are amusing and zany; the papers they have to read are about The Odyssey, or Macbeth.
As part of the recent national conversation about government spending and debt, there’s been quite a lot of talk about teachers and teacher-pay—the comical notion that they have a cushy schedule. Whenever this subject comes up on the news, I think about Britt Harris or Jennifer Etter sitting up for hours every night reading stacks of student essays about The Odyssey, carefully marking up each one to make sure that the students are able to not just play with stories but are also able to articulate complex ideas in their writing.