All my students don’t need a Pulitzer
Courtney Phelan | Thursday, January 28, 2016
To become an elementary school teacher, you major in education. To become a secondary school (middle or high school) teacher, you major in the subject you want to teach and earn a minor in secondary education. While teaching English at the secondary level isn’t the only use for a degree in English, it’s mine. I want to be a middle school English and language arts teacher.
When I tell this to people for the first time, I often get looks of confusion and the simple question, “Why?” Recently, when talking with a woman in one of my non-English classes, she told me that she hated English and language arts in school.
“I’m not good at writing. And all my English teachers expected me to like, win the Pulitzer or something.”
So I want to make this nice and clear: All my future students don’t need to win a Pulitzer.
Assuming that I’ll have the career I aspire toward, I’ll teach thousands of students during my time in the classroom. And I would hate myself if every single one of those thousands of students became a professional writer or literary scholar.
I don’t want to teach English and language arts because I think that every person on this earth needs to go into an English- or language arts-based career. I want my future students to be entrepreneurs, farmers, doctors, nurses, cosmetologists, lawyers, social workers, architects, construction workers, therapists, civil engineers, computer engineers, mechanics, professional artists, actors, musicians, public servants and anything else they can be.
So why do I still want to teach English if I don’t want thousands of future authors of Shakespeare critiques? Because I want my students to learn the skills of using the English language and be able to apply those skills in whatever they chose to do. English is more of a skill-building class, like math, than a content-based class, like history or biology. Just like math teachers teach students how to multiply and divide so they can eventually determine unit prices or how much paint they need to buy, I want to teach English so that my students can apply the skills I’ve taught them to make their lives better.
I’m not going to teach Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” because intricate knowledge of the characters and plot is crucial information for everyday life, like knowing who won the American Civil War or knowing not to mix bleach and ammonia.
I want to teach “Caesar” so that my students can recognize verbal irony so they don’t share articles from The Onion on Facebook thinking that it’s serious. I want to teach “Caesar” so that my students can see and learn to recognize equivocation so that they don’t get taken advantage of in the future. I want to assign my students essays about “Caesar” so that they can practice gathering evidence and arranging it in a persuasive manner, so that they can someday gather evidence to convince their boss that their team’s blueprint is the best one for the company. I want to make my students give a short speech in front of the class like Antony’s, so that one day, they’re not scared to stand up in front of a room full of people and give instructions.
Quite simply, I want to teach English because I want my students to be able to use language effectively. When you start thinking about it, you use the skills that you learned in English classes every day. Think about replying to this column, for example. You have to weigh the pros and cons of responding and whether you agree or disagree. You have to determine what exactly you liked or didn’t like, and to give your argument weight, why you like or didn’t like it — did I not provide evidence? Do you have anecdotes or evidence about evil English teachers that contradict what I say here? Were my arguments logically invalid? Was I so disorganized that you were able to read what I was saying?
You then have to organize what’s on your mind into some form of coherent language. You then have to type it in using some form of spelling, grammar and syntax so others can understand what you’re saying. You have to decide what you want to emphasize and how you’re going to do that. You should probably proofread to make sure that I understand what you’re saying.
So if you want to disagree with me, go ahead and write me a long, detailed, well-researched comment or email about why you disagree. You’ll be making your middle school language arts teacher proud.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.