DiLeo Writes—Chapter 1: This is for the Teachers, Future Ones, Especially
Welcome to my first newsletter!
I am a high school English teacher and an aspiring novelist. I've been teaching for ten years, and writing since I was in elementary school. If you want to read one of my stories, Pseudopod recently published (audio version) one here.
I don't know how frequently (or infrequently) these letters will appear, but I dig the idea (and both Warren Ellis and Joe Hill do it and they're like gods) and so here we are. If you follow me on Twitter (@authordileo), you might have noticed I'm obsessed with the tactile—I am embracing the analog* in a world gone nuts for technology. I may be a Luddite, but I'm not a troglodyte (at least I don't think so: a troglodyte probably isn't self-aware enough to even make that declaration, right?), and so while I write my first drafts in pencil on paper I am still aware of the expansive interweb-world and love that technology has allowed me to write this and send it right into your hands.
In these newsletters, I may write about teaching or writing or books or movies or (dread to imagine) politics—and any and everything else. It'll be, I hope, an entertaining and perhaps enlightening journey.
Thank you for joining me on the trip. I am flattered.
What follows is a speech I wrote to be delivered to students enrolled in the teacher program at SUNY New Paltz in New York. I never presented it, but it was published in The English Record, Vol. 67, #1, Fall 2016.
Recently, I was in the faculty room and tossed out this question: “What advice would you give to people entering the teaching profession?”
Three teachers were in there with me--one picked at a day-old salad, his tie dangling dangerously close to the gelatinous, orangey dressing on the wilted lettuce; the next clacked away at the keys of one of the two computers in the room, her seaweed-colored Nalgene water bottle close at hand; and the last stood motionless, perhaps hypnotized or zombified, before the copier as it whined and thumped, collating and stapling packet after packet. After packet.
My question echoed somewhat in the windowless room (I had almost shouted it over the copier’s drone), and through the wall a flushing toilet swooshed violently.
Those three teachers turned to me. I was stationed alone at a round table, my microwaved cheeseburger steaming, my finger marking my place in a book whose bright pink cover contrasted against the white table and pale, cinderblock walls.
Simultaneously, these three teachers said, “Do something else.”
The computer-clacker hacked free a cynical laugh; the salad-eater picked at what passed for his lunch; and the copier-zombie turned slowly back around.
This reaction is not unusual. You soon-to-be-educators will encounter similar warnings over and over. Veteran teachers will regard you with tired, mournful faces, perhaps somewhat pitying and maybe even a little envious, and they will tell you to “turn back now” or “get out while you still can.” They will state unequivocally that they would never become teachers now, not with the way things are.
These experienced teachers will regale you with stories of how this profession used to be rewarding, how students used to care, how parents once held their children responsible instead of casting blame outward.
This rose-colored nostalgia is mostly nonsense. At its most innocuous, these fond remembrances of teaching’s glory days are sad testaments to people who’ve collapsed beneath a culture of negativity of which they are now the sunken foundation. At its most toxic, these bitter snippets of wistful longing are an infection to which you are the most vulnerable.
Be warned: You are at risk.
Your positivity, your eagerness, your enthusiasm--it is all at risk.
Do not be a victim.
Stay positive. I urge you.
No matter what, stay positive--that is your salvation.
You are bold and confident and ready to make a difference, but that is also your Achilles Heel.
When you’re in that faculty room and the complaining starts, when your colleagues bemoan student laziness and administrative incompetence and parental obdurateness, when they cast their lure in your pond, do not take the bait.
Be polite, listen, but do not engage. Do not defend your beliefs, your philosophy, your pedagogy. Do not expose your gleeful optimism because your colleagues will diminish it with a minor laugh. They will shake their heads, call you naïve, and say, “You’ll learn.”
These teachers may think they mean well, and some of them still enjoy bursts of joyful teaching, but please, please, do not learn this lesson of negativity and despair. When they try to wrangle you aboard their ship of sorrow, simply nod your head, gather your things, wish them a good day, and swim off fast.
I am sorry if this sounds negative. I do not mean it that way. It is important, however, that you are shielded against what awaits.
You will want to get along with your colleagues, and this need to feel accepted makes you easy prey. The steps are small from complaining about lazy kids to gossiping about teachers to turning against your own students. And once that happens, ladies and gentlemen, it’s all over.
Older teachers tell me it’s best not to even think about how bad things are. It’s all so depressing.
Does it need to be?
Students can appear lazy. Administrators can seem incompetent. Parents can be confrontational. Legislators in Albany prove just how out-of-it they are with every new unfunded mandate they ratify. The Common Core may be on its way out, but something else will take its place.
The history of American public education is a series of cycles: exams prove students are falling behind their foreign counterparts, new curricula and tougher standards are implemented, some kids improve and some don’t, and testing shows students are still not performing well, and newer, better standards and pedagogical approaches are thrust upon teachers, and then testing shows yet again . . .
This is how it has always been. This is how it always will be.
I repeat: Stay positive.
In my ten years of teaching, I have learned a few important facts about the profession.
Number one: Teaching is a human enterprise.
You must be professional and likable. You must be part of the team, and yet unafraid to stand alone. Your colleagues will judge you, and very skeptically. If your students like you, your colleagues will say you’re too easy. If the kids hate you, these same teachers will engrave your tombstone.
Teaching is a human enterprise, and you must get along with your colleagues, but they are not the reason you are there. What we do, we do for the students.
Teaching is not, however, a selfless endeavor. You are not a monk taking a vow of poverty and humility. You need not bleed for your students. You are a professional, and entitled to every benefit this career offers.
We have an obligation to our students, but they are not our clients. This is not a business. We are not businesspeople. We are Sherpas guiding inexperienced climbers along a path we know so that those in our charge might safely learn how to navigate for themselves.
Here’s number two: Teaching is no good unless you enjoy it.
You must have fun. Enjoy yourself. Even when it’s a slog and a trudge, enjoy it.
That is not to say that everyday, every period, every moment with my students is some wondrous parade of glee. We may be Sherpas, but it is a Sisyphean excursion. It can seem hopeless, a mad sprint on a maxed-out treadmill, your heart thumping into your throat and your whole body screaming for that final bell, that three-day weekend, that elusive snow day.
When those breaks come, luxuriate in them, but when you return to the classroom, enjoy it.
Never discourage your students. While a wake-up-call speech may be necessary for students to hear from time to time, it is too easy for such diatribes to devolve into merciless, critiquing rants that the students will completely ignore.
You tell the students to get serious, to work hard, to develop college-worthy study skills, but to them you’re out of touch. Even as young as some of you are, to your students you’re part of the adult machine and their objective is, and always has been, to dismantle that machine.
Instead of ranting--inspire.
Present a favorable image of adulthood. We cannot criticize teenagers for their immaturity and resistance to growing up if we’re constantly moaning about adult responsibilities and bills and lack of sleep and how sometimes, even most times, we have to do things we don’t want to.
If that’s adulthood, what’s the point?
Grow up, get smart, be serious: Welcome to the misery.
We have a responsibility to shape for our students a positive and realistic future. It’s good to be an adult. We must act accordingly.
This is a human enterprise. Stay playful and exuberant. Remind yourself why you got into this.
If my students enjoy my class, it is not because I taught them subordinating conjunctions or the paragraph template or the thematic meanings of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest--it is because I connected with them on a human level.
Be humorous. Be sincere. Vacillate from jokester to confidante to dictator to frenetic madman. Do whatever you can to engage them.
Sometimes you’ll be strict, sometimes lenient. Your approach will vary depending on what the students need.
Use your strengths.
Forget the data analysis of test scores. Forget the excessive state standards and cookie-cutter Common Core. Forget the negativity.
Remember your students, and your obligation to them.
Go forth and give it your all.
You are the teacher. Whatever you do in the classroom, make it worth everyone’s time.
Next time, I'll discuss some books. Or movies. Or writing. Or . . .
Thanks again for signing up. Be good to one another, and I'll see you next time.
If you're inclined, drop me a line and tell me what you think of what I wrote: firstname.lastname@example.org.
As for books, this is what I'm reading now:
Insomnia by Stephen King
The Amazing story of Quantum Mechanics by James Kakalios
Stein On Writing by Sol Stein
The Secret History of Twin Peaks by Mark Frost
The Rain in Portugal by Billy Collins
Close Encounters of the Third Kind by Steven Spielberg (a novelization of his own screenplay=awesome)
*The Revenge of Analog by David Sax (Read this, and embrace the analog world.)
P.S. The picture is me at a young age, practicing my burgeoning mind powers. There appears to be a spider on my face, which no doubt helped strengthen said powers.