21 August 2007

I wonder as I wander

Today I found myself pondering the same thing throughout the course of the day.

After resuming my teaching duties at the high school Monday, I have been wondering if the very characteristics I possess that have the makings for a very good teacher might not be the same makings for a very poor teacher.

Now, before anybody jumps to unwarranted conclusions, I am not suggesting that the school year will go poorly or that I will be a poor teacher; quite the opposite. Indeed, despite the fact that I gave a quiz on day one and assigned some ten pages of reading and a one to two page reflection paper due (both due by the beginning of class tomorrow), three students have already signed into my class! Everybody always said work was supposed to scare students away…

At any rate, I am very excited about the school year and classes on Monday went very well, if I do say so myself (and I do).

However, after falling behind already on day one, I was left with this observation: I am both overly ambitious in planning tasks and easily sidetracked/distracted/tangented (if I can be permitted to create a word).

Being overly ambitious in the classroom can be a blessing because it gives a certain direction and impetus to planning and teaching, yet at the same time it gives the risky proposition that more can be accomplished in the classroom than is feasibly possible for the students to grasp.

Being easily sidetracked can be a blessing in the classroom because it allows me to answer the students’ questions and teach them where they are (Monday we talked about ugly statues of Jesus, what beauty really is, the beast 666, and cherubim and seraphim; and we were supposed to be talking about the person of Jesus Christ [it all fits in somehow]). Yet at the same time it gives the possibility of never sticking to the curriculum (it’s a good thing the state doesn’t dictate what I have to teach in religion class!)

It is good, I think, for me to be aware of these two tendencies and to seek ways to keep them in a healthy balance each day that I teach.


  1. I've dealt with a lot of young people over the years, so I feel qualified to say they'll learn, and retain, a lot more, this way than by sticking to a lesson plan.
    "Tangented"? I'll have to remember that.

  2. I agree with the "off topic" statement. I don't think religion class should be a "class". It should be disucssion time. It should time for teens or kids to ask questions on whatever they wonder. Speaking from a teen's standpoint, we're curious about what we don't yet know. We like to ask questions. Know why things are the way they are. Not how the book sof the bible were written, or memorize every literary techique in the gospel of Mark (good lord that was stupid) I'll be a junior and i'm not looking forward to a third year of the same old crap i leanred in first grade. If i want another history class...i'll sign up for one. But the same religious history course every year is just horrid. And i ask myself a quesiton...why can't the priests at my high school's parish be the religion teachers? They have two for goodness sake. I remember when i was in elemtery school our pastor would come in once a week or so just to let us ask him questions about the church, our faith (if we were at that point in our lives yet) and so on. It's just not like that anymore i guess. It's all about academics, and getting your four credits. That's just my two cents...

  3. Thanks, Alex!

    My pastor and I have also been wondering lately why so few priests are teachers in parochial schools, or even in Catholic schools not quite attached to a parish.

    Far too few priests are actively engaged in teaching, either in grade schools, high schools, colleges or even simple informal adult ed classes. It seems as though many priests have forgotten that teaching is one of their primary tasks, after the administration of the sacraments.

    You might ask your priests why they don't and invite them to come to your high school. It could be something as simple as they don't think the students want them there. Adults often have strange misconceptions about high school students, after all.

    Spreaking for myself, I can honestly say that sometimes I wonder if anything I say in class makes any sense, because many of my high school students look bored to death because they refuse to let me know they are actually enjoying religion class. I hear it second hand from parents, which sometimes I wonder about.

    The times when my students - and other high school students I don't teach - ask questions and talk about what we're talking about in class helps me teach better and makes me want to come back.

    I hope that makes sense.

  4. I taught high-school theology for a year (and I am SO not trained to do that, but you know how it goes in Catholic schools....) and I can honestly say that the best classes, where the kids learned the most, were the ones where we deviated from The Plan.
    Now I have a son in high school and my advice to any of his teachers would be: challenge him! Make him work! Take a stand! Don't be wimpy, say "there are no right or wrong answers" or spend the whole time doing feel-good stuff. Put some meat into the class. If you do this, kids like mine will instantly respect you and rise to the occasion.

  5. Thanks, Barb!

    I'm not trained as a teacher either :)

    You're very right about challenging the students and making them work. Some difficulty comes in in that we aren't supposed to treat the students differently one from the other. This, I think, is no small reason for the great boredom many of our students feel.

    Let's be honest. Some students are more talented academically than others, just as others are better at sports, or working, or computers, or praying, or whatever. We need to be able to hold students accountable to the level of work and reflection of which they are capable, each on an individual basis. I remember my high school days, not with much fondness. I was bored out of mind nearly all day long because if the students challenged me then half of the class would be lost. This is a great problem in American education.

    One of my favorite classes is when I tell the students they do not beocme angels when they die (I've no idea where they picked this up but most of them believe it very strongly) and that faithful Fido won't be joinging them in heaven. I think they learn there that they won't find any cotton candy or sugar cookies in my place (except for the rare times that I might bring in sugar cookies because I like them).

  6. Anonymous6:09 AM


    I started my eighteenth year of teaching on Monday (2 yrs middle school + the last 15 yrs college), and two themes keep recurring in my life:

    1) The tension between high ambition and merely "covering" key concepts rather really teaching them in a way that allows students to engage with the content at an intellectual, spiritual, and yes, even emotional level. When I student taught (way back in 1988, before most of my current students were born!), my observer from the university challenged me when I said that I had "covered" something in class. He got me thinking in a serious way about the difference between simply covering something (going over it, checking it off) and actually teaching it to real, live, dynamic human beings. (That's about the only good thing I got out of the observer, but it's something I keep going back to every semester, if not in fact every week. A perennial question for all good teachers, I think.)

    2) In my first year of full-time teaching, a colleague who was getting ready to retire told me something that helps me to do my best on the toughest days: "You never really know," he said, "what little nugget a student is going to take away from your class and remember forever. You may think it's going to be Big Idea X, but often it will be something that seems so insignificant to you, an observation or quesiton that you tossed off without much planning, the sort of thing you yourself wouldn't recall even a month later." I've encountered so many students over the years who have been greatly affected (positively and negatively) by things teachers have said no doubt in passing. I suppose the same is true for me as well; some of my own love for learning was born out of enthusiastic digressions. I think there should always be at least a little wiggle room left for the productive digression. Therein lies the humanity of teaching and learning, and often the stuff out of which minds and hearts are shaped.

    My hunch is that you're probably a very dedicated and thoughtful teacher. If I were you, I wouldn't dream of killing the digressions.


  7. The fact that you're not trained as a teacher may be the reason you'll be good at it. The sort of training teachers recieve is a big part of the problem.
    The notion that people become angels when they die is an American myth that's been around for as far back as I can remember.

  8. Thanks, Steve!

    I've never dreamt of killing a digression (well, maybe just a couple of the far left field ones...) and that's probably why I'm so easily sidetracked.

    The best discussions happen in the tangents and the spur of the moment, seemingly random, questions that the students have been pondering for quite some time.

    I've already discovered that the big topics aren't really what they remember. It's the little something that slips out unexpected that you aren't really even aware of saying. Odd, that.

  9. I must've been kept safe from the angel myth by the imaginary walls of Quincy.

  10. Anonymous8:18 PM

    Don't overload the students with material to be read. Check with the other teachers as to what they are requiring for that week.

    My son is in uni and he sometimes has 120 pages to be studied for one subject alone plus assignment reading.

    I think that some discussion about questions which are on the student's mind is good but there are some facts of the Faith which have to be taught and a teacher shouldn't shy away from this. Discussion can come from what is taught.

    I, by the grace of God, received a sound orthodox Catholic education and many years later I retrieve nuggets which came from the good nuns; who have since gone over and run New Age retreat centres. *sob*

  11. The amount of reading I'm giving this year seems to be in tow with the other teachers.

    Monday we'll be talking about Christology and the Trinity (just the basics) because after reading some of their reflection papers it's very apparent that it's needed.