For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a teacher. I guess my desire grew out of the fact that I had great experiences with outstanding teachers in the public schools of Charlotte, North Carolina. I loved learning about history in junior high and high school and I decided that I was going to become a high-school history teacher. I even wrote one of my essays for admission to Duke about my desire to become a teacher.
Fortunately for me, Duke re-started the M.A.T. program during my junior year. The program allowed me to build on my knowledge base in history and, more importantly, gave me the opportunity to work closely with two master teachers for an entire school year. This experience has proved invaluable to my effectiveness in and enjoyment of teaching.
In the ten years since I left Duke, my career in teaching has surpassed my hopes and expectations. In this job, there is truly never a dull moment. The everyday challenges of teaching make it both frustrating and fascinating. How many people in their thirties still get to go to pep rallies, break up fights, and read secret notes passed during class? Teaching high school keeps me in touch with young people at a very interesting time in their lives. Though I really never know what influence I have on my students, the possibility that I might help point a kid in the right direction motivates me. I find teaching fascinating because of the relationships I develop with my students and because of my hope that I will be able to make a difference in the lives of some of these young people.
Teaching has allowed me to work with every type of student you can imagine, from the over-sugared, undersized ninth-grade bundle of hormones to the too-cool-for-school twelfth-grade senior slider. I have taught students who are incredibly motivated and students who see little or no value in school. Each type of student--each student--requires different strategies from me and returns different kinds of rewards.
When I taught advanced placement (AP) classes or classes with students who really enjoyed school, I immediately felt the rewards from teaching. The effort and interest of these students matched my own, and that was extremely exciting. I now work with students who have had little success in school and who, for the most part, do not enjoy it. My students struggle to bring themselves, a pencil, and a piece of paper into the classroom. Once they arrive, we engage in epic struggles between the forces of energy and engagement and the forces of lethargy and apathy. On many days I lose this battle, but I survive to fight another day. None of my current students loves learning the way the AP kids did--but I believe the work I am doing with these students is the most important thing I can do as a teacher.
I see success when a student who claims to "hate" school begins to ask questions in class. I see success when a student who says he does not read picks up a book. I see success when a student who lacks self-confidence begins to trust herself and her ability to answer a question. My challenge as a teacher is to engage the student who sits
in class and dares me to teach him. My challenge is to cajole, to convince, to coerce these students to believe that success in school is important and that they can experience it. I do not always meet these challenges, but I try to meet my students where they are and encourage them to become interested in learning. I think that if I can help them engage in the process of learning, they will achieve success on their own.
My first ten years of teaching have been a blast. Despite the frustrations that come from working with students who are not really motivated to learn, I feel that I am making a difference for some students. I enjoy the task of trying to bring history alive for students raised on professional wrestling and video games. Few days go by when I am not forced to think hard and grapple with difficult social, cultural, and educational challenges. I feel great when I plan and implement a lesson that works because the students really "get it." I can see the satisfaction and interest in their faces and I am certain they can see it in mine.
Hunter Hogewood '90, M.A.T. '91
I chose to become a teacher because I really enjoy young people, and I became an English teacher because the subject matter excites me; literature is beautiful, moving, enduring. My mother, who taught enthusiastically for thirty-seven years, was my major role model and inspiration. The interesting and challenging teachers I had in high school and in college affirmed my decision.
In the past forty years (with time out for raising a family), I have taught tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grades at all ability levels: basic, standard, enriched or college preparatory, academically gifted or honors, and advanced placement.
I stay committed because of the students. The students I teach today are as enthusiastic, as well-behaved, as committed to their studies as the students I taught in my first year of teaching. I hope that my contribution as a teacher is to touch the students' lives, to turn them on to learning, to give them a lifelong love of literature. I feel I have been successful if I see understanding of the literature in their essays, if I see improvement in their writing through the year, if I see the light bulb going on in their brain in class discussion, if they come back to see me when they are in college and share experiences or tell me they are doing well. Some of my former students have become English teachers themselves; I see them at workshops and like to think I had a hand in their decision.
Teaching necessitates a major commitment of time and effort for the teacher, and it requires a great deal of understanding and help on the part of family members. I was really amazed and touched when my daughter became an English teacher. I had thought the sight of my bringing home countless essays and essay tests over the years would have discouraged her.
The English curriculum in high school has remained consistent for eleventh and twelfth grades, with the eleventh grade focused on American literature and the twelfth grade focused on British literature. At the tenth-grade level, however, there has been a major change from genres (poetry, short stories, plays, novels) to World Literature. Before this, most of the literature studied in all grades was either British or American. Today students study Chinese, Sumerian, Russian, South American, Canadian, French, Spanish, and other authors, reflecting our country's growing diversity and the emphasis on multiculturalism.
A major change for me has been the age levels of my peers. Most of my fellow teachers in the English department this year are the age of my daughter. It is a joy to work with them. For the most part, the young people coming into the profession are extremely dedicated, well-prepared, and idealistic.
I do not think any other career would have been nearly as enjoyable for me. After all these years, I still look forward to going to work each day to meet my students and want to teach that unit again next year in hopes I can "do it better."
Linda Lunsford Moore '62, M.A.T. '63
One of the main reasons I got into teaching is that I grew up as Linda Moore's daughter. I think my mother is the star of the show when it comes to the two of us. I have always admired her teaching style and her enthusiasm for teaching; I think the main reason she is such a good teacher is because she cares so much about her students. She goes out of her way to help them and let them know she wants them to succeed.
One would hope that all teachers care about their students in this way, but sometimes it takes immense patience to consistently let that concern show through. I did see the bad side of it: the immense amount of time grading papers, the phone calls from parents who were worried about their child's performance, the stress level. But I also saw the good side of it: the way you are involved in such a wonderful community, the way you never end a day wondering if what you did was important, and the way you can really make a difference in students' lives.
Teaching, for me, has been an incredible challenge--no day is boring, no year is the same, no class is the same. Sometimes--rarely--I will know that I have made a difference in someone's life. More often than not, however, it remains a mystery and a kind of hope or faith that what I am doing matters in some small way. When I started this career, I didn't understand that you had to have this sort of faith that what you were doing mattered in some way. Nor did I foresee that the one obvious effect would be the profound differences that the students made in my life.
A good teacher, it seems, really just guides students to something they have within them already. Thus, for as much as I've tried to teach the bold ideas of Wordsworth or Keats ("Beauty is truth," I read, "Truth beauty; that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."), my students have been returning the favor by guiding me to some of my most powerful life lessons--those of inner courage, of patience, of persistence, of love.
You cannot be in a classroom, fully alive, and not feel deeply.
So, if you asked me what it is that keeps me in teaching, the answer would be those two things: the lessons I learn each day, each year, and the hope that the lessons I impart, the principles that I stand for, have a reach that goes past the time they walk out after the last bell rings.
You can only grow and change in life if you stay malleable and open-minded--teaching keeps me that way. I am grateful to my students for the fact that they are living fully, and reacting fully, and following the paths they see before them rather than any that anyone else tries to dictate for them. The students pass through my life, listen to what I have to say, and all in their own way leave something--some word, some phrase, some attitude, some inspiration--that changes me for the better. That is what is beautiful to me about teaching and about life. No one is an island. Nothing removes you from the lessons you need to learn. That beauty is my truth, and I hold fast to it.
Jennifer Moore '93, M.A.T. '95
I went into teaching because of the wonderful influences and experiences I've had during my education. In 1978, my third-grade teacher, Ms. Paris, had the greatest impact on initiating my love of learning new concepts. Her teaching style gave students the power to learn at their own rate in peer groups, and allowed students to lead the class in student-designed and directed experiments. Her methods were well ahead of her time, and inspired my love of science and physics. As a high-school teacher for eight years, I continue to aspire to become a motivational teacher like her.
As a graduate student in Duke's physics department, I had the privilege of working as a teaching assistant for professors John Kolena and Moo Young Han. I had the opportunity to observe both of these master teachers and thoroughly enjoyed their exciting and entertaining lectures. From these outstanding professors, I learned that demonstrations and humor are crucial to arousing attention during lectures.
As a student teacher in Duke's M.A.T. program, I learned the most important lessons from my amazing mentors: Ted Oakley, a physics teacher at Jordan High School, and Joan Harrison, a mathematics teacher at Northern High School. In my current classes, I use many of the ideas and approaches that Ted and Joan used in their classes to get their students to love physics and mathematics.
Here at Highland Park High School in Chicago, where I teach today, I am surrounded by mentors in the science department who raise the bar of excellence every day. I love being at a high school where teachers have an intrinsic desire to learn and improve. My goal is to learn from teachers and students so that I will be someone who inspires others to become lifelong learners.
Kunal Pujara A.M. '93, M.A.T. '94
I decided early that I wanted to be a teacher. My sister is two years younger than I, so I had the opportunity to pass on what I had learned in school when she hit the inevitable rough spots all students face. There is nothing quite so thrilling as the feeling you get when somebody learns something new as a result of your support. Teachers are familiar with these moments, but each time it is exciting as ever. When we experience these exhilarations, we are feeling success, but often success reaches beyond the easily recognizable.
Our society today tells us that success is quantifiable. At the south-central Los Angeles high school where I teach, my students take SATs, ACTs, APs, the Golden State Exam, the High School Exit Exam, and the week-long Stanford-9 Test, to name a few. According to the latest in educational theory, if all teachers teach the same material, we can measure student success by how they score on standardized tests.
With this approach, if a student fails to perform on the test, it tells us that there is something wrong with the student (he or she is lazy, stupid, etc.) and/or there is something wrong with the teacher (he or she is lazy, stupid, etc.). In fact, studies show that test scores, rather than necessarily showing us anything about student success, most closely correlate to students' social class. But if test scores do not always measure success, how else can teachers measure it?
I have had this conversation many times with a close friend of mine and a superb teacher. As a first- and second-year teacher, I wondered many times if I was making a difference, if students were learning in my classroom. I was worried because they just didn't seem to be getting the material. My friend often reassured me by saying, "If you are creating an environment where these students feel safe and welcome and cared about, that can often mean more than whether they ever learn about the Articles of Confederation." Success is also measured by intangibles such as this. For adolescents, the world is often a chaotic and troubling place, even in the best of communities. Creating a place of safe harbor can be more important than we could ever imagine.
Teaching is one of the most difficult jobs I can imagine because it involves so much more than teaching. Often, novice teachers struggle in all areas, but it is also important to realize that growing as a teacher never ends. This is the most important element of being a teacher that I learned in the Master of Arts in Teaching program at Duke. Ro Thorne, the director of the program, told me that when I received my diploma, I would be ready to learn to be a teacher. This is something else that I think public-policy officials don't understand. No matter how many classes we force teachers to take in pedagogy and in their disciplines, nothing teaches us how to teach like the experience of doing it. Teaching is such a complex job that it is impossible to learn as a student; it simply must be experienced firsthand.
Another important mantra that I learned at Duke was to be "ALERT": A Liberally Educated Reflective Teacher. Experience is only helpful if you reflect on what worked and what didn't, on how students responded to what you thought was a wonderfully engaging lesson plan that somehow fell flat. Maybe it was the students, but most probably it was some minor piece that was missing or didn't come off right or needed to be left out. A reflective teacher must be honest and not afraid to admit when he or she is in error. If we deny our culpability we deny the possibility of ever doing it right.
Success as a teacher is complicated. It does involve what students learn, but it has to do with so much more. While programs such as Duke's M.A.T. program can help show prospective teachers some avenues toward approaching teaching, the best way to learn how to be a better teacher is through experience and reflection.
Daniel Ordorica M.A.T. '99
Teachers on Teaching
M.A.T. graduates share their thoughts on what they learned about teaching,and how they teach students to learn.
June 1, 2002