Letters to a Teacher [NOOK Book]

Overview


Sam Pickering has been teaching, guiding, performing, and inspiring for more than forty years. As a young English teacher at Montgomery Bell Academy in Tennessee, his musings on literature and his maverick pedagogy touched a student named Tommy Schulman, who later wrote the screenplay for Dead Poets Society. Letters to a Teacher is a welcome reminder that teaching is a joy and an art. In ten graceful yet conversational letters addressed to teachers of all types, Pickering shares compelling, funny, always ...
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Letters to a Teacher

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Overview


Sam Pickering has been teaching, guiding, performing, and inspiring for more than forty years. As a young English teacher at Montgomery Bell Academy in Tennessee, his musings on literature and his maverick pedagogy touched a student named Tommy Schulman, who later wrote the screenplay for Dead Poets Society. Letters to a Teacher is a welcome reminder that teaching is a joy and an art. In ten graceful yet conversational letters addressed to teachers of all types, Pickering shares compelling, funny, always elucidating anecdotes from a lifetime in the classrooms of school and universities. His priceless, homespun observations touch on topics such as competition, curiosity, enthusiasm, and truth. More than a how-to guide, Letters to a Teacher is an invitation into the hearts and minds of an extraordinary educator and his students, and an irresistible call to reflection for the teacher who knows he or she must be compassionate, optimistic, respectful, firm, and above all dynamic. This is an indispensable guide for teachers and laymen alike.
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Editorial Reviews

Michael Dirda
Certainly teachers will enjoy and learn from these "letters." But anyone who enjoys a short trot with a cultured mind will be glad to encounter Sam Pickering's essays. He exemplifies the virtues he tries to impress upon his students: decency, kindness, tolerance and understanding. Plus he's funny.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Pickering, an English professor at the University of Connecticut and personal essayist (Waltzing the Magpies; The Best of Pickering; etc.), serves up pedagogical advice couched in folksy language and peppered with personal anecdotes, tall tales and family stories. In 10 letters (on "The Good Teacher," "Truth," "Pressure" and more), he ranges over the educational map, considering his education, the schooling of his children, and the middle school and college students he has taught in places as varied as Tennessee, Connecticut, Western Australia and Syria. Modest reflection ("I marvel at how superficial and fragmentary my knowledge seems to be") coexists with firm suggestions ("Instead of humiliating a child, you should talk to parents, generally the force pressuring a child to cheat") amid discussions of the practical matters of teaching (handling committee work, dealing with grade pressure, testing, preparing assignments, mentoring). Education controversies are mentioned gently ("The effects of classroom doings are always mysterious, something that should be pounded, intellectually of course, into every legislator in the nation") and sacred cows sometimes tipped ("question the emphasis education puts on writing," he says). Pickering's odd timelessness-his ideas seem simultaneously old-fashioned and up-to-date-and his warm wisdom (and occasional iconoclasm) will please educators and interested lay readers alike. Agent, Nat Sobel. (Jan.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
KLIATT
Touted as "the teacher who inspired Dead Poets Society," Sam Pickering has been teaching for more than 40 years. Currently this author of 19 books is inspiring students at the University of Connecticut. Letters to a Teacher is addressed to fellow educators, but can be enjoyed by a wider audience. His ten letters cover such diverse topics as: The Teacher's Life, The Good Teacher, Qualities of a Teacher, Words, Interests, Truth, Pressure, Requirements, and Last Thoughts. Intensely personal and passionate, these letters include real and invented stories and words of wisdom from others, such as Kenneth Grahame, Matthew Arnold, Jane Austen, Thoreau, Milton, Wordsworth, and William Hazlitt. Pickering shares his teaching experiences in Australia and Jordan as well as his days at Dartmouth, where he was faced with a student's public obscenity. He advises his readers not to take his book too seriously. "Read the book. Ponder some things then push it aside and move beyond it. Advice is suggestion...Don't hold grudges, and forget slights...If your school system is not unionized, it should be...Get to know your fellow teachers well...Whatever you do has the potential to influence someone else's child. If you smoke, you should stop. I preach and urge. I tell students that I do not give good grades to fools, and that anyone who smokes, jaywalks, or rides a bicycle without a helmet cannot make higher than a C in my class." The rest of the letters are in the same vein and the anecdotes are priceless. Wise, amusing, old-fashioned, and inspiring, Pickering is a man to spend time with. KLIATT Codes: SA--Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2004, Grove,242p., Ages 15 to adult.
—Janet Julian
Library Journal
Pickering (English, Univ. of Connecticut) has authored 17 books, 14 of which are collections of essays (most recently, The Best of Pickering). This collection, as its name implies, targets both beginning and veteran teachers, offering advice on subjects ranging from a teacher's lasting influence to being a "good" teacher to such perennial topics as truth. The result is perhaps the most poetic-even elegiac-writing about education published in the past year. The poetry is more implied than stated, but Pickering does wistfully recall a time when students actually related to authors such as Wordsworth. Pickering served as the model for John Keating, the renegade English teacher at a boys academy in the 1989 film Dead Poets Society, but he does an admirable job of eschewing the temptation to pontificate from the perch of fame. Practicing teachers at all levels are likely to benefit from his well-crafted and generous prose. Recommended for public and academic libraries collecting writing about the process of education.-Ari Sigal, Catawba Valley Community Coll. Lib., Hickory, NC Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An eclectic, uneven collection of ten essays recast as letters addressed to veteran and beginning teachers. The essay is Pickering's (English/Univ. of Connecticut) favored genre, and this offering, like his others (A Little Fling, 1999, etc.), shows both his strengths and weaknesses (as writer and as teacher). Dead Poets Society, Peter Weir's 1989 film about an unconventional English teacher, was based, in part, on the screenwriter's memories of Pickering's classes, and Pickering tells us that he has found it "impossible" to escape the umbrella of that film (yet-and here's the rub-he also opens that umbrella in many of these pieces). The essays mix advice, anecdote, criticism, memoir, silliness, poignancy, pomposity and platitude. At times, they also read like journal observations, stitched together with the threads of illustration and rumination. Generally, the topic sentence reigns. "A teacher must be patient and incredibly flexible," Pickering observes atop one paragraph, then muses below about inflexible schools, quotes a friend named Josh, ends with a Palestinian parable-thus exemplifying the predominant pattern. Sometimes the writer's observations have the sharp edge of truth ("If you are unable to live in a compromised world, you should not teach"), but elsewhere his maxims are really a thin glaze on ordinary donuts. Pickering is playful, in teaching and in writing, and he relates some amusing encounters with grade-grubbing students, angry parents, dim-witted and unsmiling bureaucrats. But he also tells (with some evident pleasure) about times when he intentionally deceived folks, a la Loki and Huck Finn (writing and sending bogus crank letters, for example). He seems unaware thatthis sort of thing can compromise his credibility as a writer-and teacher-as it becomes fair to ask: Are his anecdotes here real? Or did he fabricate them to foment something?A talented teacher tells all-though not every impression we leave class with may have been in the lesson plan. Agent: Nat Sobel/Sobel Weber Associates
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781555847210
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 12/1/2007
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: First Trade Paper Edition
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 902,373
  • File size: 3 MB

First Chapter

Letters to a Teacher


By Sam Pickering

Grove Atlantic, Inc.

Copyright © 2004 Sam Pickering
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-87113-699-6


Chapter One

Letter One: The Teacher's Life

DEAR TEACHER,

The heartache of being human is that often when we act selflessly and with good intentions we bruise others. For teachers surrounded by children who at times seem sadly vulnerable the heartache rarely ends. No matter how well intentioned teachers are, they will bump those about them. Two things enable teachers to cope. The first is simply forgetfulness. Life pushes so much at us that a specific event rarely clogs the mind for a long time. In Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, Mole and Ratty search for Portly, a lost baby otter. They rescue Portly, finding him sleeping between the hooves of Pan, the deity of the natural world. Before he vanishes, Pan bestows the gift of forgetfulness upon Mole and Rat, "lest," Grahame writes, "the awful remembrance should remain and grow, and overshadow mirth and pleasure, and the great haunting memory should spoil all the after-lives of little animals helped out of difficulties, in order that they should be happy and light-hearted as before."

Forgetfulness is a great boon. The person forever conscious of the presence of a god can never relax and be spontaneous, cannot embody the spontaneity of consciousness that the nineteenth-century critic Matthew Arnold saidbrought sweetness and light into our lives, and, indeed, into the lives of others. If the mistakes of the past were always present, no teacher could act. If I recalled all the regrettable things I've done as soon as I woke up in the morning, I wouldn't be able to get out of bed, much less go to class. Indeed if side dishes heaped with all the tiffs of the past accompanied meals to the dinner table, marriages would not endure to dessert.

The pleasures of forgetfulness often brighten small moments. Many years ago outside an apartment in Nashville, my father and I met Norvell Skipworth and his wife unloading their car. The Skipworths had returned from a vacation in Georgia. Neither Norvell nor his wife was young, and after handing the key to the trunk of the car to his wife, Norvell turned and seeing Father said, "Sam, good morning. This is a surprise, and how was your trip?" Norvell then paused and looked puzzled for a moment before shaking his head in mild exasperation and adding, "Aw shucks, I got that wrong. I went on the trip."

The other matter that helps teachers bounce into class is that the real effects of teaching remain mysterious, something that complicates attempts to define good teaching. Almost never do teachers know exactly how their words, or actions, affect students. Moreover, if we really believed that everything we said shaped students, we would be too terrified to speak. Still, the ways of words and interpretations of words sometimes startle us. "Six years have passed since I was in your class," a girl once wrote me from Torrington, "and I want to tell you that you handled me the right way. I did not think so then, but now that I am older and have thought about it for a long time I realize you were correct. Thank you for doing me such a service." I did not recall the girl until I looked in my grade book. She was one of fifty-four students and received a B in the course. She wrote three B+ papers, then a B, and finally a C paper. She made 86 on the final examination. In class she was silent, a faceless gray student who never talked. Indeed the semester passed without my speaking to her except when I returned papers. From my perspective the handling that I accomplished so memorably did not occur. From her point of view, an offhand remark of mine must have seemed directed at her and provoked thought that rolled through years.

Recently I taught a course on the short story. A tough-looking boy sat in the back row in the right-hand corner of the room. The boy always wore a blue baseball cap with an orange bill. Printed across the front of the cap was "Danbury." Instead of removing the cap when class began, the boy pushed it around so that the bill pointed behind him, toward the wall. Then he leaned forward on his elbows and glared at me for fifty minutes, his expression never changing, scorn furrowing his brow. A month after the semester ended, he came to my office. He wore the same cap. In his hand he carried an empty tin can, the top of which had been sliced off. "Hope you don't mind," the boy said, sitting down and then raising the can to his mouth and spitting, "I chew." "I came to tell you," he continued, "that your course was the best I had in this university. Funniest damn course in the world. Thought I would bust a gut laughing. Told all my friends to take it. I won't forget you," the boy said, abruptly standing and shifting the can into his left hand in order to shake hands. "I won't forget you either," I said.

To know the effects of a class upon students or rather how students think a class affects them would be disturbing. Thirty years ago at Dartmouth if I had known how my class affected Gail, my children would not be named Francis, Edward, and Eliza. I was young and unmarried. All I remember about Gail is that she had brown hair, sat in the first row, once wore a yellow dress, and that I was in love with her. I was so in love I could not bear to look at her, much less speak to her. When she missed class, the room seemed empty. At the end of the semester Gail vanished. At a reunion five years later, George, another student from that class, visited me. "Sam," he said, as we sat in my living room, "do you remember a girl in your class named Gail? She sat in the front row and had brown hair." "Yes, slightly," I said, feeling uncomfortable. "Goodness," George exclaimed, "was she in love with you! The whole class knew it. Some days she couldn't face you and wouldn't attend. Isn't that the darnedest thing?" "Yes, George," I said, "the darnedest thing."

If not the place for mongrel love, the classroom is a place for unrequited liking. More important even than knowing a subject well is the capacity for liking students. Of course exceptions exist to this and to all I write. The person teaching medical school must insure that students know the difference between heart and colon. Otherwise his pupils will perform extraordinary bypasses. Although I think personality combined with knowledge is essential in a teacher, to a great degree we teachers don't matter. In comparison to students we exist to be outgrown and forgotten, alas, like parents. On sunny days I explore graveyards. Engraved on a tombstone I saw in Missouri was a tribute praising a man for achieving "sweet oblivion of self," a state almost never achieved but perhaps one to be wished for. Although the teacher's "self" affects classrooms, students matter more than we do.

I have aged into buying used books. Clean, pressed pages appear uninformed and smack of naïveté and its sometime companion cruelty. Nowadays I prefer books worn and watermarked, tattered like me, their margins beaten into seams, their words seemingly bruised into wisdom by handling. Because I hope to find wisdom, I usually find it. Recently I bought In Nature's Realm, published in 1900 and written by Charles Conrad Abbott, a once popular but now obscure naturalist and scientist. "Ascribe infallibility to the professor," Abbott wrote, "and you become at best his echo, and condemn to slavery what should be free as the air, your own mind." Abbott's remark applies more to college and graduate students than it does to children in elementary and high school. Yet his point matters. When you and I enable children to grow beyond us and shape thoughts different from our own, we have done well.

We should take short views of life and try to help children through the present. We are not shaping, as commencement speakers tediously phrase it, "the future of America." We are helping children. Do not look so far into the future that you lose the moment. To be sure, we frequently teach skills children will use, but more often than not we just help. At our best we broaden the possibilities of their lives. In "Tintern Abbey," the English poet William Wordsworth described what he called "that best portion of a good man's life / His little, nameless, unremembered acts / Of kindness and of love." Often what children will remember from your classroom are little decencies, things you forgot as soon as you did them, things you did out of love, not out of love for an individual but out of the love that blossoms from an appreciation of this great gift called life. "When I began first grade," a girl in one of my classes told me, "I was homesick. Every morning I had funny feelings and went to the nurse's office, and she called Mom." After the first week of school the principal talked to the girl's mother. He suggested the mother pack an affectionate note into her daughter's lunch box every day. "When I opened my lunch box and saw the notes, I was so happy," the girl said. The funny feelings vanished, but the notes and the principal's concern continued. Throughout the year when he saw her in the hall, the principal asked the girl if she had received a note that day. "I won't forget him," my student told me. "He was so kind, and that's important."

Influence

Sometimes, alas, your classroom will provide structure for children's lives, structures children do not have at home, if they have homes. In general, however, our influence is more limited or is limited to lessons we often do not know we are teaching. Occasionally, though, I delude myself into thinking that I am Delphic or, as sloganeers put it, I am making a difference. Happily classrooms provide antidotes to delusions of influence.

Two years ago I taught the short story to a small class. Enrolled in the course were two members of the girls' basketball team, one of the girls the best player in the nation. When the team won the national championship, I told friends that my inspirational teaching had so influenced the girls that, as athletic cognoscenti phrase it, they raised their game to a new level. If the girls had not taken my course, the team would have lost more games than it won, or so I said until the final examination. At the examination students wrote their names and the names of their teachers on the fronts of blue books. The best player in the nation knew her name. Alas, she thought me Mr. Peckerington. "Perhaps," Vicki said at dinner, "your teaching did not determine the outcome of the game against Tennessee." "Maybe, maybe not," I said. "Influence is difficult to determine." You will, of course, have many names. Relish escaping mundane identity and enjoy being someone else. Mrs. Underwood will be Mrs. Underwear. Every year I teach a course on American nature writers. One day when I walked into class, I noticed the notebook of my best student. Scrawled across the top of the notebook was "Nature Writing-Mr. Pickmenose."

Even when the going seems good to you, it may not strike students that way. This past fall I taught a course in the personal essay. I thought the first day of class went wonderfully. I knew I had performed stunningly. "How was it?" Vicki said that night. "Luminous," I said. "I was a beacon of light." The next day I went to the university bookstore and chatted with my friend Suzy. "One of your students wandered into my office yesterday," she said. The boy was lost and did not know where to find books for his course. "I'm looking for a book called The Art of the Personal Essay," he said. "What's the name of the course?" Suzy asked. "I don't know," the boy said. "What's the teacher's name?" Suzy then asked. "Pick-something," the boy said. "Pickering?" Suzy asked. "Yes, that's the name," the boy said. "Oh, you are lucky," Suzy said. "He is a fine teacher and the class will be super." "I dunno," the boy replied. "I didn't understand a single word he said today."

Instead of disappointing, such stories free me from the anxiety of influence. Society is addicted to tracking influence, so much so that we have all come to believe in it without thinking, no matter our experiences to the contrary. Sometimes when I can't think clearly and imagination half creates the world about me, I assume my essays influence people. About the time I begin to imagine myself a maker and shaker, perhaps even Emersonian in wisdom, a reader rescues me. "So that you will know what is on the minds of your readers, I am enclosing a slip of paper I found in one of your books in the Gainesville Library," a man wrote from Florida. Three inches wide and five inches tall, the paper was pink. Written neatly in pencil atop one side was "take chicken out of freezer."

After the appearance of Dead Poets Society, people associated me with John Keating, the teacher in the film, this despite my pointing out that characters in films and books were fictions. Repeatedly I explained that Keating was the creation of Tom Schulman, who wrote the screenplay, and not my creation, and whatever part of me that appeared in Keating was small. People hunting sources always bag game. Escaping identity with Keating was impossible. I received scores of letters. Because Keating was a nice guy, most letters were pleasant. A few, however, were salutary and kept me from forgetting my place beside the blackboard. From Canada "The Poorest-Humblest-Divine Magistrate King of All Mankind," or as he also called himself, "The Supreme Ruler of the Sacred Planet Earth," sent a four-page photocopied letter. "O You Intellectually and Morally Dishonest Thug of Humanity," the Ruler began mildly before working himself into the spirit of criticism and accusing me of being a degenerated, dehumanized product of "alcoholics, prostitutes, whores, homosexuals, lesbians, satans, sinners, and power-hungry criminals." Eventually the Ruler demanded that I hand over all my worldly goods to him to be distributed "amongst the poorest of this Sacred Planet Spaceship Earth."

In part teaching is performance-not a performance, however, to be applauded. Applause is addictive. Because applause diverts attention from learning, it corrupts. Because teachers strut and fret the boards in front of class, celebrity can attract them. My moment before the public exhausted and sometimes frightened me. From Norfolk, a man wrote saying I was his "mentor." "I was on the docks," he recounted, "reading Walt Whitman's poetry, and rain started to fall. It was a sign that I was destined to be a great poet. Soon I will come to Connecticut to sit at your feet." "I respond by return mail," I wrote in reply, "because unfortunately my feet will soon be out of Connecticut. By the time you receive this letter I will be in England. I am writing a book and must remain there for at least two years in order to do research." In conclusion I stated, "Your real mentor cannot be me or any stranger. Instead your mentor should be your imagination. Coupled with hard work, imagination brings success."

Despite daily public performances, teachers, like everyone else, live much of their lives in private.

Continues...


Excerpted from Letters to a Teacher by Sam Pickering Copyright © 2004 by Sam Pickering. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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  • Posted March 4, 2012

    Phenomenal Read! Great for anyone with an interest in teaching.

    Letters to a teacher is an insightful collection of letters addressed to teachers in general written by Sam Pickering. They tell the stories not only of experiences that he had in the classroom while teaching, but also what he learned as a teacher throughout his years not only teaching in a high school, but as a college professor as well. It was a well thought out collaboration of writing, and truly got the message across that as a teacher you have the ability to change a student’s life. It may not happen with every student, especially because some may not have an interest in your class, but there are some out there who are changed by the words of a teacher. I chose to read this book to go along with an Ethnography project in English class. I am researching teachers that educate in a specialized field, and why they chose that career path rather than work in their specialized field. This book assisted with my project because it gave me insight as to what being a teacher is really like. It allowed me to experience the joys of being a teacher and see what you can really get out of it. If anyone has had thoughts about being a teacher but needs some reassurance, this book would definitely be a good choice. It will fill you in on all the perks of being a teacher, but also be honest with you about how your experience will not be all fun and games. It gave me the chance to experience the joys and the sorrows of the education system first hand, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in education!

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