The year is 1956. As the tires on the family's ancient GMC pickup bang out a rhythm on the dirt road to his northeast Missouri farm, fifteen-year-old John Henderson surprises his father by telling him he wants to be a teacher-a decision that eventually leads him from a small farming community in Missouri to Arizona, where he begins his life's calling.
Through an engaging format of attachments and emails, Henderson traces the evolution of his thirty-eight-year teaching career from its beginnings at Arizona State University as a graduate teaching assistant. Henderson chronicles his journey from an elite private boarding school in Scottsdale, Arizona, to a small religious-based college-and concludes with his thirty-four year stint with the Maricopa Community College District in Phoenix.
By observing the joys, turmoil, agonies, and even the mundane day-to-day moments of a teacher, Henderson offers a personal yet practical sociological exploration of classroom culture that provides both contemporary students and novice educators with a real-life glimpse into the challenging and rewarding world of classroom teaching.
"... Essential reading for prospective teachers."
-Eugene Munger, author of Momma, Don't Ya Want Me to Learn Nothin'?
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ATTACHMENTSTo Those Who Can
By John R. Henderson
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 John R. Henderson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAttachment #1
Thinking about the Legacy of a Life in the Classroom
"The difference between a beginning teacher and an experienced one is that the beginning teacher asks, 'How am I doing?' and the experienced teacher asks, 'How are the children doing?' Everything they become, I also become. And everything about me, they helped to create."
Esmé Raji Codell, Educating Esmé (1999)
Several years ago, at the beginning of a long-forgotten semester, I wrote an introductory statement to my Survey of Education students:
I suspect we are at a crossroads. You are students, apparently thinking about the possibility of someday shifting roles and becoming professional teachers. I am a teacher, nearing retirement and just now beginning to fully appreciate the value of the learning experience. In both instances, we may at times forget that we are both teachers and learners throughout our lives, no matter what our chosen profession might be. At the same time, choosing teaching as a career is quite another matter, a choice that requires a bit of idealism at the outset and a lot of craziness to remain committed throughout one's occupational life. Currently, I have two primary concerns about professional teaching and teachers in the American school system. One involves the motivations and competency levels of people who select teaching as a career. I have a nagging fear that many of the finest students in America do not see teaching as a highly significant and desirable line of work. Second, I am concerned about how teachers perceive their role within the entire education system, symbolized by the oft-heard comment, "I am just a teacher." Another example of this perception is the way-too-common view that a more worthy life goal is to move "up" the education success ladder from the position of teacher to that of school administrator. Of course, I recognize that salary structures help perpetuate this image of promotion and downgrade the status of the teacher in America. Of one thing I am certain: schools, teachers, and the public perception of the teaching role constantly require scrutiny and intentional change. In particular, teachers and the general public must look upon teaching with the pride and, indeed, the reverence that the profession deserves if we ever hope to advance the literacy of our population significantly. More of our finest students must select teaching as a career if the standards of educating and learning are to improve. How can such changes occur? This course is dedicated to the exploration of the possibilities, probabilities, and the "how" of educational reform as it directly affects students in the classroom. My two-fold goal for all of you, whether or not you ultimately select teaching as a career, is: First, to leave this course as educational leaders. Second, to recognize that teachers no longer can be effective participants in a system that simply repeats itself year after year, generation after generation, without significant self-evaluation. What is needed are people who are prepared and willing to go into schools, not just to teach but to enhance the art of teaching, reform the schools, and thereby vitalize the process of learning. To do so we must all become, and continue to be, students of the teaching and learning experience. Most important, I believe that to enjoy teaching and become an effective teacher, one must enjoy learning. Liking children (students) may be necessary, but it is not a sufficient reason to go into teaching as a career. Loving the content one teaches is equally valuable.
* * *
Subject: Attachment #1
Now that you've read this first attachment, which sentences stood out? Which ones do you remember? Did you highlight or underline any phrases? Were there any statements or ideas suggested that made you wince? What meaning did you attach to each phrase? In general, what did you learn from what you just read?
While you are pondering these questions, I will summarize my thoughts about what I hope you learned.
1. Some of the sharpest young people in this country, perhaps people like you, are not seriously considering teaching as a career; our future as a society will depend on our ability to change that attitude.
2. It is important to ignore others (even your parents!) who suggest that you should only consider other kinds of careers in the business world and ignore the possibility of spending your life in a classroom, teaching people just like you.
3. Learning throughout your life is the most important activity in which you can ever engage yourself, regardless of your career orientation.
To help you understand how and why I became a teacher, and why I want you to keep the teaching option open, I am going to send you some more attachments and e-mails.
But first, one more question: when you were a kid, did you ever catch a fish?
A simple question, and right now many of you probably are saying to yourselves: "Stupid question. Sure, I caught fish, and it was great fun, watching the bobber dip below the water's surface, feeling the tug on the line, the wiggling and squirming around at the end of the hook, and then the joy when I reeled it in-the pride when I examined my catch."
If that's your answer, I must correct you (an occupational hazard in the world of teaching). No one ever truly "catches" a fish unless he hooks it by accident. All a person can do is throw out the lure and try to entice the fish to hook itself. The fish is always involved in getting itself caught, whether it wants to or not.
As William Ayers noted in his book To Teach (1993), when kids learned to walk, to talk, to swim, to ride bicycles, all parents did was to provide the environment (the opportunity) for them to learn those things. "[I]t was their choice, their action, and their courage that resulted in the thing learned." The work of teaching means that teachers must do the same with their students. And, ultimately, students must become actively engaged in hooking themselves on learning.
Are you hooked? Please keep reading, and I'll keep sending out the lures.
Regards, Prof Henderson
Chapter TwoAttachment #2
Remembering the Beginnings
"What is good teaching? There is, of course, no single answer. There are at least a thousand-who knows how many more-ways of teaching well. We do know, however, when we are in the presence of good teaching. We feel its energy in the classroom: We see students alert, involved; we see a teacher who is demanding, compassionate, funny, original. We know, watching, that something special is happening. The students know it, too."
Daniel A. Lindley, This Rough Magic (1993).
On Monday, the first day of a new semester, I asked my Survey of Education students to write a paper in which they would (1) identify a memorable teacher from their past, (2) describe a memorable teaching "moment" with that person, and then (3) discuss what they learned from the moment. They also had to provide their perceptions of the pros and cons of becoming a teacher.
Today, Wednesday, I will ask them to talk about the memorable people they identified in their papers and the characteristics that made those teachers memorable. Planning this exercise takes me back to the 1950s and my own early teacher-mentors. I start by asking myself the same questions I'll ask my students.
* * *
My most memorable teacher was Ethel Stevens. I can still see her shuffling around the geometry classroom with that goofy grin under her bowl-cut hairdo, pausing momentarily to rub some Mum deodorant cream on her armpits inside the sleeves of her flour-sack dress-all without even the slightest pause in her lecture on theorems and corollaries. On the surface, in dress, hairdo, and mannerisms, she is quite clearly from a rural area. In the 1950s, the town numbers about 1,800 citizens, probably including a few cows, horses, pigs, and buildings. My senior class has fifty-four students.
Yet something about Mrs. Stevens is different. Unlike most rural people I know, she is an academician. She teaches biology, chemistry, physics, and practically all the upper-level mathematics courses the school has to offer. When I first met her, her grin suggested she was on the margin of sanity. I suspect that even her own colleagues think she has an oar out of the water at times. Now I realize she simply enjoys her work. She is fascinated by mathematics and science. She appears to enjoy teaching and learning; at times, she seems to be completely lost in her own learning process. She barely tolerates the clerical duties assigned to her. Little do I realize she is becoming my occupational role model at a time when the concept has not yet become a cliché.
One day in class, while I am fantasizing about the girl in the chair next to mine, Mrs. Stevens happily (and with maybe a touch of self-righteous viciousness) announces the school's upcoming Parent Visitation Night, during which the geometry students will have to do some teaching. This gets my attention and deflates my hormonal urges. She explains that since there are only eight of us in the class, we each will teach a geometric concept to our parents during their hour-long visit to our classroom. My assignment is to teach them how to determine the circumference of a circle, knowledge they will no doubt treasure and use for the rest of their days.
Initially, I feel reasonably comfortable with the assignment. Since I am doing well grade-wise, teaching a subject on which I am making an A should be a piece of cake. I have heard the phrase "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." I can do geometry; therefore, teaching what I can do must be a relatively simple act.
However, as Parent Visitation Night draws closer, I realize there is considerably more involved in teaching a subject than knowing how to take a test on it. Issues of time-limitation, articulation, clarity, and "student" interest intrude on my thinking. I feel a bit panicky. I don't want to make a fool of myself in front of a group of parents, particularly my own.
Steadying influences come from both Mrs. Stevens and my mother. Mrs. Stevens reminds me that I will do well with the presentation as long as I truly understand the subject matter and don't simply rely on the memorization of geometric rules. My mother helps me structure the order of the subject components I will present. I am grateful for their help.
The evening arrives. I experience my five minutes of knee-knocking fame before a small roomful of parents-the Studers, Fishbacks, Hendersons, Bollings, Gosneys, et al. They applaud. Afterward, Mrs. Conway informs me that, after many years of taking math classes, my lesson represents the first time she really understands how the circumference of a circle is calculated. I do not think that she is lying, and I am not concerned with why anyone would care about circle circumferences. I am suitably and overly impressed with myself. I am also hooked on teaching. I liked the feeling of power as their eyes followed me around the classroom. The thought that they might also learn something doesn't occur to me. At this point, I'm just glad I survived the assignment.
* * *
Fifty-two years later, the experience still leads me to a number of conclusions. One is that a person will never learn more about a subject than when he has to teach that subject. In addition, to be an effective teacher, one must also like the subject matter and appreciate its potential effects on the lives of students and the society at large. (Again, simply liking students is never enough.) This is why I feel such admiration for the elementary teachers who haven't lost the essential spirit of teaching. They must enjoy so many subjects in order to pass on a love of learning to the children in their care.
Ethel Stevens clearly valued her work. She gave me the incentive and the opportunity to experience teaching. I liked it. I became intrigued by the person-to-person interplay in the classroom, compounding the mixture of knowledge and personalities-a possible precursor to my fascination with sociology. Even her occasional show of frustration, and the wrath that often accompanied it when we students didn't perform up to her standards, became a challenging motivation rather than a deterrent. She really wanted us to engage the subject and LEARN. Today, in 2010, she likely would be turned in to the principal for damaging our fragile psyches and self-esteem. She had the audacity to disturb our complacency.
* * *
As I continue my Survey of Education preparations, I am reminded of two other people who contributed to my desire to be a teacher: Goldie Burkhardt and Mrs. Ward.
Mrs. Burkhardt has red hair. (It is intriguing how students' primary interest in critiquing their teachers seems to focus on physical attributes, dress, and mannerisms.) She teaches American government at my high school. She alone seems to recognize that the few of us who are college bound are not receiving effective training in writing skills in our English classes.
She probably takes a huge risk with her teaching colleagues and administrators when she pulls some of us aside to tell us we likely will fail college English if we don't learn how to write. She then assigns us a weekly theme paper, one that has nothing to do with American government, on which she regularly bleeds pints of red ink (at least on mine). I cannot imagine the number of hours and wasted weekends she has to endure with our papers. Like Mrs. Stevens, she glares at us and growls in frustration at our ineptness with grammar, sentence, and paragraph structure. She disturbs our complacency.
Two years later, I pass my college English classes with C-minuses. (Remember, please, that this was in the 1960s when the writing standards may have been just a touch higher than today; one misspelled word or run-on sentence could result in a failing grade.) And although writing still does not come naturally to me, since I continue to struggle with the rules of grammar and punctuation, I work at it and love doing it, thanks primarily to Goldie Burkhardt. She taught me that writing about a subject may be another great way of learning about that subject. Indeed, teachers today might learn more about their subject matters and their profession if they pushed themselves to write about both. On the other hand, Mrs. Ward (I don't think she was ever given a first name) has a more unique influence on my decision to become a teacher. She is my second-year English literature professor in college. The student grapevine indicates she is known for picking out a student, usually male, and trashing him in class. Word is she experienced a messy divorce and now thrives on making hostility sponges out of her unsuspecting male students. Near the end of the term, she orders me to stand, points her finger at me, and announces to the class that "John Henderson will never be capable of loving anyone because he can't distinguish good poetry from bad poetry."
I learn a lot about the power of teachers that day. I learn I don't like feeling stupid. I discover the kind of teacher I do not want to become. I also learn that I'd better not try to teach poetry and, above all, to be wary of anything that rhymes!
* * *
Finally, after considerable class preparation and musing about my past teachers, it is time to teach my Survey of Education students. I walk from my office into the classroom and then turn and face them. Compared to our previous meeting, there is a heightened animation level in the room. Instead of thirty faces quietly staring straight ahead toward the chalkboard at the front of the room, the students are turned sideways in their seats, conversing with each other. Based on the bits and pieces I hear as I organize my notes at the podium, I surmise the conversations are mainly about the "memorable teacher" assignment.
Their eagerness energizes me, and I make a decision to change the room structure to keep their conversations active. I don't want to force them to focus on me behind a podium. I ask them to form their desks in a sort of messy circle. I join that circle and ask no one in particular to identify his or her most memorable teacher and to explain briefly what made each one special.
Excerpted from ATTACHMENTS by John R. Henderson Copyright © 2010 by John R. Henderson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. Thinking about the Legacy of a Life in the Classroom....................1
2. Remembering the Beginnings....................6
3. Transitions: The High School Years....................16
4. The College Years and a Career Decision....................27
5. Learning the Ropes in a Time of Change....................46
6. Rediscovering the Importance of Social Roles....................61
7. Students and the Reasons for Schooling....................78
8. Defining Educational Success....................95
9. Doing the Job....................110
10. Evaluating Teacher Merit....................127
11. Retirement and Reflections on the Odyssey....................141