When I think back to the three years I taught high school English at the Mechanicsburg Area Senior High School (1970-1973), in between completing my master’s degree and giving birth to my first child, I mostly remember how ill-suited I generally felt to a teaching career. I’ve written before about how I went into teaching somewhat by default (amazingly, by far my most popular post of all time!), and how I didn’t feel like there were many viable options open to me at the time. I don’t usually look back on my time as a high school English teacher with a great deal of confidence that I was a good teacher and had a lasting positive impact on my students.
So it was a bit of surprise to hear from a former student by way of Facebook. She and her classmates are planning their 45th class reunion this year and as part of their celebration are collecting interviews with former teachers. She invited me to participate, and when I agreed, she sent me a list of questions that formed the basis for the interview. I met her and another classmate at the Mechanicsburg Area School District Archives (yes, there actually is such a place!), where we chatted about the old days and they video-taped my reflections on teaching.
The questions helped me remember details I thought I had long ago forgotten. Here’s a sampling of questions they asked and the memories I shared in the interview:
What do you remember about the class of 1973? Are there any particular people who stand out, good or bad? Over the course of three years of teaching, I had 15 different classes (five each year). All except one were 11th grade English, and in those days of separation into academic “tracks,” all but one were second-level college prep and “general.” The other was a top-level college prep class of 10th graders, during my first year. Class of 1973 students were in that 10th grade class and the five 11th grade classes during my second year.
I don’t remember many specific students (although perusing the yearbook helped jog my memory). I had previously known one student in the 10th grade class because she and her family went to the Grantham Church (her parents were friends of my parents, and she was distantly related to me). She sat in the front row in the middle (in my memory, at least), and she always participated enthusiastically in class discussion. Her smiles every day in class were always positive reinforcements when I needed them badly. Another student in the same class sat just a couple rows behind her. He was a little unconventional but very bright and an excellent writer – so good, in fact, that I allowed him leeway with traditional rules of grammar because the result was creative and effective communication.
I remember another student in one of the “general” classes for the opposite reason. In hindsight, I’m pretty sure she had some kind of learning disability, perhaps dyslexia, but of course, I knew next to nothing about such things at the time and obviously had no training to know how to help her. I found her absolute inability to spell and make any sense in her writing very frustrating. I don’t remember being unkind to her, but I regret that I couldn’t do anything that would help her. I’ve often wondered what happened to her, and wished I knew then what I know now about learning disabilities.
Did you have any mentors to guide you through your first year of teaching? This question was easy to answer. The chair of the English Department was Jacob Kuhns, a small but mighty man. He had been my 11th grade English teacher when I was in the same high school, and he and his family also went to the Grantham Church. He assigned himself as my “master teacher” during that first year and was always available to offer support and advice when I asked.
Are there any embarrassing moments that you’d be willing to share? Yes, there is at least one that I remember vividly, but no, I’m still not willing to share it publicly!
What innovations or strategies did you use to make your English classes interesting? I sometimes used contemporary popular music to illustrate poetry – Simon and Garfunkel, for example. The student who contacted me recently says she remembers that I invited students to bring in their own records (and yes, they would have been vinyl records!) to illustrate particular rhythms in poetry. When I was teaching The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn one year, I assigned group projects that were intended to get students more actively involved in the story. One group decided to build a raft, and took me to a parking lot after school to show me their project so I could evaluate it for a grade. I’m not sure whether the project really taught them all that much about the novel (and it certainly wouldn’t have taught them anything they needed to know for today’s state tests), but at least they were enjoying English class! It was the 70s, after all.
What made a good day at school? And what was the hardest thing about teaching? A good day was when I felt like I had connected with students, when they genuinely seemed interested in what we were doing in class, and when I didn’t have to stop teaching every few minutes to reprimand someone for misbehaving. The hardest thing about teaching was keeping order in the classroom. I was simply not a good disciplinarian, and I often felt out of control of the classroom. Some students took advantage of me, while I know others wished for better order and would have been interested in learning if the classroom atmosphere had been more conducive.
I was so young – only 22 years old when I started. During those three years, I became engaged to Dale, we married about a week after the first school year ended, and when I resigned at the end of the 1972-1973 school year, I was pregnant with Dana. I don’t regret ending my teaching career after three years and, in the midst of raising my two children, beginning to forge a different career for which I was much better suited temperamentally.
Reflecting on those three years of teaching, I usually remember mostly the “nightmare” aspect and all those Rolaids I chewed to calm my nerves. With generally negative feelings about my short-lived teaching career, therefore, it was life-affirming to be reminded that it wasn’t all bad, I actually do have some good memories, and I am remembered fondly by at least some of my former students. I’m grateful to Laurie and Pat, the two class of 1973 members who interviewed me, for giving me that gift!