Wit and Wisdom Needed in the Classroom: A Guide for Teachers
reviewed by Daniel Katz - December 07, 2006
Title: Wit and Wisdom Needed in the Classroom: A Guide for Teachers
Author(s): Geneva Fulgham
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 1578864356 , Pages: 182, Year: 2006
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In the preface of her book Wit and Wisdom Needed in the Classroom, Geneva Fulgham promises her readers, You are going to enjoy teaching. 174 pages later, a reader can be forgiven for thinking that she was kidding. It is not that her book fails to offer some salient wit and wisdom for teachers. Rather, it is that the book also offers a constant litany of complaint about the teaching situation, running down a very long laundry list of alleged offenses to teacher sensibilities. To be fair, readers are also warned of this in the preface, but it is hard to imagine finishing the book and feeling greatly encouraged in ones choice of profession.
A reviewer must give an author her due, and Ms. Fulgham is certainly a deft wordsmith. Wit and Wisdom Needed in the Classroom is an easy, often fun, read. Ms. Fulgham has a ready wit, and her humorous observations of some of the daily inanities of administrators and the perceived indignities heaped upon teachers will resonate with many of her readers. Ms. Fulghams self-professed soapbox rant about the need to teach students how to write quickly and elegantly in cursive so that they can write effectively in class will remind many of us of our own particular quirks. My own handwriting permits no sense of disgust at students poor cursive, but I found myself reminiscing about the first day I pondered how a perfectly serviceable verb such as to say had been replaced in daily speech with to go. A teaching career includes many moments like this.
Ms. Fulgham also has a point about the difficulties of what she calls the teaching situation. It would be foolish to deny that bureaucratic imperatives, often fairly silly ones, impede teachers professional independence. Similarly, it would be foolish to deny that a coarsening of manners has often left teachers confused about their role in the socialization of the next generation. Many teachers will read these pages and find Ms. Fulghams observations and advice both salient and affirming.
Unfortunately, to paraphrase Gioacchino Rossinis observation about Wagners operas, the book has good moments, but bad quarter-hours. Some of Ms. Fulghams most firmly offered wisdom obviously stems from her personal idiosyncrasies rather than from general teaching principles. On page 68, Fulgham definitively declares that [w]riting of any kind should never be sent home to be done. The rationale is that a teacher loses control of who does the writing and that students need to learn how to organize their work within specified time limits. She certainly has a valid point that cheating is a very real possibility and that most writing tasks in the professional world have to be done on deadline. However, as a former teacher of writing, I can make an equally compelling case that the time limits of even a series of class periods do not replicate real deadline writing, and that doing all writing in class takes too much time away from evaluation and editing of that writing. Further, independent writing is an essential goal of any composition program as both personal and professional writing are not done under a teachers auspices. Ms. Fulghams universal declaration is certainly heartfelt, but all teachers are not going to heed it.
Ms. Fulghams advice on lesson planning is similarly vexing. Her complaint that school districts often require all teachers to submit lesson plans using the same questionable format has validity. After all, a formal teaching plan should make sense to the teacher responsible for implementing it, first and foremost. However, Ms. Fulghams main advice to new teachers is to stop using district planning formats as soon as you feel you have the status to get away with it (p. 49). Notably absent in this discussion are any concrete ideas for how to develop a personal, responsible planning regimen.
In other sections, Ms. Fulghams perspective is not merely particular, but also disturbing and irresponsible. Lamenting the rise in drug use in her district, she wonders why reformed dopers are congratulated and feted as if they were some kinds of public benefactors instead of self-centered egoists who have finally (perhaps temporarily) quit driving their relatives crazy (p. 30). One could assemble a raft of research about the biological and sociological effects of addiction on habitual drug users, but Ms. Fulghams mind is obviously made up. Teachers looking for guidance about how actually to help their students with drug abuse problems will find nothing here, largely because Ms. Fulgham blames the ACLU and similar groups for fostering a litigious society. She directly proclaims, I didnt want to be sued for trying to prevent some selfish little pot-head from making dog meat out of his brain. I also knew the district couldnt and wouldnt back me in court (p. 32).
Such advice is irresponsible and implies the best way for teachers to deal with their mandatory reporter responsibilities is to blame society for making it difficult. In other sections, she observes that children are deceitful (p. 34), that 95% of parents nowadays lie for their kids on demand (p. 114), and that district administration does not, in my experience, do much to help the individual teacher (p. 143). While every observation does not rise to the level of vitriol aimed at drugs, the overall effect of the book is misanthropic.
Ultimately, Fulghams book reminds me most of a handful of the veteran teachers I met in my first full-time year of teaching high school English. Supremely well-intentioned, these teachers were long-time veterans at the school, and they certainly had a great deal of advice for newcomers. Within my first few weeks, I had learned how to use the copying machine, what forms to file when I called a parent, how to get my classroom repair requests to rise to the top of the pile, which of my colleagues were on the principals bad side, which were drunks, which students of mine were likely to cheat, and how to leave the school grounds before 4:00 without being noticed.
Although some of this advice was useful, some of it was idiosyncratic to the teacher offering it, and some of it was downright irresponsible and disrespectful of our colleagues and our students. Like most of the new teachers in the school, I listened to that which was useful, found some of my own idiosyncrasies, and tried my best to ignore the irresponsible. It strikes me as unlikely that teachers are currently so bereft of opinionated, if occasionally helpful colleagues that they must supplement their repertoire with Ms. Fulghams book.