Teaching Again: A Professor's Tale of Returning to a Ninth Grade Classroom
reviewed by Chea Parton - January 17, 2014
Title: Teaching Again: A Professor's Tale of Returning to a Ninth Grade Classroom
Author(s): Thomas S. Poetter
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1617358711, Pages: 104, Year: 2012
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In the foreword to Thomas S. Poetters book, Laurel K. Chehayl asserts that it exposes the very human core of the teaching experience it is about the heart and soul of the vocation that is teaching . . . it is about every individual who has ever tried to educate (p. viii). To some degree, I agree with her, but used in the proper venues, I think it can be quite a bit more than that. Poetter adeptly and, at times, painfully illustrates the humanity and vulnerability of teaching as well as the fracture inherent in the relationship between teachers and students and the major issues that arise from it in the classroom. His successes and failures provide preservice and current teachers with a space to interrogate their own practices and reflect upon how they would have handled similar situations.
The book is Poetters recollection of his experiences in one ninth grade English classroom for the spring semester. In order to better prepare his preservice teachers in his university position, Poetter enters the high school classroom again by relieving a fellow English teacher of an extra class he had been carrying. Despite his expert knowledge in teaching practice, Poetter was as anxious as a student teacher and even attempts to wriggle his way out of the commitment he made. He writes that his experience did indeed feel like his student teaching experience that he completed some 20 years before, uncertainty, disquietude, and doubt reigned (p. xiii). Because teacher educators and preservice teachers inhabit a liminal space in which one has left the high school classroom and the other has not yet entered it, his desire to bridge that gap with this experience is important and a valid concern for the teaching professionone that other teacher educators would do well to consider.
Though Poetter calls his work a fictional rendering of a true story, (p. xi) any teacher who has ever worked with young people in any capacity can recognize the truth of it in their own experiences. Bursting with descriptions of successful and less than successful lessons, Poetters work reveals the imperfections, flexibility, and reflection that are characteristic to the job. He exposes his process, his thoughts in preparation as well as after the delivery, his agony over failed lessons, and his struggle to determine whether or not he was a real (here, I also read good) teacher. In his struggle, readers can see the complicated and complex process of teacher identity formation and the difficulty of determining who defines what it means to be a real or good teacher. A few times throughout the book, Poetter addresses the role of standardized testing, but surprisingly (and pleasantly) refuses to dwell on how it contributes to his value as an educator.
At one point, he is told by a fellow faculty member at the high school that he is not a real teacher. Initially he is stung by this, but after a review of the facts (i.e., he only teaches one class, he is only teaching for a single semester, he has been out of the high school classroom for quite a while) he agrees with her. Again, this interaction creates space for discourse concerning what real teaching is, what good teaching is, and what they should look like. Furthermore, it alerts us to the various fractures within the teaching community. Academics, practitioners, STEM teachers, humanities teachers, etc. are all very protective and proud of their fields which inevitably cause arguments, turf wars, and broken solidarity among those of us in various niches of the profession. Recognizing and reflecting upon these rifts and the notion of real teaching, as Poetter does, is crucial for future and current practicing teachers in all areas of the field that we might build bridges with one another, improving and strengthening our solidarity and the way we present ourselves to the non-teaching world.
Another problematic area of teaching Poetter addresses in the text is the relationship between students and teachers and the ways in which those relationships affect what happens inside the classroom. In his interactions with students, he makes mistakes, and falls into the familiar trap of separating teacher from student. After failure and exasperation, he attempts instead to learn from his students and adopt their perspective. This is an important maneuver for any educator to learn to master, but, as Poetter demonstrates, a difficult one. It involves compromise and often that compromise comes at a price. Poetter spends a fair amount of time reflecting on a time he made a bargain with students to encourage them which resulted in weaker classroom management and inefficiency. He compromised his authority, and to some degree his ego, and in the end felt that it did not bring the payoff desired. Successful and unsuccessful compromises with students are often the result of the relationship between teacher and students, which is important information for anyone wanting to educate students.
Navigating and negotiating relationships with students, with teachers, and with our own content area standards can be difficult and exhausting. Weighing what we think we know about our students and each other against what we do not know and using that information, or misinformation, to guide our lessons, our identity, and our professional opinions of others shape who we are and how we function as teachers. Saying it is not an easy task is a severe understatement as Poetters text illustrates, but telling our stories, sharing our experiences, and interrogating our practices as he does, opens up space of for discussion and improvement.
Teaching Again displays the process of teaching (i.e., planning, delivering, reflecting) and the humanity of teaching wonderfully and would be a brilliant addition to any preservice teaching experience. The text is rich with lessons and classroom management decisions that would foster excellent discussions about decision making and flexibility in the classroom, regardless of content area. Poetters experience also offers a space to discuss success and failure in the classroom and how teachers handle both as well as how those successes and failures contribute to the definition of good and bad teaching. Despite the fact that he does not define himself as a real teacher, Poetters experiences are real, and discussing his experiences would be helpful for current teachers, future teachers, and even students who continue to grapple with what it means to be a teacher, what it means to be a student, and what we can do to develop productive and educational relationships with one another.