Philosophy of Education

Philosophy of Education / Steve Meadows

 

“Gladly would he learn, and gladly teach.”                    

                                                     The Clerk’s Tale, Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

 

 

            When I was a senior in high school, I remember reading this tale for homework and writing this quotation in a notebook.  It captured neatly what I thought about teaching – a simple statement about acquiring and sharing knowledge, written with parallel construction (though a bit unbalanced).  I had already decided to be an English teacher, and I still think about this quotation and try to live by its demands for work and study.  Over the years, I’ve evolved from “plain old English teacher” into a teacher of English, speech, drama, and journalism plus a speech team coach, play director, and adviser to a student newspaper.  I’ve sought out training whenever I could get it (and I have the file cabinets and tote bags to prove it!).  While I still have a lot to learn, I have done so gladly.  I praise my job as I never have to teach the same lesson twice in one day, and I never get bored.   I love that while my college major in English is always at the heart of what I do, I get to spend different hours of the same day lecturing about Emily Dickinson, playing the ghost of Hamlet’s father, helping a layout editor come up with a snappy headline, coaching speakers how to use eye contact effectively, and grading student writing that I’ve seen grow from scattered and sketchy to organized and original.  My teaching certificate is for secondary language arts, and I believe in the arts part of the terminology as fiercely as I do the language.  I am grateful and happy to be a working artist, wallowing in worlds of words.

            I think this love for learning is a strength in my teaching.  If you walk in my room, you’re surrounded by words – tubs of playscripts, shelves of books, quotations on the chalkboard, stacks of newspaper.  It’s obvious that a language teacher lurks nearby.  My classroom is my second home, my castle, and I am a fierce protector of my class time (woe be unto the innocent yearbook photographer who wants to nab a student for a quick photo during the middle of our discussion of Heart of Darkness).  

            Even more important to me than words, though, are my students themselves.  I tell students who ponder a possible career in academia that the big difference between college professors and high school teachers is which you are more passionate about – students or subject.  If you lean toward kids, then high school is where you need to be.  When I graduated from college, I planned to take a short detour in high school teaching before pursuing a Ph.D. and being a professor.  Many years later, my place of business is still a high school, and it’s because of the unique opportunity I have as a high school teacher – not that college teachers don’t do great work or that high school teachers aren’t scholars, but like Chaucer’s quotation, though the jobs are very parallel, they’re each a little unbalanced, with different emphases on scholarship and personal growth. 

            High school kids are amazing.  They enter as freshmen who are like hamsters on those little wheels – spinning wildly because they have no idea how to move forward (and because they have a LOT of energy).  As high school teachers, we teach them how to get off the wheel and walk.  We are their last stop on the road to adulthood, so our job is to help them become self-sufficient, to move forward on their own.   But walking isn’t always enough.  Knowledge only matters if you have the courage to use it.  One of my favorite singers, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, wrote a great song with a chorus that goes like this:

            Why take when you can be giving?  Why watch as the world goes by?

            It’s a hard enough life to be living.  Why walk when you can fly?

I gladly teach because I get to help kids fly.

            America’s number one fear is public speaking (number two is death).  If you want to know what core content is, know this:  most kids are scared down to their very cores that the world may not accept them.  Sadly, many kids have learned these untrue lessons in their life experiences before they enter my classroom.   They don’t think they’re very important, or even if they do, they have no idea how to express themselves effectively.  I get to teach them how to do that.  I get to introduce them to some of the greatest poems, the greatest ideas, the greatest stories, that anyone has ever written, and I also get to show them how to tell their own stories out loud and on paper.  I push them to think for themselves by pushing them to tell me who they are and what they know via clear communication.  It’s most obvious in the shy kid who quivers in front of speech class the first day of school but who gives no thought to stage fright while performing her final speech in May.   I see it in English, too.  My seniors can talk to you like Oxford scholars, but if I do my best work as a teacher, they can also relate the stories they’re dissecting to their own lives and fears and hopes.  The last novel we read together, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, is the most difficult text we study.  It’s also the one with the theme about learning from the past and moving on to the future.  The kids use it to come to terms with the ends of their high school careers as well as to prepare for the Advanced Placement exam.  If I do my job right, if I teach them to think and communicate and be their best selves, they don’t just walk across the stage at graduation.  They fly.

If you look around my classroom, in addition to the books and papers and plays, you’ll find lots of Yodas.  Yoda, the green Jedi Master from the Star Wars movies, is my mascot.  I bought one poster with him on it years ago; over the years my students and their parents have filled my shelves and walls with figurines and postcards and even a Pez dispenser of the little guy.  He’s a wise old teacher, he speaks in really interesting word patterns, and he’s demanding – what’s not to love?  In his first movie, Yoda makes his student, Luke Skywalker, run through a swamp and rides along on Luke’s back, shouting instructions and never letting him do less than his best work.  My teaching style?  Like that – on the kids’ backs and pushing them to do their best.  I’m sure I get heavy sometimes.  But to me, the fate of the galaxy depends on them doing their best work – I want them to fly after all – so I don’t apologize for it.  I do a better job as a teacher because I’m strict.  (One kid told me recently I was “old school.”  I grinned.)  I show my kids I care by demanding their best and by giving them mine.  To see my rewards from teaching, I just look up in the sky.  They go amazing places.

Teachers have a calling to get kids into the air armed (winged?) with knowledge and experience and confidence.  My job is to teach them how to say anything they want to effectively and to believe they have words worth saying.  I’m glad for the chance.