Editor’s Note: A Literacy Design Collaborative Lead & Learn Fellow, Christina Kostaras teaches middle school English Language Learners how to communicate and problem solve like mathematicians and scientists. She works at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School in Boston, Massachusetts.
Last week at the SREB Conference in Atlanta, Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC) Lead & Learn Fellows Lisa Hollenbach (@lisa_hollenbach) & Sheila Banks (@ehretbanks) hooked me into their break-out session when they did a quick Google News search of the word “Teacher” and a whole slew of negative images and headlines appeared on the screen.
My entire body ached as I read them. I questioned, How did we get to this point? In lieu of placing blame, Lisa and Sheila provided us with an antidote to combat the media contagion affecting teachers: use tools such as blogs and social media to start controlling the conversation.
I began thinking about another communication medium we should begin to control: in-person conversations.
The conversation described below happened to take place on an airplane, but it could have happened any place that lends itself to small talk with strangers – a friend’s party or at the park with my niece and nephew.
Gentleman on airplane: (smiling and engaged) “Wow – you’re a teacher! I don’t know how you folks do it…. So, what do you teach?”
Me: (somewhat unsure of my response) “Well, I teach Math & Science but I teach it to students who are English Language Learners who have recently arrived in the last year or two, so really I teach them how to read and write in English while at the same time making sure they can solve complex math and science problems. Oh yeah and also some of my students have learning disabilities so I have to make sure all of the reading, writing, math, and science is accessible to them so they can learn, too!
Gentleman on airplane: (with a look of sheer bewilderment on his face) Wow! Yeah, like I said, I don’t know how you folks do it – thank goodness for the summer though, right!? I’d kill for 8 weeks off!
Me: (slightly perturbed from hearing the summer comment yet again, but smiling) Yeah, summer is nice.
After sharing that I’m a teacher, the following question from my conversation partner is generally: “So, what do you teach?”
This is the point in the conversation at which I can start professing our greatness. I’ve found that when non-teachers ask, “What do you teach?”, they are usually anticipating a quick, one or two-word answer. They are quite unprepared for my 30-second-word-vomit-schpiel of me trying desperately to explain my position, officially “Bilingual ESL Math & Science Teacher”.
The conversation about my work usually ends there. And what I’m realizing now is this conversation is all wrong as in the past, I’ve made no profession of greatness. From now on, I plan to use these conversations with friends-of-friends and strangers to talk about how awesome my work is.
It all starts with our answer to the question, “So, what do you teach?” The answer to this question cannot be simplified by one word. One word cannot express the demand that all teachers must be reading & writing teachers within their content area. It also cannot be verbal finger-painting of the exact picture that already exists in the media: overwhelmed teachers complaining about all the work they are charged with doing.
So as I sit here and think about how I should respond, I think about my intended audience, word choice, and modality. I know that in order to be prepared for these conversations, I must first write it down. Think it out. I realize the response should be a perfect blend of all the writing styles the Common Core standards ask of our children: narrative mixed with expository and a dash of persuasion may be just the recipe for a new-and-improved conversation.
Here is a script I created to guide me through future conversations with non-teachers:
Woman at friend’s wedding: Wow! You’re a teacher, that’s great. My mom was a teacher, so I know what hard work it is. So, what do you teach?
Me: I teach middle-school aged immigrants how to effectively communicate as mathematicians and scientists, both orally and in writing. I also teach them how to inquire and think critically about the world around them and their role as individuals in it.
Woman at friend’s wedding: So interesting! Hmm, I’ve never really heard anyone put it like that. Oh boy, middle school, that’s rough – but it’s so nice that you get all that vacation, especially summer!
Me: Yeah! Summers are great because I get to spend them taking courses, researching, and collaborating with my colleagues so that we can elevate our work as teachers. We really take this time to make sure that we are prepared to have the best courses. We also take time to reflect on our behavior management systems and how we can improve and be the best versions of ourselves when we are in front of children. We do this because they deserve absolute greatness. Always.
Woman at friend’s wedding: That’s so nice to hear. I hope all teachers feel the same way you do!
Me: Trust me, they do!
It’s easy to answer the question about what you teach with one word and brush off comments about what we do with our time outside of school rather than educate others on the work of teachers. But know that when we do this, we do our profession a disservice. We must be more articulate about how truly incredible our work is. We must craft our responses to these questions. We must write them down in order to be prepared to respond in a thoughtful yet understandable manner. And the next time you are asked the question about what you teach, take it as an opportunity to profess your greatness.