A Stranger in a Strange Land – The Tales of a Job Shadow

Walking through the halls of my high school as a senior in college was initially a strange experience. It hasn’t even been four years since the day I threw my scarlet cap into the air to signify the end of adolescence, but it felt, as I passed through those familiar grey doors, like I’d been gone ages. Much was familiar: the cramped red lockers that adorned the drab hallways end to end, still making that satisfying thwack sound when slammed shut; the dimly-lit fluorescent bulbs that lined the ceilings, standing in for the warmth of natural light; the hustle and bustle of students frantically trying to make it to their classes before the bell sounded. Simply put, it had been far too long.

I was a stranger in a strange land however, and what seemed familiar at first quickly gave way to new sights that boggled my mind. The students seemed like mere kids (never mind that there are only a few scant years between them and yours truly) and they looked irresponsible, awkward even, and were far too loud to boot. As I made my way to Miss Stites classroom I convinced myself that I am nothing like them. “I am a grownup,” I told myself, “not much of one, sure, but I’m certainly on my way to becoming a functioning member of society.” It is under this mindset that I met with Miss Stites, who looked more or less the same as when I last saw her.

I forgot how short high school classes are. Freshmen students have eight classes in a day, forty-five minutes each. Sophomores, juniors and seniors have their eight required courses split into “A Days” and “B Days” – four ninety minutes classes that alternate every other day. On the Monday of my visit, she has one Freshman English course, and two block classes. I managed to stick around for all three and was amazed at how fast they moved. No extended lecture periods like in college, everyone was expected to hit the ground running. The day’s first lesson was Mark Twain and a passage from one of his autobiographical works Life on the Mississippi.

Miss Stites started the class off with some questions for her students. “Can someone tell me a fact about the life of Mark Twain?” she exclaimed, with more energy and pep than all of students put together. Slowly, her freshmen began to pull out their texts books to hunt for an answer that might satisfy her call. One of them – a skinny girl in a pink sweatshirt and black leggings – enthusiastically belted out “His name was Samuel Longhorn Clemens!” I smiled; Stites corrected her. “Samuel Langhorne Clemens,” she replied. The class nods in agreement. Many of the students take a while to warm up raising their hands, no doubt from the lack of sleep from the night before. I think every student managed to bring their enthusiasm for learning into the classroom; they just needed an angle, to get involved in the discussion.

Next class: creative writing. The students are tasked with writing a short story that begins and ends with a line from a famous work of literature. I walk around the room, listening in on the hushed whispers of students huddled around tables. I hear one group of girls discussing what lines to use and hear a familiar bit of prose: “I am an invisible man”. I see students engage one another about their short story, but they seemed to be having a good amount of fun doing so. “Make it fun and engaging, than they won’t even realize they’re learning something” pops into my head.

I ask Miss Stites later if she tweaks her material when a new semester arrives, as a way of adapting to the strengths and weakness of her students, or if she tries to adhere to a tired and true lesson plan. Without speaking, she walked behind her desk and wheeled out a cart of binders, organized alphabetically into rows. I counted at least a dozen or so binders, and each one had a different label along its binding, such as “Speech”, “Shakespeare”, “Public Speaking” or “ENG 2”. The nice thing about high school teaching, I learned, is that you always have a bounty of resources from which to craft different lesson plans. She then explained to me that communication among teachers in the English department was key and that they often discussed what was working (and not working) with their respective classes.

She gave me a bright orange binder to examine during downtime between classes. It was thick with sheets and I was surprised to learn that it just covered just the Iowa Common Core standards for Literacy. The standards, as she described them, seemed almost like Holy Scripture. Every lesson plan must see that certain areas of student developmental growth are being addressed. Miss Stites showed me a Unit lesson plan on “The Dangers of Censorship” and points out that there are eight standards that must be met. I find it interesting that many of the standards are things that I had been doing consistently throughout my four years of college. Students, for example, are expected to “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media formats” and “Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources [while assessing] the credibility and accuracy of each source.”

The standards seem restrictive at first with intimidating wording such as “CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.8”. On paper, become an English teacher might seem like a daunting task because of the amount of planning that must occur for a lesson plan to be informative while meeting the standards set forth by the state. What I appreciate most about the idea of teaching is that, beyond adhering to the necessary framework of requirements from the school district and state, there is a great deal of flexibility allowed.

Something that always bothered me in high school was how material that I genuinely liked could become stale after only a couple of class periods. I saw that a straightforward lecture and discussion format can work well in helping students to grasp material they are unfamiliar with. However, continuing to use such a format after the material has been introduced can lead to disinterest among students. I noticed this occurring with Miss Stite’s second block class. The students, especially the boys, found it difficult at certain points to concentrate on the Mark Twain lecture and I saw many of them texting from behind their books or clicking over to Facebook on their laptops.

Looking back at that day, I recognize a challenge with public school teaching that was oblivious to me in my days as high school student. In college, it is generally accepted that most, if not all, students are enthusiastic about their course work. That is not to say that burnout never occurs, as it does, or to say that every class a college student takes will always be fascinating. In high school, the problem seems to be tenfold what it is at the university level. After asking Miss Stites her opinion on the matter, it seems the million dollar question is: How can I make my class interesting and relevant to the lives of students, when each person has widely different goals in mind for life after high school?

In hindsight, my mode of thinking sounds cheesy, but I think helped – think like a student. I initially went in feeling that I had nothing in common with the students, but as I recalled what it was like to be in their shoes, I remembered the difficulties that they face in balancing course work with extracurricular activities, working for the first time, and dealing with relationships. To say that that they have a lot on their plate is an understatement. Twentysomethings have it rough, but I cut my teeth with a lot of these issues in high school. The ability to make literature relate to the daily lives of students (regardless of what career they end up in), as well as being a resource for them is an appealing career option. My opinion of teaching did not change much after my job shadow experience, as the opportunity to visit with my former English teacher only bolstered my feelings about becoming one myself.

Jameson Shank

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