Author Jo Scott-Coe, a former high school teacher, has written a compelling account of her teaching experience but that's not all. Those who read this book expecting to find wall-to-wall gossip about how horrible the kids of today are and sordid details about the private lives of teachers will find themselves brought up short by the level to which Scott-Coe delves.
She does not just address children with personality issues and their paralyzed parents, she takes the reader further into how the administration also does not want to dwell on dealing with the issue. She does not just talk about hurdles for teachers, she lets the reader in on the desire that drives one toward teaching, sometimes in spite of those hurdles.
I've known Jo for several years now, including "The Poetry Years" - the years she attended poetry classes and published chapbooks. She has made a very graceful transition to prose, although the discerning eye may still be able to detect a quiet rhythm between the lines.
"Teacher at Point Blank" is somewhat disturbing to read, but worth the effort. And useful to so many different groups of people.
Jo's website is at: http://joscottcoe.com/
The first inclination for readers who pick up this book may be to head straight for the "juicy" parts, i.e. the troublesome students. But I found myself greatly affected by the "Calling" chapter, because it explains how a desire forms for teaching (or anything, for that matter) - how it’s more of a visceral, organic, almost inherent pull. Did you include this information as an explanation? Kind of like, when someone reads the title, they would wonder why anyone would want to teach, so you felt it necessary to try to explain how that seed grows?
That's an interesting question, because when I was writing that essay I was trying to discover a literary way to talk about why I'd become a teacher and a writer. All work and all jobs have dignity and purpose, and I thought it was important to express that in a manner that might translate for anyone else who had thought about his/her own reasons for the changes or turns in their professional pathway.
Also in the "Calling" chapter, you explained “a person’s” childhood in this chapter. You also touched on how you were brought up with different forms of music. Can you share with me the way your upbringing/parents influenced your love of literature and the written word?
My upbringing was very conservative--from a religious, political, and social point of view--and I wouldn't have changed much about that because it taught me about boundaries and boundary breaking and how ideas (and ideologies) have practical consequences. I also learned a particular kind of attentiveness about people and how they express themselves. As a young Catholic kid and as an early music student, I learned to pay lots of attention to the sounds of musical notes and the sounds of voices, and from this I started thinking about how sometimes there was a conflict: an idea you might otherwise find appealing or logical might be expressed in a tone that undermined its appeal or credibility, and an appealing tone might also conceal the flaws or problems in a concept or idea.
In addition, because both my parents loved to read, because there always were books and newspapers and typewriters or computers all over the place, and because my parents participated in civic life outside the home, I started to understand that language was a place to be--not just a tool to use--and that learning and playing with words could make changes possible in my own awareness, in my circumstances, and (perhaps as a consequence) help someone else. Books and music were both a comfort as well as an intimidation to me, and I have spent much of my adult life thinking about how words and silences can create stress as well as safety. While I'm a stray Catholic now, I do believe that good writing can enact a kind of spiritual work of mercy, witnessing to experiences that people have been afraid to acknowledge or have felt unable to express.
After the “Calling” chapter (which discusses the subjective passion that inspires someone to teach effectively) is the “The Seven-Year Itch” chapter (which argues that Scantron tests are cold, overgeneralized vehicles that do not get to the root of what teaches students). I noticed the juxtaposition of these chapters and I appreciated it. Was this intentional?
Absolutely. "The Seven-Year Itch" also describes how people can become trapped in their calling if they have no means or outlet to express or explore their work and their experiences in a healthy way. A calling needs to retain its joy in order to avoid becoming a spiritual death sentence. We tend to expect teachers to be simply joyful or disgruntled, but there's a lot of reality in-between, and there's not a lot social space where teachers can speak to their real-time experiences or air their ambivalences in ways that would help them "refill" at the well.
My theory is that it takes the average teacher at least 30 minutes (and a cuppa tea, maybe a beer) to stop performing what people expect to hear when people ask about their jobs--if people ask. Since we rarely make it past that point, there are a lot of mystiques and fantasies that fester about what the job is really like and how teachers "should" feel about it. Teachers can even have this trouble when talking among themselves. I can feel it sometimes: people trying to "out-teacher" each other, even over a drink!
I got the impression that you don't supported a system that makes all of learning so standard, both in curriculum and exams. What ideas do you have about changing this? How specialized should a child’s education be?
It's nice to be asked. Experienced teachers rarely are invited to bring their insight to such questions in the U.S., and it's an embarrassment and a travesty. There's plenty of lipservice given to the idea of helping students become "lifelong learners." But top-down policy changes have set limits that attempt to measure whether or not a person's life can have value or hope--did they get such and so score? did they get a diploma? did they graduate from such and such school or college?
Superficial "multiple choice" learning is the easiest to quantify, so it's not unusual to have a student who cares about grades but not about whether their writing has really improved, or whether they really know anything about history, and so on. It's not their fault, and we have to take cultural responsibility for the messages our standardization sends to kids. How can we seriously ask why people don't vote? Don't run for office? Don't read on their own?
The discussion about education in this country tends to be in sound-bytes that come from Bill Gates, the National Governors' Association, or elite pundits and celebrities of the moment, and this certainly hasn't helped. On a vast scale, education has become a kind of product that people have been told they need to "get" to "get" them other things. And even though we urge students that they "must" have college degrees, even advanced level degrees, we don't admit the economic reality that many professional markets are flooded and that even average students graduate with thousands of dollars in debt and no guarantee of a job.
So the upper classes and the lower classes get more entrenched, contrary to our notion that schools level the playing field. Students have been trained to "get through," "to finish," "to produce." But the idea that learning can be meaningful and profound beyond school walls? Unless you get that from your parents, your church, or those teachers brave enough to sneak the idea into class after Scantron test time, forget about it.
In the chapter "In the Body of Mary Kay", I got the opposite effect; about how teaching (especially teaching about writing) can be too touchy-feely and personal. In which direction do you think writing classes are going these days?
The problem is that teachers--and teaching--can become infantilized. When adults get caught in this dynamic, what can happen is that they turn to kids to provide a fix of self-esteem or good feelings. It's absolutely not that the classroom needs to be a cold, unfriendly place without any touch of personal connection. It's that it's difficult to balance caring and fairness in a culture which tends to value perpetual feel-good adolescence over maturity, aging, or adulthood. "Caring" often gets conflated with "easiness" or "give me what I want."
Very young teachers--and even older teachers who are facing big questions in their own lives--can easily be drawn into the addictive mirror of students' reflecting back to them something the teachers want to keep seeing in themselves: am I cool? am I sexy? am I likable? While most of us won't cross the sexual line, we all need to be aware that it's not our students' job to like us or "approve" of us all the time. We can be in tune with students without seeing ourselves completely through their lenses. There's freedom in that mindful detatchment for teachers, and it can be a way of modeling hope rather than desperation for students who are looking ahead to their own adulthoods.
Another great coupling from the book: the breakdown of a marriage and the breakdown of faith in teaching. What good came from either or both?
The good part is that crisis and doubt usually signify deep engagement in what you're doing, and ultimately require some kind of change to move forward. (That's my stray Catholicism talking again!) In order to make a free choice--of a profession, of love, of anything--one has to constantly re-asses and re-value the commitment. For me, this meant stepping back to examine my own work as a teacher within a larger context of other teachers, as individuals, and of our profession, as it stands in the U.S. That was a huge benefit.
The other benefit was using my writing to explore and discover what these connections and problems might mean in a way that could be artful as well as informative. The writing process was difficult and even traumatic at times. But I'm incredibly grateful for every moment. I've also met many wonderful new people and have learned a great deal.
The "Appreciation Day" chapter is hysterically funny, but only if it's parody. You had stated at the beginning that an experienced teacher would know which part of the chapter is truth and which is half-truth. Tell me a little more about Appreciation Days. Did there ever seem to be an event that prompted them? Were they really that regimented?
The big theme I wanted to speak to in this chapter was how inauthentic and often silly teacher appreciation rituals are in our culture--within and beyond the actual school setting. A classic example is the administrator who gives "inspiring sayings" to teachers in their mailboxes every morning, but who ignores or reprimands faculty when they come with real-life concerns about what's happening on the campus or in their classes.
In less affluent cultures or in countries that value education and mentorship, teachers don't have these "candy bar" days, or "test score" bonuses, or "meditation cards in your mailbox." We do those things here because it's polite and placating to say that we value teachers. In reality, we treat teachers like glorified babysitters who better not tell us anything we don't want to hear--even, ironically, as most citizens haven't the faintest clue about how students learn, how our education system is set up, or what really goes on in classrooms.
The book jacket seems to imply that you have left the teaching profession, yet you continue to teach at community college. How do your experiences there compare or contrast to your experience with teaching high school English?
The community college is an inspiring and highly underrated institution. When I work now with remedial composition students (as with other faculty in my department, this constitutes most of my classes), I am teaching 9th/10th and 11th/12th grade writing and reading skills to students now who have chosen to own and re-discover the opportunity to write. They're not always much older or more sophisticated than high school students, but they are freely choosing to participate. Their consent, and their own motivations, make a huge difference in the dynamics of the classroom. I reinvented and reinvigorated my career and life path: what better setting than among students trying to do the same?
Do you have any hope for the education system?
What gives me hope in the long-term are the real people I work with as students: the returning veterans, the grown women who've raised their teenagers already and are returning to school, the teen moms working to secure a better future, the former incarcerated folks who are back on their feet and trying to stay there. Experienced teachers are also our great hope, and I believe they don't need to be intimidated by the din of sound-bytes that capture so little about what it really takes to make learning happen. All these people together bring a maturity and life experience not valued on any test given by our system. No matter what any of the voices say on TV, teachers in classrooms are not putting caps on toothpaste tubes or manufacturing widgets. Deep learning over time-- in any craft, in any field-- requires patience and depth. It also means recognizing and taking second chances--as often as possible.
What was the best thing to have come from your high school teaching career?
There's nothing that taught me more about teaching--and about people-- than working in a high school setting for eleven years. Working with between 160 and 180 human beings each year, for all that time, helped me learn that teaching is as much a matter of wits and art and "tuning in" as it is brains and daily preparation. Teachers are undervalued largely because what they do seems to be "out in the open," yet it's strangely invisible. I didn't leave the high school classroom to forget about that work, but to re-member and deepen my practice--and to use my writing to witness the real-life difficulties faced bravely
every day by complicated teachers who bring their own gifts to share in classrooms.