by Jessica Lahey
I really liked Diana Senechal’s recent post over at Open Salon, “Bad Teachers or Bad Curriculum,” and I agree with much of her educational philosophy. However, there’s one little piece of the educational policy puzzle that seems to have fallen on the floor, kicked around a bit, and forgotten. Unfortunately, it’s a corner piece, and the picture isn’t ever going to be complete without it.
I have had teachers who know their stuff, teachers who can recite the periodic table backward and forward all day long but hate having to teach those pesky students. I’ve had monotonous math teachers, wiling away their last two obligatory years before retirement, teachers who taught me more anecdotal lessons about beekeeping than the basics of Algebra II.
Fortunately, I have had more than my share of great teachers, teachers who truly love what they do. Teachers who, even 35 years into their teaching careers, can’t imagine retirement – they can’t even bear teaching the same material more than a year or two in a row for fear of boredom. Teachers who used roller coasters to teach physics, encouraged us to read Saul Bellow and Joseph Campbell, who made beauty of watercolor painting come alive for us. I wish I’d known then how lucky I was when it was happening.
I admit it; I was so very, very fortunate. I went to a great high school. This past year, Dover-Sherborn Regional High School was ranked as the #1 public school in Massachusetts, and measured against Weston, Concord-Carlisle, and Wayland, that’s quite a feat. I was fortunate to have both Don Cannon and K.C. Potts for English, two teachers who still set the high-water mark for my teaching today. They are, after nineteen years of education, the two most enthusiastic educators I have ever met. Don Cannon has retired from teaching, but K.C. Potts is still going strong, now as Head of the English Department. He’s in his 35th year teaching English at Dover-Sherborn, and it’s clear that he still loves every minute of it. We knew he wanted to be there with us every day, and we were simply grateful that he’d cared about us enough to show up and teach us about Shakespeare, Plato’s cave, Siddhartha, the Theban Plays…and we loved it. We really did. Because he loved it. His love for all of it was tangible, burbling out of him from every pore, part of his daily energy and enthusiasm for the literature, the writing, and his students.
When asked to consider why he’s still teaching after 34 years, he writes of the lessons he learns each year, the changes he has made as an educator, the adjustments he has had to make to individual student needs.
His content is awesome – I learned so much in my two years in his classroom – but as he writes, “Content alone does not ensure engagement – in fact, there are times when resistance to content is the first challenge that a teacher faces. Many courses designed with the best intentions find rocky shoals near promising shores. So I feel that I must engage my students and, obviously, get my students to engage. My classroom is based on the frequent, honest, open, honest exchange of ideas and, to this end, it is Socratic in its mode, a room where I ask hundreds of questions and help students determine how to craft meaningful answers.”
K.C. has had 34 years to relish the part of the job that I have found addictive, the element that makes my job exciting: every day is different. Every day is new. Every day is a unique change to engage and inspire. He understands that education is dynamic. As K.C. Potts says, “Each year, the people I work with change, and it is essential that I get to know the new ones so that I may teach them. […] I ask my students each year: what have you done in school that, if your house happened to be on fire, you would run in to save? And it makes me wonder when they find little worth the risk.”
I have not seen K.C. in person since 1988, but here’s how I know he still cares: when he writes about his assessments, he reveals an ongoing process of discovery. “My assessments over the years have changed. Typical test on a book 1990’s? Three parts: identifications, short answers, an essay. Get it done within the period. Typical test on a book today? None. All papers. Open-ended. Often allow the use of notes, especially at first. Sometimes reveal the questions in advance.[…] The key is this: if given a piece of writing and asked to analyze it, do my students know what to do next? Can they, with a bit of guidance, connect the literal to the inferential using reasons and evidence?”
Under his guidance, we learned how to make these connections, and our reward was the smile he bestowed upon us when he handed our papers back. I still have some of them, and I’m not the sentimental sort. His approval simply meant that much to me – to all of us. His enthusiasm for literature and the art of writing fed our burgeoning love of words. Now that I am a teacher, I have come to understand the reciprocity in that cycle. The enthusiasm and love of a subject that I puts out there in my classroom almost always comes back in some form or another to feed me for another day.
Thanks to my years in his classroom, the love and enthusiasm he instilled in me is now being passed on to my own students. And now that my some of my students have earned their own classrooms, this magical remnant of his teaching persists. I never thought to apply the law of conservation of energy to teaching, but there it is. Two generations after I first encountered it, K.C. Potts’ enthusiasm is still out there, swirling about in the hearts and minds of students in Japan, California, Switzerland, Utah, and rural New Hampshire.