By Dave O’Shell
Dave O’Shell is a 6th and 7th grade English teacher at Wood Middle School in Montgomery County Public Schools. He has been teaching for seven years and blogs about education at thelivingteacher.com.
Artwork courtesy of Shutterstock.
At 32 I am finding that I am really only good at one thing. I can teach early adolescents how to write essays and how to read better. That’s it. I’ve been doing it for seven years now in a middle school outside of D.C., teaching at a suburban school that is actually pretty diverse. My school is a lot of rich and poor, kids of parents with PhD’s and kids whose parents don’t speak English. And I want to argue that there are some classic works of fiction that can help a developing teacher connect with his or her students and with the world of learning.
Classic literature is crucial to growing an individual. Certain texts have not only inspired hundreds of thousands of fortunate readers to grow, they have grown with humanity; they have been read, reread, and reevaluated.
I am surprised at the number of English teachers I meet who have little or no background or even interest in the classics. This is a problem because a grounding in classic works in the humanities is essential for success in teaching. Teaching is the most human profession; no other occupation involves such a basic I-thou relationship on a day to day basis.
Now, teaching in a middle school is a fairly grounding experience. There is no forgetting that you are in the world, living among people. You’re not among the celestial spheres. Yet there is no text that comes to mind more often in my everyday experience as a middle school English teacher than Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The central theme in the novel is the dynamic between one’s inner life (peace) and one’s relation to the rest of the world (war). The characters in the novel, particularly Andrei and Pierre, develop as individuals by wrestling with their inner and outer worlds. Andrei is steeped in the bureaucracy of the military. He struggles to put forward his battle plans to General Kutuzov, only to find scores of others like him with equally ingenious battle plans equally useless in the chaos of war. His outer life is stopped suddenly on the battlefield (a famous scene in the novel) when he has a quiet moment—really a near-death experience—contemplating the sky as he is surrounded by smoke, gunfire, and shouting. These kinds of moments abound in Tolstoy’s works, where characters’ inner lives are suddenly and profoundly confronted with the world.
A teacher will inevitably face these same moments on the battlefield, these experiences where strategy meets the human heart.
William James calls this a mystical experience, essential for real change in an individual. I saw this last year in one of my students, we’ll call him Brian, whom I was working with and cleaning out the nightmare that was his school binder. I was lecturing him on throwing away papers he didn’t need, like the Edgar Allan Poe packet we finished last quarter. Throw it away! “Oh,” he said, “I keep that in there ‘cause I like to read some of the poems to my sister before she goes to bed.” Suddenly your student’s humanity becomes so real before you. He stops becoming these lists of issues for you to solve, test scores and observable behaviors. He becomes real in his beauty and limitations. Teaching is filled with these kinds of Tolstoy moments, these dialectics of care and ambition.
Hamlet is essential reading in contemplating the limitations of our own intellect. This model of education is useful to the teacher. It isn’t so much that we must see in the mundane aspects of managing a classroom a direct relationship between Hamlet and teaching. There is no bard in signing a pass for the nurse. It is rather that we are able to maintain our why in teaching. In the guidance I give to my students in their reading and writing, in the conferences I give surrounding the work in their portfolios, Hamlet is present. He is present because I see that students have a desire to become educated. What does this mean? It means, for them, becoming an Odysseus, always having an answer, not being the fool Hamlet pretends at being (“I’m reading words,” a student with might say to me with a sneer); it means not being a pedantic nerd like Polonius who can’t get through a sentence without commenting on his own phrasing. Hamlet’s tragedy, like the tragedy of many of our students who (wrongly) believe that hard work will not increase their intelligence, is that learning cannot make an individual perfect. There is only so much we can promise our students they will get from schooling. It’s up to them to eventually make their schooling count toward something meaningful.
The third book I would put into the hands of an aspiring teacher, if I were limited to only three, would be Don Quixote. The relation between Sancho and the Knight of the Sad Face mirrors the student-teacher dynamic better than any other model. Quixote demands that his world adhere to the laws of chivalry. When he sets out in seek of adventure, an adventure must present itself within a few pages or else. Or else windmills will become giants, flocks of sheep will become warring armies, and a traveling lady will become a kidnapped princess. And when it becomes clear that the windmills are not giants, then a magician must be invented to explain their transformation.
Sancho is the real and Quixote is the imagined. Sancho is also a student and Quixote is his teacher. A teacher wants the world to fit into his notion of the law of meritocracy. The teacher’s job is to dream for the student. Just as Quixote knows Sancho cannot buy fully into the dream of chivalry, he must promise Sancho an island. We as teachers promise our students an island named College, though how they will govern this island will be up to them to learn. We dream for them and they return reality for us to modify our dream.
I would argue that any text that can best grow us is best in preparing those whose job will be to create future heroes. Melville’s radical individual, Ahab, has a lot to teach us. John Milton was at heart a great teacher, a schoolmaster of the world, and reminds us that the world and its inhabitants need fixing. James Joyce, great hero of learnedness and great reader of Dante, demonstrated how the world is united in history and language in every moment of every uttered word. Joyce is a good conveyance to talking about the oral tradition in non-Western cultures and how their narratives unite them with the world. And finally I will pass over in silence the Koran, the Thousand and One Nights, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and other non-Western texts I have not yet mastered and which perhaps constitute further reaches of the teacher’s stars to steer by.
My students do not wrestle with these great works in sixth grade, it’s more of a thumb war with some Shakespeare right now, but I hope that when they become grown men and women that they will see these works as mysteries, as a kind of mystery that is not solved, but lived. Thus we gain a kind of second life from books. It is knowing many lives and worlds through reading, combined with authentic life experiences (falling in love, having a child, failing, succeeding) that make us fuller persons. The work of a teacher is to grow young people. Pedagogy, methods, observation, reflection, and all of the practices in place are important to becoming a teacher. But it is personal growth in one’s life and one’s second life through literature that makes a great teacher, because teaching results from living.