Observations from a First Year Teacher 2

Today’s guest post is from Michael Hoffman, who is just about to finish his first year teaching in Groton-Dunstable Regional High School in Massachusetts.
I remember finishing my first semester teaching undergrads during my MAT program at UMass. I sat down one day in the brief lull that is the period between the end of classes and the start of finals and took the time to return to my questions from the beginning of the semester. How do I design activities for a class with wildly disparate ability levels? How do I help my students to actively engage in the technical aspects of Latin grammar? How can I ensure that they read the words in front of them as a language, instead of piecing them together like a puzzle? At the start, I must have believed that, given enough time, I would find answers to these questions, that years down the road I would look back at myself as a fledgling teacher and laugh at my own ignorance. And yet, two and a half years later, I am approaching the end of my first year teaching in high school, and I have found that instead of accruing answers, I have only gathered more questions.
My first year has been largely fantastic—with the exception of that long, cold, bitter winter and various other issues that I suspect cannot be separated from anyone’s first year in the teaching profession. I got my BA from Florida State and my MAT from UMass Amherst, and as I look back at my time at these institutions, I realize that they both prepared me exceptionally for my chosen career as a teacher and scholar of Latin. What they did not—and could not—prepare me for was everything else that goes into being a teacher. Indeed, I think my greatest surprise this year has been the realization that being a teacher has much more to it than simply teaching my students Latin.
I, of course, had some conception of faculty meetings, grading, and extracurricular activities when I was a student and when I was training to be a teacher, but the reality has dwarfed my expectations. It has been a humbling and enlightening experience to watch my colleagues at GD and to understand that if I simply walk into the building, teach Latin, and leave the building each day, I have not truly done my job. Being a teacher, as I have come to understand it, comprises not only the act of education but also the nurturing of our nation’s youth as they grow into the citizens of tomorrow. We have a vital task, not to treat our students as receptacles for knowledge about ancient languages, but, through the study of Classics, to help them grow into a new generation of questioners and dreamers, critical-thinkers who can form their own opinions and shape the world of tomorrow into what it will need to be.
Naturally, I do not always succeed with this goal, and it’s so easy to lose sight of the big picture while my mind boils with questions of how to keep this student on task or coerce that student into doing homework. Any homework. From any point in the year. Please. Just one assignment? No? Well, back to my article. Each day, of course, brings fresh challenges, and most of these come to me as questions of how best to teach Latin concepts. For instance, how does one help students understand the dative case or, perhaps more often on my mind, the so-called “perfect active participle”? Yet, I believe that my greatest challenge and the aspect of this first year that has most frustrated me has been the fact that I am not the best teacher I could be. I work hard at it, but I still have many, many days where I look back at class and say, “Well, Michael, we’re reteaching that tomorrow.” I know that my students deserve the very best, but I often fear that I don’t know what exactly that is. Three years ago, I probably would have believed that I would one day be free from this feeling, that I would one day know the way to teach. Now, however, I suspect that three years hence, I will still be doubting my methods and reinventing my curriculum—and I suspect that is what I should be doing.
As one of my favorite Samuel Beckett quotes puts it, “Ever tried. Ever failed. Doesn’t matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Teaching, as I have come to understand it, is not a profession for those who want answers. We are the profession of failing better. We work in the realm of potentiality, taking what the students have learned and weaving it with what they will learn, pushing them ever onward towards an ability to understand this incredibly foreign language. And if sometimes our plans do not succeed, if they blow up in our face or fall flat, it is our job to dust ourselves off and return to work the next day, full of new ideas and ready to fail again—but this time to do it better. This thought has propelled me on throughout this year as the questions and the grading have piled up, as I have learned how to be a teacher, rather than simply how to teach, and while it does not strike me as the answer, I believe it will work for the time being as an answer. Now, all I have to do is actually figure out a way to teach that perfect active participle.

Leave a comment

2 thoughts on “Observations from a First Year Teacher

  • Ken Kitchell

    As well written as it is well thought out, Michael. I just ended my career and looking back, agree with so much of what you say. We never get it perfect and worrying about it is the sign of a good teacher. Show me a complacent teacher and I will show you a teacher not improving. Up until my last class I was trying to learn how to do it better.
    But let me offer one senex point of view. I don’t think we fail better each year (sorry, Mr. Beckett). I just think we get better. There are numerous kids who got immense value from having you as a teacher this year. No failure there. Rather, a preponderance of success. Next year there may be one or two more kids or a bit more value. That’s more success. Over a career the successes outweigh the non-successes and each year is a challenge to improve. Hard to remember that some days, but it is a subtle point of view that kept me going despite certain individuals, days, administrators and incidents that drove me to put away my books and papers and watch reruns of Law and Order. No one bats 1000. If we can stay in the high 800s we’re doing great. Enough, time for me to ride into the sunset. Thanks to TJ and CANE for this forum.

  • Amy White

    Re: how to teach the perfect active participle – After I have taught students how to identify it, I make a copy of Where’s Waldo Roman version (the gladiator arena scene) (I bought the book online just for that picture) and give them a list of things to find, e.g. duo leones amantes; gladiator currens, vir saltans. Whenever they can’t identify it thereafter, I remind them it’s the “Where’s Waldo” thing, and they all laugh and say, “Oh, yeah!”