What Guides Your Work? And, Why Do You Teach What You Teach?

In my last post, Why do you teach? And, why do you stay?, I hoped to start a conversation about teaching — why in the world are we here, and what keeps us here? I now want to look at what guides our work, and why we teach what we teach. For most of my teaching career, I did not know why I taught what I taught, or I thought I knew, but didn’t. My experience as a student-teacher, and then beginning teacher, led me to answer the above questions with one of the following answers — ‘It’s in the standards, on the pacing guide, will be on the test, or because I love it and want to share it with my students.’ These are wrong. I teach people, not English. My job is to create citizens — good, local, global, digital, compassionate people — people capable of self-governance and scholarly work. The content is a means to do this. The literature I incorporate is a foundation, rather than the end all. Curriculum must be bigger than us, must be guided by a solid framework, and must be part of the big picture plan. Sure, this is a tall order, but I know we can do it.

What guides my work now?
One thing that guides my work are the ESLRs (Expected Schoolwide Learning Results) for the Riverside Virtual School. All students will become an effective communicator, a skilled problem solver, a proficient technology user, an informed career planner, and an engaged community member. I admit that for a long time these were something I had posted on my wall, and discussed during a WASC review, but did not fully embrace with much meaning or purpose. Another thing that guides my work are Art Costa and Ben Kallick’s 16 Habits of Mind. As a teacher, I must strive to practice these habits myself. I wrote about this in a past post titled, The 16 Habits of Mind and Online Curriculum. I now also ask myself the ultimate question, What does it mean to be a good person, living a good life, in a good society? Once I started to make connections between education, democracy, citizenship, leadership, science, art, mathematics, etc., I realized everything is connected, and that I needed to teach students how to think, not English. Another thing that guides my work now is transformational leadership. My responsibility lies in guiding citizens as they face conflicting values, helping them to clarify their collective vision, making difficult decisions, and leading others to higher moral ground. When I look at this list I see very little that has to do with literature, per se. In my next post, I will share a unit from my 9th grade integrated English course where you will see how I incorporate traditional literature with projects and historical literacy in order to address these guiding principles.
Why do I teach what I teach now?
In Ronald Heifetz’s book Leadership Without Easy Answers, he makes it clear to me that teaching is a leadership activity, not a position. As an English teacher, how can I use literature to teach people? Let’s look at the novel Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Why did I used to teach this novel? I used to teach this novel because it was a great way to cover symbolism, characterization, plot, setting, imagery, and foreshadowing. Sure we discussed big picture themes such as good and evil, and I did my best to make the book come alive for students, but it was still very on-the-surface work. What has changed? Now, I use the novel to uncover what Grant Wiggins refers to as Essential Questions. Now, I embrace John Dewey’s notions that self and education are a continuous process. Now, I ask myself, What do I want my students to remember about this unit 20 years from now? I know their answers will have nothing to do with plot, setting, and characterization, but rather with confronting difficult and essential questions such as:

What is leadership?

What makes a good leader?

Where do leaders come from?

Do the ends justify the means?

How can you become a better leader?

Now, when I ask my students in an online discussion board to, “List the ten greatest leaders the world has known (past or present), and explain why they appear in your top ten list,” I respond with more questions, and I weave in the story: Is leadership based on influence or moral activity? Does a good leader lead with fear or love? Does a good leader contribute to the common good by making compassionate decisions? Does a good leader influence the community to follow the leader’s vision or influence the community to face its problems? These are the powerful lessons they will remember. Now, when Hitler and Gandhi appear on a student’s list of the ten greatest leaders of all time, together, I know how to respond. How would you respond?
SMART Idea — Teachers should see themselves as transformational leaders. Not all opinions are equal. As teachers, our job is to help move students to a higher moral ground. That is why this question guides my work — What does it mean to be a good person, living a good life, in a good society?

Courtney Hanes

Mrs. Courtney Hanes is a Staff Development Specialist for grades 7 - 12 at the Riverside Virtual School in Riverside, Ca

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