I spent a total of forty+ years in high school and college English classrooms—and one very forgettable year in junior high.
Why did I do it? Well, initially because that was one of the options for girls of my generation—pre-Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. (They were there—I just didn’t know about their radical ideas.) A single woman was a secretary, a nurse, or a teacher. (Oh, yes, of course there were a few exceptions, but not that many.) My typing was not up to par; I hated the thought of emptying bedpans; but I liked readin’ an’ writin’.
Once I got into teaching, I was hooked. I loved it! Well, mostly. Plusses: in-depth learning that came with preparing lessons and the dynamics of the classroom—outweighed minuses: marking essays and dealing with mindless bureaucratic paperwork handed down by the “higher ups” to justify their existence.
I must admit, though, that I was very, very lucky. I worked in five different school systems and in all of them I had a great deal of freedom to choose exactly what I would present to students. None of that ultra-restrictive nonsense: Tuesday-October 10-Act II, scene 2 of Julius Caesar; Wednesday-October 11-scene 3, and so on. Yes, there were certain guidelines: eleventh graders studied American Literature; twelfth graders studied Brit Lit. But there was enormous freedom.
Early on I decided my personal criteria for what to teach would be: 1. I would not teach anything I did not like/enjoy myself. 2. I would choose works that challenged, that merited classroom time. 3. I would teach mostly established works of literature. So, my students were subjected to The Scarlet Letter and Macbeth. They were, of course, free to wallow in Double Date Dora and Hot Rod Harry on their own, but those works would have little or no place in the classroom, no matter how “popular” they were. (Mind you those things often sneaked into discussions, but only tangentially.)
“Oh, but kids hate that stuff you inflict on them.” I heard that a lot. And sometimes they did, at least initially. (Sometimes after, too, she adds in all honesty.) But they often felt a genuine sense of accomplishment as well. So who is the adult in this situation? Would you allow or encourage children to subsist on a diet of only desserts? The intellect must be nurtured also.
Autocratic? Indubitably. However, I believe it is incumbent on educators to give students a solid grounding in cultural icons and use them to establish principles by which they may judge contemporary offerings.
How else can they learn to judge what Hollywood and the networks toss at them?
OK. Maybe they don’t: reality TV is often pretty mindless stuff. But we teachers do keep trying . . .