11 Things I Learned About Teaching / Writing from My 10th Grade English Teacher

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Mrs. Raulston was my 10th grade English teacher. She was new to the school the year I was in her class, and she taught me how to make a strong argument, structure a paper, enjoy the richness of a complex text, and how to be open to differences by reading broadly beyond my own culture.  When I think of the volume of writing I produced that year—and all of the reading / commenting she was doing for 90+ students—I am overwhelmed by her kindness, dedication, and care.  As someone who recently taught four sections of 10th grade English for three years (as opposed to her five sections), I have no clue how she did such an amazing job and maintained any level of sanity / life beyond the classroom.  Balance is difficult to achieve in the life of a teacher, especially an English teacher tasked with reading and commenting on student writing.  When I had a stack of 70 literary analysis papers, I would fear them, really.  But she seemed to embrace bigger stacks with greater patience and love than I did.

When I was named a U.S. Presidential Scholar in 2004, I was thrilled by the opportunity to name my “most influential teacher” to take to Washington to also receive recognition.  I chose Mrs. Raulston.  I still choose Mrs. Raulston as my most influential teacher.  In college and graduate school, I never took a formal education course, but one thing I have received throughout my life (and continue to receive) was consistent, top-notch instruction.  I have seen teachers model the best principles of responsiveness, content mastery, compassion, passion, and innovation.  Though I undoubtedly would have found some of the pedagogical speak interesting, and the theoretical frameworks would have gotten me thinking, I had already received an intense education in the art of teaching. 

Here are 11 things I learned about writing / teaching from Mrs. Raulston, who I found to be, perhaps most importantly, a genuinely interesting and interested person:

1. Reading Shakespeare as a community is fun, but you need to see it performed to “get” a better understanding.  We took a field trip to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery to see Shakespeare performed—a different, enlightening experience of the text.  On the way, we recited passages from The Tempest and Merchant we had memorized.  A bus full of teenaged angst, hormones, and blank verse.  Yes.

2. Good writers are, first, great readers.  And have read broadly and deeply across genres, continents, and time.  I remember reading Ezra Pound’s translations of Egyptian love poetry, the Upanishads and portions of the Mahabharata (and eating Indian food for the first time—a class field trip), Conrad, Joseph Campbell, The Tempest and MerchantGilgamesh, Kafka, and so on.  We had to put the effort into writing that we did into the reading because there’s not that much different in the exercises of reading and writing.

3. Know your audience.  I was a student who would write for “the A.”  But she quickly pointed out how naïve and shortsighted that mentality was.  She encouraged me to contribute something to a body of knowledge and discussion beyond our classroom about the great works we were reading.  She said to write as if you were going to publish something.  That was mind-blowing.

4. Your first draft is not your last draft.  I wasn’t too fond of revision as a 10th grader, and that’s not that surprising because no one had really told me that I had needed to revise things.  No one had made the case that something that was “grammatically correct” could be improved.  Mrs. Raulston made us conscious of rhetorical strategies and style. 

5. As a teacher, you never want your assignments to limit students’ creativity.  I remember feeling empowered to choose my own path when given an essay assignment.  A prompt was a suggestion, and we were encouraged to find our own angles, our own points of view concerning a text.  When I give essay assignments now, I always like to include “choose your own path.”

6. Teaching writing should aim to teach students skills for revision.  You can’t tell a 16 year old, “Work harder on your writing” without guidance or without training them how to go about improving a sentence or paragraph or conceit or so on. 

7. Students should have conversations with themselves while reading—in the margins or in a notebook. / Teachers are students too! One of the first texts we discussed was Lord Jim.  It had been chosen as a summer reading text by the previous teacher of the course (pre-Mrs. Raulston).  So she inherited that, and we students did as well.  It was far too dense for me as a budding sophomore in high school.  I remember mentioning to her how much I had struggled with that book, and she showed me this journal full of (beautifully written) notes from her reading experience.  I thought that was amazing—the teacher grappling with a text!  In writing!

8. Be honest, approachable, and open to students beyond the minutes in the classroom.  So much of what I learned from Mrs. Raulston occurred outside the time of formal instruction.  High school teachers are always teaching; students are always learning.  The informal teachable moments have lasting impacts in teaching values and building relationships.

9. When you’re frustrated with one class as a teacher, you cannot let that ruin you for the rest of the day.  I remember seeing Mrs. Raulston deal with frustration or anger very quickly and then moving on / moving forward.  It’s important for students to see that teachers are human and experience the full range of emotions, just like they do.  It’s also important to model the ability to compartmentalize the more chaotic aspects of being human, enabling one to do one’s job.

10. SPES—Statement, Proof, Explanation, Significance.  Spes happens to be the Latin word for “hope.”  This was a paradigm for structuring an argument / paragraph that Mrs. Raulston gave us.  I use it for teaching my students about writing.  The statement (claim or thesis) is not a statement of fact, but is something that has interpretive value for the text.  Proof comes from the text itself.  The explanation is necessary for breaking down (analyzing) the “proof” and linking it to the “statement.”  Significance is the “so what” factor—why does this all matter.  In a paragraphing situation, the significance can also be the area where one transitions to a new point, showing how one idea feeds into the next.  I always tell my students that if they follow this paradigm, then hopefully they’ll have a strong argument.  No guarantees, of course.

11.  Show that you love what you teach and whom you teach.  Mrs. Raulston’s passion for words and for people were obvious and completely natural. I never questioned her authenticity or her motives.  I suppose that’s why, even in recollection, she’s still teaching me.