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I Tried to Teach High School English for a Month. Here’s What Happened.

Danika Ellis

Associate Editor

Danika spends most of her time talking about queer women books at the Lesbrary. Blog: The Lesbrary Twitter: @DanikaEllis

Back in December, I wrote about my experiences as a “soon-to-be English teacher.” Since then, although I haven’t finished my program yet, I have gained some actual teaching experience by doing my first practicum. I feel like high school English teacher is such an iconic bookish profession, so I wanted to share a bit about my experience so far, if you’re curious about what it would be like! I can only speak to my own experience here. I taught at a small alternative school in British Columbia, Canada, and the circumstances vary wildly between schools, never mind countries.

The first thing that struck me with the overwhelming amount of preparation. My mentor teacher very generously allowed me to teach whatever I wanted for the six weeks I would be there, and luckily, the current BC ELA curriculum is very broad with no mandatory texts (the focus is put on competencies instead). This is great, because you can bring your own passion and expertise into the classroom, and you can adapt to suit your students’ interests and abilities. On the other hand, it was very difficult for me to figure out what I wanted to teach and how I would teach it. In the week between my semester’s end and practicum, I spent what felt like every waking moment poring over resources and making endless lesson plans, second-guessing myself all the way. I was only teaching a 50% course load, which meant two 65 minutes classes a day, but those classes took an enormous amount of preparation: figuring out what to cover, choosing which activities to include, prepping evaluations, making slideshows, and a whole lot of photocopying.

During this prep, I also started to feel like an impostor: who am I to teach these students about English? What do I know? Sure, I have an English degree and I read a lot, but I definitely don’t feel like an expert. It was a weird moment to realize that unlike being in university, I didn’t have to show my sources for anything I was teaching. As a teacher, you can throw a list of facts up on a slide and test students on their retention of them without ever mentioning where you got those facts or why they should know them. It’s bizarre. My first classes were built around quotations I had reblogged years ago on tumblr. It’s a far cry from teaching the “canon”! But I came to realize that this approach was also my strength. It was more like having a conversation with students than lecturing from a place of authority.

What I really took away from the experience, though, was how much I became emotionally attached to my students, even after only knowing them six weeks. Coming in as a first-time teacher, I fully expected to have to win over a class of skeptical teenagers. Instead, they were receptive and polite, and I ended up having a lot of great conversations with them. They shared vulnerable truths in class. They brought enthusiasm and humour. They showed creativity and insight. I was so impressed with them, especially considering that so many were going through really difficult circumstances. It’s not as if it was perfect: I also had students who came in late every day or didn’t show up at all and/or didn’t hand anything in, but they were an amazing group, and I miss seeing them every day.

So my experience in teaching high school English really had very little to do with books. I learned a lot about teaching techniques: how to use questioning strategies to engage more students, how to construct interesting activities that are not threatening for high anxiety students, how to structure work blocks, how to keep track of late work, etc. I learned how little things like hearing that a student said “I like Danika. She’s cool,” or having a student volunteer to answer a question in class for the first time all year, can absolutely make my week. I also realized how interesting and gratifying it is to discuss things like Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story” with a group of teenagers. I was also happy to find out that I felt comfortable in front of a class and that—I’m happy to say—I really enjoy teaching. I spent those weeks in a constant state of exhaustion, and I would stare at my ceiling every night worrying about my students and how to be a better teacher, but I also found it engaging and fulfilling. In a few more months, I’ll be taking on my longer practicum, and I am already nervous, but I’m also so excited to dive back in.