Friday, February 03, 2006

Identity and image

One of my mentors once told me that teaching is 90% theater. McCourt learned that, too.

The professor of education at New York University warned us about our teaching days ahead. He said first impressions are crucial. He said, The way you meet and greet your first class might determine the course of your whole career. Your whole career. They're watching you. You're watching them. You're dealing with American teenagers, a dangerous species, and they'll show you no mercy. They'll take your measure and they'll decide what to do with you. You think you're in control? Think again. They're like heat-seeking missiles. When they go after you they're following a primal instinct. It is the function of the young to get rid of their elders, to make room on the planet. You know that, don't you? The Greeks knew it. Read the Greeks.

The professor said that before your students enter the room you must have decided where you'll be--"posture and placement"--and who you'll be--"identity and image." I never knew teaching could be that complicated. He said, You simply cannot teach unless you know where to position yourself physically. That classroom can be your battleground or your playground. And you have to know who you are. Remember Pope: "Know thyself, presume not God to scan/ The proper study of mankind is man." First day of your teaching you are to stand at your classroom door and let your students know how happy you are to see them. Stand, I say. Any playwright will tell you that when the actor sits down the play sits down. The best move of all is to establish yourself as a presence and to do it outside in the hallway. Outside, I say. That's your territory and when you're out there you'll be seen as a strong teacher, fearless, ready to face the swarm. That's what a class is, a swarm. And you're a warrior teacher. It's something people don't think about. Your territory is like your aura, it goes with you everywhere, in the hallways, on the stairs and, assuredly, in the classroom. Never let them invade your territory. Never. And remember: teachers who sit or even stand behind their desks are essentially insecure and should try another line of work.

...I could barely understand what the professor was talking about but I was very impressed. I never thought there was so much involved in stepping into a room. I thought teaching was a simple matter of telling the class what you knew and then testing them and giving them grades. Now I was learning how complicated the life of a teacher could be, and I admired this professor for knowing all about it.

Frank McCourt, Teacher Man

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