In Praise of the High School English Teacher
Introducing a New Column by Nick Ripatrazone
In this new monthly column for Lit Hub, I’ll be sharing the experiences of high school English teachers across the country—the joys, the struggles, and what keeps us coming back to the classroom. I’ll try to get to the heart of what Andre Dubus would write on his chalkboard at the first meeting of his classes: “Art is always affirmative, because it shows us that we can endure being mortal.” This column is an affirmation that teaching is eccentric, wild, and sometimes beautiful.
It was the last day of school. My students created experimental short films that adhered to absurd rules in order to win an annual prize: a toaster oven adorned with a photograph of Barbra Streisand. The films were their final projects; a fitting end to the strangeness that is senior year. When you spend months close-reading the poetry of Sylvia Plath and Louise Glück, analyzing the novels of Toni Morrison and Thomas Pynchon, and examining the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard, you cultivate a common language; you create your own quirky story. With hours to go before the summer, students packed into my classroom—at desks, on the floor, along the windowsills, on tables—to watch themselves and their friends, and to laugh.
This is why I teach.
This fall, I start my 16th year teaching public school English. Teaching is not for everyone. I had never planned that it would be for me. I never studied education in college; I studied astronomy, and then philosophy, and then creative writing. Midway through my graduate program in literature—while helping medical students with their essays—I knew that I needed a full-time job. I’ve been teaching high school ever since.
Teaching is not for everyone, and that is a good thing. We need great teachers. We need people with patience and passion. High school teaching is entertainment. Erudition is worthless if you can’t communicate with kids. And kids—like everyone else—like to be entertained. To do this job right, you need to put on one hell of a show, back to back, for different audiences. That show needs to be genuine—and it needs to have substance.
I teach English because I love stories and language. What a ridiculous gift it is to share that love with others—especially with the skeptical souls! I give students paragraphs from On Being Blue by William H. Gass to show them the meandering and mystical routes sentences can take. I give them love poems by Aimee Nezhukumatathil to show them how sentiment can be clever, line by line. I give them the morally ambiguous characters of Graham Greene.
In order to survive as a high school English teacher, you have to be an idealist and a realist in equal parts. Not every day is wonderful, but I am thankful for every day. I get paid to talk about literature. Not everyone goes to college, so high school is the last democratic, holistic educational experience shared by most American kids. It can be a painful and confusing time in one’s life—but it is an important time.
In popular culture, teachers are so often presented in an almost mythic way. We are martyrs; perfect people who would teach for free. This canard devalues the art of teaching—and does little to recruit the next generation. We are stereotyped for our worst moments, and therefore used as political cudgels. In reality, high school teaching is a complex, difficult profession that can have authentic rewards. We should treat teachers like they matter, and we should pay them like they matter. That’s how you attract and retain the best teachers—and how you best serve kids.In order to survive as a high school English teacher, you have to be an idealist and a realist in equal parts.
The kids deserve the best because we all deserve the best. Teaching high school is a way to give back to the community; to serve, to help, to comfort. A good high school teacher can work wonders in lives, in ways small and big—we all know this, and yet it is forgotten or lost in abstract, policy discussions about education.
Let’s remember those wonders, then. What a blessing it is to read a poem to kids: our classroom quiet, even though the world—and their own smaller worlds—are not. What a discovery to find a paragraph that sings in a student’s work—and to tell them about it. What a balm to slow down their days just enough to linger over beautifully written words.
For some kids, their teachers are all they have, and I will never take this for granted. For years, I’ve carried the St. Francis prayer in my pocket. It is a kenotic prayer; an affirmation to love and not judge. It includes the lines: “Where there is hatred let me sow love / Where there is injury, pardon,” and the most important line: “Where there is despair, hope.”
I’m not an outwardly sentimental person, but my students know I care about them. I root for them, and I pray for them. High school teaching is an honorable profession. When I say it is a privilege to teach, I do not mean that it is easy; rather, I mean that helping young people is a worthy pursuit. It is a good way to live.