On the Emotional Complexity of Teaching in the Age of COVID
Nick Ripatrazone Talks to English Teacher Keith Leonard
When I asked Keith Leonard why he became a teacher, he said it was the “classically boring answer”: he had great teachers. “What made them good teachers,” he says, “is that they saw the classroom as a place for serious play.” The best teachers laughed. That laughter—we might call it a form of joy—“was the thread which connected all my English teachers—they all seemed to enjoy literature and young people enough to be delighted by both, and often.”
The poet Christian Wiman has said “joy is a flash of eternity that illuminates time.” Wiman admits, though, that the word “eternity” sits “a bit lumpishly there on the page.” Instead, he offers poetry as a “guide” to understanding joy, suggesting that joy is in the action of language’s attempt to capture the ineffable—an attempt that often fails.
That sentiment reminds of a recent poem published by Leonard, “Statement of Teaching Philosophy.” It is one of my favorite poems ever about teaching. Despite living this job for 17 years, I often resist reading creative work about it—in fear that, either wounded by experience or blanched by exaggeration, literature about the classroom will feel off. Inadequate.
Not Leonard’s poem. “My students want certainty,” he begins. “They want it / so badly.” The poem follows this route of desire for certainty along one of the essential truths of teaching: we are often as vulnerable as our students, for only by being human can we truly connect with them. “I don’t know / how to tell my students their parents / are still just as scared.” He builds toward a concluding scene in which the narrator learns that language, often our sharpest tool of perception, falls short in our most essential moments.
What a great thing for an English teacher to admit.
Leonard minored in education at Westfield State University in Massachusetts, graduating in 2008. He completed an MFA at Indiana University, and then taught courses there in composition, creative writing, and publishing. A new father, Leonard moved closer to family in Columbus, Ohio, and was hired at the Wellington School, a pre-K through 12 independent school with around 800 students.
He has taught there for 5 years, and appreciates the autonomy afforded both teachers and students. He has taught a bevy of fascinating electives: Time Travel Literature; Podcast Journalism; Advertising the Environment; Art, Literature, and the Environment; Radio Drama; Knowledge and Truth; Utopia/Dystopia: What a World We Make; Literature and Spirituality; Teenager in Literature; Ethics and Justice; London Calling.
In his Time Travel course, he examines how writers like Ted Chiang—in “Story of Your Life” and “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”—bend our conceptions and perceptions of time. He co-taught the Advertising the Environment course with a science teacher. They created a marketing campaign based on the book Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash by Edward Humes. “This year’s class decided to have a ‘Trash Festival’ full of socially distanced games,” he says. “One student even hung a chain of 250 plastic grocery bags in the hallway, which represented half of the single use plastic bags an average American uses per year. It was pretty startling to walk underneath that installation for about 100 yards.”
I love his approach to his environmental literature courses. Students read Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s excellent World of Wonders and write their own “Wonders,” and then write their own “Delights” after reading Ross Gay’s Book of Delights. Leonard says both writers “take wonder seriously, and it seems like students enjoy seeing that not all writing has to be gloom.”
Whatever the course, Leonard appreciates that teaching is “an emotionally complex space that encourages me to be kind and understanding.” This year, “behind masks and through a screen,” has been a struggle. Like my own school, Leonard has been hybrid teaching since the first day of class. Leonard admits: “I haven’t felt like the most effective teacher this year.” As now the parent of two young children, teaching recently has felt like “an onslaught of suck”—but his students “have been understanding and kind.”
In turn, he has adapted to writing small letters to students in response to their creative writing. The practice “seems to be a space where I can encourage students both academically and personally.” “I’ve changed most assignments to rolling due dates,” he says, “and made space at the end of each class period for us to simply be together without explicit purpose. And while that might seem like a waste of class time, I actually think that space where we just get to talk and vent and laugh have been the most important this year.”
Leonard has learned “that one of the most important aspects of teaching literature is to get students comfortable with being uncertain.” “Everything else in young adult life is about large decisions—where will you go to school? what do you want to be?—and literature troubles all our assumptions and a character’s best laid plans,” he tells me. “It can show that adulthood is a performance too, and that life isn’t actually certain at all. It’s full of curves and cliffs and that’s ok. Recognizing the fact of the uncertain is armor against the world.”
It often comes back to poetry for Leonard, whose own first book of poems, Ramshackle Ode, appeared in 2016. Leonard hopes that his students will discover what he learned as a reader, writer, and student himself: that the close reading of poetry can “approach difficult questions, and probe at mystery, and serve as little reminders that life is generally much stranger than we might assume it is.” A gentle practice that can offer kids small breaths of joy during a weary year.
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