Interview With an English Teacher
Intrepid reporter Dan Bergstein has gone into the belly of a typical high school in Eastern Pennsylvania, where he interviewed 10th grade English teacher Mr. L (real name omitted because Mr. L doesn’t want to be fired). Dan asked Mr. L the tough questions, the questions you have all been wondering about. Below are the shocking answers.
Dan: How long have you been teaching?
Mr. L: This is my eighth year.
Would you recommend teaching as a career?
It depends on your personality. Elementary school teachers do it because they love kids. I like working with kids, but I could never teach young kids. That’s why I chose to teach high school. Some might say, “I don’t want to work with teenagers. They’re violent, and mean, and they all have guns and stuff.”
But you don’t feel that way?
If a kid pulls a knife on me, I know how to block that. If a first grader pees his pants, I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to deal with that. I can take the violence. Just keep the pee pants away from me.
What’s the hardest part about teaching high school English?
The hardest part is choosing books for the lower-achieving kids. They don’t read. So you try to use books from the Adolescent Literature section, easier books that they would want to read. Finding a book a kid wants to read is the real challenge. There are books that I’ve taught and kids have loved for a number of years, and now, suddenly, the kids think it’s the dumbest book in the world.
The Chocolate War. The first few years I taught it, it was great. The students loved it. But now when I try to teach it, and it’s despised.
I’ve never read it. Sounds dumb. I hate it! You can’t make me read it!
You’ve never read it? It’s good. It’s dark. It’s a cynical book.
Must you teach any books that you hate?
One year I had to teach A Separate Peace, which I hate, but I still had to teach it with some enthusiasm. Most of the books I enjoy, though I’d rather not teach some of the Adolescent Lit. I’d rather teach more sophisticated stuff, but you make the best of it.
Have you read Harry Potter!? It’s, like, the best!
I read the first one when I was in college.
Me too! Didn’t you love it?
I liked it. I don’t read as often I used to. When I was in college, I would read all the time, but now I don’t have the time. And when I do read, it’s usually nonfiction.
Harry has an owl.
It’s not that I don’t like the Harry Potter books. At some point I might sit down and read them.
Is there any literary value to Harry Potter?
If kids read it, and enjoy it, then yes. Most kids don’t read…at all. They don’t read anything. I’m not asking the world to start reading the classics, but we should be reading more. I’d rather my students read comic books rather than nothing. So Harry Potter? Yeah. It has literary value. It’s actually been taught at my school, but a parent was upset because the book discusses “witchcraft.” I didn’t want to deal with that mess, so I cut it from the curriculum.
All right, Mr. Smarts. How do you use a semicolon?
One day you’ll learn something about writing. We’ll be so proud of you.
[Mr. L takes a piece of paper and writes, “Dan likes burgers; Mr. L likes chicken wings.” ]
Hmm. I could use a period instead, if I wanted, right?
It depends on the rhythm. If you used a period, it would be two short, choppy sentences. You could combine them with a comma and coordinating conjunction, but the conjunction adds an extra pause to the sentence. To keep things moving smoothly, we’ll use a semicolon.
Let me try! [Dan writes, “Dan likes burgers; Abe Lincoln was our president.”]
Abe Lincoln cured slavery.
What about this. [Dan writes, “I cry in the shower often; tears are my only friends.”]
Uh…OK. You could also use the coordinating conjunction “and,” or you could take Prozac.
Do you teach modern novels?
This year I started teaching Twisted, by Laurie Halse Anderson, and kids are coming up to me and saying they read ahead. It scared me. They never read ahead. They never read, period. But they don’t like the ending. They find it anticlimactic.
No spoilers! I haven’t read it! In high school, I only read two assigned books: Frankenstein and The Catcher in the Rye.
No one likes to be told what to read, even if you’re a good student who enjoys reading. There are some books that I was assigned in high school but never read. I eventually read them on my own later in life, and I loved them. Usually there’s some value to assigned books. That’s why they're being taught in the first place. But the students don’t see that until they find it for themselves.
You should hide the books, and make the students find them. That could help. Can you trick students into reading a book?
I taught The Catcher in the Rye, and I told the students that they would like it because Holden Caulfield swore a lot. But even if you say there’s sex and violence in a book, they don’t want to read it.
You don’t actually enjoy The Catcher in the Rye, do you? No one likes that book. We all say it’s so good, but secretly, we all hate it. Right? It’s a dumb book about a goofy whiny brat who should have his ass kicked.
I like the character, even though I don’t like him as a person. He’s an interesting kid. I like how it’s written. But the overall story doesn’t go anywhere. It’s sort of like the movie Hellraiser. You always remember it as being really cool, but the story itself is “meh.”
Do you use SparkNotes?
Yes, but I always read the book first. I’ll look at SparkNotes because I don’t take notes and I don’t highlight passages. Right now I’m teaching All Quiet on the Western Front, and though I’ve taught it six or seven times, I might look at the SparkNotes summary just to refresh my memory.
Do you catch students using SparkNotes?
Sadly, some of them don’t even go that far. They just give up. They don’t even try to cheat. With my honors class, most of them make an effort to read the books, and I’m guessing some of them will look it up on SparkNotes. But the lower-level students won’t even make that effort. It’s sad.
Do you think I’m handsome?
No. Maybe if you grew a beard…
What’s the worst part of being a teacher?
Education is all politics, run by people who don’t know a thing about…
Here we go. All aboard the “Complain Train.”
It’s tough when you’re told to do things that are completely impossible. We’re dealing with kids who can’t read. They don’t want to read. They’re not good at it. And they don’t care about getting better. It’s my job to motivate these kids to get better. It’s insanely difficult.
Is the future damned?
I don’t know. I really don’t. European schools weed out the lowest performing students early.
And kill them?!
No. They don’t kill them, Dan. Not that I’m aware of. They put them on a different education track. In America we don’t do that. Which is good in some ways. Everyone should have a shot at an education. However, some kids don’t want to learn. They don’t want to be there. They make it difficult for everyone else. You ask these students, “What will you do after high school?” and they tell you they want to go to an Ivy League school. Some students live in a fantasy world.
Speaking of reality, what happens in teacher’s lounge?
It’s confidential. I won’t go into it because unless you’re a teacher, you won’t understand. It’s not as exciting as you think.
Do the teachers make fun of students in there?
We vent. The teachers aren’t mean, and we’re not trying to be mean, but we need to vent. We spend all of our day with teenagers that we can’t harm in any way because of laws, so we need to get that frustration out. And we share it with the other teachers, because we all understand it. It’s not to be taken seriously.
How do you handle an unruly student?
It depends on the student.
Let’s say I’m in your class, and I make fun of you because you have stupid arms. What do you do?
If someone said that to me, I’d laugh. You don’t know me well, but I’m pretty quick-witted and thick-skinned. The students can say anything they want about me, and I can take it. To be a high school teacher you have to have a thick skin.
Have you ever gone home and cried?
No. I try not to think of my job when I leave.
Are you going to cry right now?
So let’s say the student wasn’t attacking you, but attacking someone else…with a flame thrower.
Then we use the flame resistant blanket located in every classroom. For the most part, kids are good. Even the jerks can be reasoned with. If a kid is threatening someone or being very disruptive, then, yeah, you remove them from the classroom. It rarely happens. But I haven’t met a student yet that could out-talk me.
I could do it.
You’re an adult.
You think you’re so smart, don’t you.
No. I’m just quick.
What’s the point of grammatical rules, if all the rules can be broken?
There is no point. English grammar rules are based on Latin, but most of the words are Germanic. So we’re applying the rules of one language on words from another language. See how it gets confusing?
[At this point Mr. L went on and on about infinitives and prepositions and Dan thought about candy canes.]
Can you begin a sentence with “and”?
Yes, but it’s usually not the best way to begin a sentence. I’m not an old school English teacher who would yell at students for doing it, though.
Can you end a sentence with “and”?
No. Not usually.
I can do it. Watch: “Dan, who is mighty, is going to end this sentence with the word ‘and.’”
Wow. That’s great, Dan.
What’s the dumbest thing a student said to you?
When I was teaching Romeo and Juliet, a girl raised her hand and said, “Is Shakespeare going to write a sequel to this?” I jokingly said, “Yes. He’s in Hollywood working on it as we speak.” Then I realized she wasn’t kidding. One of the questions on their final exam was, “True or false: Shakespeare is dead.”
How many times a day do you raise your voice?
A lot. I don’t even know when I’m doing it. When I’m at home, my wife will say to me, “Why are you yelling?” My voice evolved. I wasn’t always loud. Now the students say I’m the loudest teacher in the building.
Are you a grammar Nazi? Do you look for errors in newspaper and magazines?
I don’t go looking for mistakes, but I sometimes spot them. I make mistakes too. When you’re an English teacher, everyone loves to correct you.
The eyes on the billboard in The Great Gatsby represent God. I bet you didn’t know that.
I haven’t read that in years. Thanks for letting me know.
You’re not so smart.
I never said I was.
Why are poems stupid?
Because you read the wrong ones.
If Shakespeare was so great, why didn’t he write books instead of dumb plays?
He stole most of his plot ideas. It wasn’t the stories that were important, but how he wrote them. He was a poet. So instead of saying, “So-and-So looked nice today,” he wrote a sonnet.
Blah-blah-blah. I don’t care. Do you have any English test questions for me?
What was the report on the day that Paul was shot and killed in All Quiet on the Western Front?
Um…did you know that the eyes on the billboard in The Great Gatsby represent God?
The answer is, “All Quiet on the Western Front.”
Do Mr. L's students remind you of people at your school? What questions do you have for your teachers?