Stories give us a way to order our universe.
Religion is a story we tell to explain our existence and our demise; commercials, a story about why we need a Dyson vacuum cleaner; Facebook profiles, a story about how you want the world to see you.
Movies, music, books, television: we trade in stories nearly constantly. We tell stories at the water cooler, in our Christmas card letters, to our families when we get home from work. Stories are important.
Mostly, I get the same story when I tell people I’m going to teach high school English: a story about how it’s too much work for too little pay (especially in North Carolina), about how I have to teach since I majored in English, about how our education system is a dysfunctional mess.
I have plenty of my own stories to back that up.
I taught summer school for under-performing students back in my tiny North Carolina hometown. Like most educational pursuits, the program was good intentions wrapped in bureaucratic binding. It was July and the building’s air conditioning broke, so I conducted my class huddled around a grimy fan pilfered from my parents’ basement. It was so hot outside, we were forced to go on an over-budget field trip and eventually cancel a day of school.
The school system also decided to paint all the walls, so I had to guide my rambunctious, curious kids through an obstacle course of open paint cans, wet walls, and tempting ladders. They even painted the interior of the bathrooms, and elementary school kids have bladders the size of North Carolina’s per pupil spending – small. I ended up having to buy a lot of my own supplies in order to execute the simplest of lesson plans. And this is a mild situation compared to what many educators face.
And yet, I still want to become a teacher. I’ve spent the last few years floundering between several career paths, never committing to one long enough to truly become successful. I didn’t want to submit to the narrative that I could not do, so I had to teach. Surrounded by highly successful college classmates, teaching high school sometimes felt like giving up on loftier, more glamorous ambitions. It made me feel like a teaching career was a last resort, and a bad one at that.
But it isn’t a last resort; it’s the only thing I truly want to do. My fleeting flirtations with other careers bottomed out because there wasn’t enough substance in the relationship. Everything else just feels frivolous in comparison.
Power of language
Teaching English is important because understanding stories and wielding the power of language is important. It’s far more than forcing kids to memorize Shakespeare sonnets and teaching them not to dangle their modifiers.
It’s about helping them understand that words have power, and the ones we choose have real consequences. A person’s freedom or innocence can depend on a lawyer’s closing statements; perception of world events can depend on a reporter’s tone; a child’s self-esteem can depend on his or her parents’ speech.
Grammar and syntax and word choice are more than just point deductions on essays; they’re the building blocks of almost every human interaction. It’s important for students to understand their own stories and how to tell them, and for them evaluate the stories they hear with appropriate measures of skepticism and empathy.
Helping students learn to read well, critically, and with purpose seems like the most important work I can do. Yes, the conditions might be bleak. There might be no air conditioning; there might be painters smoking and cursing in the hallway outside my classroom. I won’t get paid enough for the hours I put in, and my students will be largely ungrateful.
But one day during that summer program, my class read a book about a child missing his father, who was deported to Honduras. Several of my students told the class how they hadn’t seen their grandparents in years, since they had immigrated as toddlers.
The American-born students in the class listened to their stories with rapt attention. Their classmates’ pain cut through whatever sound bites they’d heard on the news or whatever narratives they inherited secondhand, and let them start forming their own opinions with compassion and nuance. Those elementary schoolers had a discussion more open-minded and good-natured than Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump could ever have on a debate stage.
And that is why I want to teach English. I know North Carolina and the federal government want to push STEM fields, but what good is a brain without a heart to guide it? English class is that heart. I want to teach my students to understand and tell their own stories, and maybe I will become a tiny part of theirs.
Samantha McCormick lives in Durham and will begin a Masters of Arts in Teaching degree at Duke in August so she can begin her teaching career. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.