Reluctant Realizations

Katie Starn

Writer’s comment: When given the assignment to interview a former teacher, I immediately knew which teacher I wanted to interview. Mr. Garrett was both my tenth-grade history teacher and my eleventh-grade honors English teacher. Throughout high school, Mr. Garrett gave me moral support, constant encouragement, and invaluable advice. As a future teacher, I had hoped to connect with my students the same way Mr. Garrett had with my classmates and me. Because of the respect and admiration I felt toward Mr. Garrett, the following piece proved extremely difficult for me to write. I did not want to acknowledge that the teacher I had greatly esteemed had become burned out. In order to protect Mr. Garrett, I have changed his name and omitted any references to the high school.
        I must thank Eric Schroeder for urging me to ask those difficult questions necessary for truly reflective, meaningful, and thoughtful writing. Through his teaching and conversation, Eric gave me the confidence I needed to believe in my capabilities as a writer.
—Katie Starn

Instructor’s comment: Writing, which is difficult at the best of times, is sometimes made more difficult when our topic takes a turn we don’t expect. In English 103F I ask students to write a profile of a former teacher who has influenced their view of teaching. They visit the teacher’s classroom as an observer and then interview the teacher. This assignment, which Katie told me she had been anticipating, turned into a nightmare for her. Her former teacher was not as she remembered.
        I think that Katie had originally imagined her essay as being an homage to Mr. Garrett, so she had a terribly difficult time writing the paper. Neither the content nor the structure she had foreseen for her essay fit the facts she encountered. When Katie realized that there was a lesson to be gleaned from the experience, she began to intuit how she might arrange her material. And while Katie paints a vivid portrait of teacher burn-out, the more important message here is that teachers who do manage to keep their teaching fresh and challenging can both educate and inspire their students. Katie herself is perhaps the best example of this fact.
—Eric Schroeder, English Department

Surrounded by a circle of students, Mr. Garrett answered questions, gave instructions, and explained assignments. I slowly approached the circle and stood on its periphery. Four years ago, I had been an insider. Now I was an outsider, who peered over the chattering students and slipped into the circle undetected. Old high school memories came rushing back. A few moments passed before Mr. Garrett turned to me with a smile. “Katie!” he said, “It’s good to see you. I’ll be with you in just a minute.” Turning to a student on his left, he asked her if she understood the assignment. “Of course, Mr. Garrett. Your class is easy.” Easy? Mr. Garrett? Was she talking about the same Mr. Garrett who had required us to read The Octopus and The Biography of Malcolm X just four years ago? I wondered. Maybe I had not heard her correctly.
         What I remember about Mr. Garrett’s eleventh-grade honors English class was the challenge. Good grades were not earned easily in a class of students concerned about one thing—getting into a prestigious university. That meant earning nothing less than an A. And Mr. Garrett made us work for it. Class periods were spent analyzing difficult literature, reviewing and practicing English grammar, and developing our writing skills. Furthermore, Mr. Garrett’s encouragement and concern for his students were evident. I may have wondered if I would receive an A in his class, but I never wondered about his dedication and love for teaching.
         Still reminiscing, I took a seat at the back of the classroom while Mr. Garrett took roll from a seating chart. Meanwhile, the class busied itself with a “Daily Oral Language” exercise. The exercise asked students to correct two sentences with grammatical errors. Finished with roll, Mr. Garrett read the correct answer and then asked the class for alternative responses. Students responded eagerly and were praised for their efforts, whether correct or incorrect. Maybe things hadn’t changed that much. I sat back and relaxed. I wasn’t prepared for what happened next.
         “Please clear your desks,” asked Mr. Garrett, “and I will pass out your weekly test.” Muffled groans, shuffling papers, and tapping pencils filled the room. Mr. Garrett passed out the tests and made sure that I got one, too. I casually glanced at the questions and couldn’t believe what I read. The supposed test was riddled with questions like “What book must you bring on Wednesday every week?” and “Describe what happens to a student who has just received his/her fourth tardy.” Was this a test on school policies or English? I glanced around the classroom, searching for any clue that would indicate that this was atypical. Instead, I saw students diligently working on their tests. Was this normal? I wondered. I worried.
         As 2:10 p.m. approached, Mr. Garrett collected the tests and reminded his students that they needed to turn in their compositions on Monday. Furthermore, their compositions had to be signed by their parents. Groans came from the back of the room. “It is very easy to get an A in my class,” Mr. Garrett reminded them. “All you have to do is turn in all of your work.” Was that it? Just turn in all of their work? Sure, it forced the students to be responsible, but where was the challenge? I suddenly felt betrayed. What had happened to the Mr. Garrett I had known?
         The bell rang, leaving my question unanswered. Deep down I wondered if I even wanted an answer. “What book do you bring on Monday?” Mr. Garrett asked his departing students. “The big book!” the students yelled in unison. “Great!” said Mr. Garrett, “see you on Monday.”
         I walked to the front of the classroom and waited while Mr. Garrett answered questions and accepted late papers. Once the classroom had cleared out, Mr. Garrett asked, “Are you ready for the interview now?” I didn’t feel ready. I felt disappointed and disillusioned. Frustrated and hurt, I told him that I wasn’t sure where to begin.
         “Okay, then,” Mr. Garrett replied, “I’ll start.” I sat back and got ready to take notes. I was so disoriented that I completely forgot about the tape recorder I’d tucked in my backpack.
         As an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley, Mr. Garrett double majored in English and history. In his twenty-five years as a high school teacher, Mr. Garrett has taught primarily English, but he has also enjoyed teaching several history classes. Remembering that he had been the head of the English Department while I was a student, I asked him if he still held the position. “No, they kicked me out,” he replied. “I wanted to integrate history and English and none of the teachers liked the idea, and now they’ve stuck me out in the C-wing when the English Department is in the D-wing.” I knew that the two wings were quite a distance from one other; such geography would not allow for much contact with other teachers in the English Department. I sensed that there was more to the story, but I didn’t want to press the issue. Instead, I asked Mr. Garrett if he enjoyed teaching five freshman English classes. “By giving teachers freshmen, they are punishing the teachers they don’t like,” he replied. I made a note of his response and decided to change the subject.
         I would focus on classroom management. When I asked Mr. Garrett about the structure of the class, however, he seemed very defensive. Instead of allowing me to ask questions, he told me that there was a specific classroom routine and then proceeded to rattle off all the reasons for its use. Without telling me what the routine was, Mr. Garrett explained its benefits: “A routine gives them security. . . . The students know what they’re doing and how to do it.” The idea of a strict routine seemed restrictive and boring to me, so I asked Mr. Garrett if he ever got bored. He explained that his classroom routine was flexible enough to change and that the routine “never gets boring because the students are individuals.”
         Not wholly convinced but wanting to press on, I asked Mr. Garrett to describe his classroom routine. He explained that Mondays were spent reading and discussing literature, both spelling and vocabulary were included on Tuesdays, Wednesdays promised grammar exercises from the “little book,” Mr. Garrett’s own grammar exercises were covered on Thursdays, and students could count on a test each Friday. I wanted to ask Mr. Garrett if the week’s work included reviewing school policies so that students could be tested on them at the end of the week, too. I bit my tongue. Instead, I asked him how he determined what questions to include on the test. I felt like a politician. Mr. Garrett explained that the tests were more like a weekly review because the test questions were taken from the worksheets and study guides assigned that week. I still wondered about the policy questions. I decided to drop it. As a former student of Mr. Garrett’s, I felt uncomfortable with the thought of challenging his teaching philosophy or questioning his testing methods.
        I moved on. I asked about writing: “What about writing, Mr. Garrett? This is an English class, isn’t it?” Mr. Garrett explained that every third Thursday students write a major composition, totaling twelve major compositions in one school year. Mr. Garrett seemed content to end the interview here, so I complied. Somehow the interview had not turned out to be what I had expected—at all. Had I expected too much? Perhaps.
         Mr. Garrett and I walked back to his office and discussed my own plans to become a teacher. I confessed my fears and reservations about the profession. “If you come and work with me, I’ll teach you everything,” Mr. Garrett told me. “I’ll be sure that you have a life!” Mr. Garrett explained that teachers often become overwhelmed with the demands of teaching five or six classes, taking professional growth courses, and maintaining a personal and private life outside of teaching. He promised me that with his methods, I could learn to balance my professional and personal lives. The offer sounded tempting, especially after some of the horror stories I had read in The Roller Coaster Year—an anthology of first-year teaching accounts that details the isolation, frustration, and near exhaustion experienced by first-year teachers. Nevertheless, I didn’t want Mr. Garrett to be my Master Teacher. “Well, Mr. Garrett, I’m not planning on earning my credential in this area,” I explained. “I don’t want to move back home and live with my parents.” Mr. Garrett seemed to understand my explanation.
         As our conversation came to a close, I realized that it was not Mr. Garrett the person who had changed, but Mr. Garrett the teacher. The observation and interview echoed an important theme in The Roller Coaster Year—the need to keep one’s teaching fresh and new and to somehow avoid teacher burn-out. I left my old high school feeling melancholy and a bit sad; a person whom I’d admired, respected, and esteemed for many years had come down from his pedestal in one short afternoon. As an experienced and seasoned teacher who now has become a victim of teacher burn-out, Mr. Garrett taught me the importance of maintaining a crispness in one’s teaching and the importance of taking preventive measures to avoid such a fate.