Why I Still Do It by Christina Knowles

IMG_3551 With all the changes in the public education system, with all the increased time demand and responsibilities, with all the blame and disrespect aimed at educators today, some people ask me why I still teach, especially because I actively speak out about problems in the educational system. The truth is I continue to teach for a lot of reasons, but the simple answer is that it’s who I am. When I am in the classroom, I love it. I think I even need to do it. Even if I won the lottery, I would continue to teach at least one class. I don’t speak out because I hate teaching, I speak out because I love it, and I hate what people outside the classroom are trying to turn it in to. I speak out because somebody has to stop the damage before it is too late, too late for current students, and too late to stop good teachers who love teaching from leaving the profession. But this article isn’t about that. It’s about why I do it anyway. What is it about teaching that keeps me coming back for more, no matter what unreasonable working demands are placed on me by the state? I can’t speak for other teachers, but I suspect we have some of these things in common.

Surprisingly, I never intended to be a teacher. I went to college and majored in English Literature because I loved to critically read—everything, the classics, contemporary fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, political commentary, philosophy, everything . . . and I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t feel confident in my skills, so I thought I needed an education. In addition, I believe a well-rounded liberal arts education is good in general. A liberal arts education helps a person look at the world with new eyes, not only critical and informed eyes, but with appreciative eyes. I went on to earn my Master’s degree in Creative Writing with the intention of being a novelist and screenwriter.

IMG_3330  However, along the way, I sort of fell into teaching, looking for more “time” to write while still earning a living. That’s quite funny to me now. I’ve never worked so many hours in any other career. But anyway, I entered the classroom at a private school that did not require a state teaching license with zero experience teaching and not even one class in education under my belt. Nervously, I faced my students that first day with an idea in mind of what I wanted them to learn, and then I just started talking, talking about my favorite subject, English. I loved it! All of it—the literature, the grammar, the writing, the reading, the speeches, the debates, and the critical discussion. And I adored my students. I loved getting to know them, listening to their ideas, hearing their dreams, their problems, and inspiring them to learn. I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to share what I was most passionate about all day, every day. I even enjoyed grading papers. I loved reading, encouraging, and advising students about how to make their work creative, interesting, organized, and purposeful. To this day, I have to force myself to limit my comments on work to realistically grade it all because, left to my own devices, I would write an essay on each essay.IMG_3320

Teaching seemed to come naturally to me. I think I am good at it. Like many good teachers I know, I frequently get comments from students that they understood something for the first time in in my class, or saw something in a completely new way. I keep in touch with a lot of former students, and I am always touched by comments from those who say I was a major influence in their lives, students who are now doctors, lawyers, grad students, writers and aspiring writers, and future politicians. This is the most rewarding thing about teaching.

So after a couple of years, I went back to school and majored in Education: Curriculum and Instruction, obtained my state licensure, and began teaching public school, which has been even more rewarding from the standpoint of reaching a more diverse population of students. I’ve been teaching for 15 years and don’t realistically see myself ever completely leaving the classroom, although I do wish I had more time to write—that will always be my first love. But this love of writing, I believe, makes me a better teacher as well.

American Lit  One thing that motivates me to continue to teach is that I am a serious academic at heart. I think about everything in excruciating detail. I analyze, deconstruct, reassemble, interpret, compare, contrast, and relate to my life and the world everything I read, hear, or see. I just can’t stop. I frequently get the question, “Can’t you just enjoy it [movies, books, art] without thinking about it so much?” The answer is that I do enjoy that; it’s why I enjoy watching movies, reading, and art, and because I’m married to a musician, I’m starting to do this with music as well. I hope that my enthusiasm for my subject helps my students to connect to literature on a deeper, more critical level, which in turn, will make them more critically thinking individuals in every aspect of their lives.IMG_3162

Teaching English is good me for another reason as well. I am somewhat introverted with people out in the “real” world, but teaching gives me the much needed intellectual conversation that I am often unable to attain in social situations. I know it sounds like a contradiction that someone who talks all day is actually an introvert, but it is quite common. Introverts spend a lot of time thinking and have trouble engaging with what they see as unimportant or trivial “small talk.” It takes a lot of energy to talk about nothing. However, talking about something deep and intellectual is energizing. The problem is that people don’t typically jump into these types of conversations, and by the time I’ve awkwardly engaged in several minutes of small talk, either I’m exhausted from the effort, or they are. Although I know they are just trying to be polite, I actually dread attending events where I know I will be asked the usual teacher questions: “How’s school going? Are you ready for break? How are the kids this year?” I don’t think they really want to know, and I certainly don’t want to talk about it. I don’t think they realize how many times a day I have to answer these same questions.Prom

Conversely, intellectual conversation fuels my thought-life. Discussing literature and writing organizes and clarifies my own thoughts as well as sparking new ideas. I learn things and get new ideas from my students all the time. I get to have important conversations that many people don’t seem to want to engage in outside of the classroom. I get to have interesting conversations with people from all kinds of backgrounds and interests, from different races, cultures, and life-experiences. This excites me.

It’s true, I have numerous friends and family, including my husband and my book club friends, who are always up for some meaningful and intellectual conversation, but as a teacher, I get to engage in this all day long! I love this so much that teaching alone is not enough. I am involved in several discussion groups with adults from book clubs to philosophical discussion groups, the Diversity Forum to cultured interest groups. My new favorite thing is teaching at the community college, where we take diversity of experience and worldview to a new level. After teaching high school all day long, I teach night classes at the community college—two in a row, and it actually gives me more energy. If my entire job consisted of nothing but time in the classroom, no one would ever hear me complain.

So when you hear a teacher complaining once again about how difficult his job is, or how he must deal with increasing pressures from every direction when all he really wants to focus on are his students and their needs, don’t assume he hates teaching or think he’s a bad teacher.Rachel and Sierra

And if you run into me, please, don’t ask me how school is going, or you may get one of two responses: the stock “fine,” or a tirade on the evils of Common Core testing twice in two months. Instead, ask me what I’m reading, what I think of Nietzschian philosophy, or my thoughts on whether or not The Patriot Act should be renewed, but only if you really want to hear the answer. But most of all, please don’t tell me that “dealing with all those teenagers must be horrible” because that is the best part of teaching. And if I deteriorate into complaints about the Department of Education, lack of funding, or having 500 papers to grade by Monday, don’t assume I take it out on my students. I wouldn’t dream of it. They make all the bad stuff go away, one fabulous paper, one sincere thank you, one inspired dream, and one great discussion at a time.—Christina Knowles

“Signs of Life” by Christina Knowles

alone-in-the-crowd deviant art.com
race-to-the-horizon deviant art.com

Shuffling through the gray

Blind to each delicate breath

These intricacies hold no sway

Cheerfully uttered throughout the day

The meaningless pleasantries

Each effort you weigh

The cost of transparency

With each sigh, a bray

You wake and remember what’s lost

Momentarily defray

Smothered in civility

Fashioning smiles of clay

Blinking back signs of life

You purpose to allay

The squall of consciousness

Then take a breath and fly away—Christina Knowles (2014)

15 Things I Will Never Do Again by Christina Knowles

Earlier today I was reflecting on some things that I wish I would not keep doing, so I thought I would make a list of things that I will never do again. But then, while I was making a serious list, I realized that it is almost a certainty that I would, in fact, fall victim to these behaviors again at some point in my life. So instead, I came up with a list that I think I can actually stick to.

I will never again:

  1.  Go on an amusement park ride that I don’t like. Why do people feel they have to persuade, plead, and demean others into going on rides they do not like? I don’t like rides that spin or go backwards, and I’m done being talked into them. If I go to an amusement park, I want to be amused. It is not amusing leaning over trash cans the rest of the day. Never again. I do want I want.
  2. Get a puppy. Only adult dogs for me from now on. I am done training puppies. It is too stressful, and I care too much about my house to do that ever again. I’ve found that one can train an adult dog in about a week to follow the rules in one’s home. That works for me.
  3. Buy an unflippable mattress. Don’t believe the lie. You need to be able to flip your mattress. Also, do not believe the warranty has any validity whatsoever. I’ve found that jumping off the roof onto a mattress does not cause sufficient damage for the manufacturer to consider the springs sagging. If you don’t completely disappear into the depression in the mattress, don’t bother filing a warranty claim.
  4. Stay in friendships with people who don’t respect me, my time, my feelings, or just want to use me when they need help. I don’t have enough hours in the day to waste on these friendships. I prefer to spend my time with people who care about me as much as I care about them.
  5. Plant a giant garden that needs tending when I plan to write a book. Or start any other major project when I need to be writing a book. Just write the damn book!
  6. Engage in meaningless small talk. Instead of answering “Fine,” to questions about how things are going to people who don’t really want to know how things are going, I will give them personal and exhaustive details to ensure that they never attempt to force me into small talk again. If you don’t want to know, don’t ask.
  7. Buy clothes that are too small, hoping to fit in to them in the future. It’s better to have cute clothes that fit than to have cute clothes going out of style with the tags still on, taunting me for years every time I open the closet.
  8. Lend a valued possession to anyone without writing down who I lent it to.
  9. Lend a valued possession at all. If I do lend it, I will just consider it gone forever.
  10. Tell something I don’t want a lot of people to know to someone I know cannot be trusted. I will learn this lesson. I will learn this lesson. I will.
  11. Stay up all night engaged in an argument. Maybe one should never go to bed mad, but one should never stay up all night mad either. Better to be mad and well-rested than to be mad and exhausted. Also, after a certain hour, one begins to lose the ability to recall injuries from the past to throw in the face of the person to whom one is arguing.
  12. Get dressed for hosting a dinner party before cooking dinner. I always have to change after cooking. Maybe I should invest in an apron.
  13. Stand on something that was not meant to be stood upon. I always forget that I don’t weigh 97 pounds anymore.
  14. Fill my plate at a party without sampling the food first. I have yet to master the subtle plate dump in the midst of a group of friends and family.
  15. Trust a hairdresser to understand what I want in one explanation. The older one gets, the longer it takes to grow one’s hair back. Pictures don’t work either. I find forcing them to look into my eyes for at least ten seconds before threatening their first born children the most helpful.

I think that is just about all I can commit to at the moment. Until next time–Christina Knowles

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