There is an overwhelming amount of information about the state of today’s students. Are they over-achieving or under-achieving? Can they pay attention in class for more than three minutes in a text-by-text society? Does anyone care about literature? Francesca Lee Winch, who has taught English at Yorktown High School in Arlington, Virginia for 32 years, discusses the ways students (and parents) in this slice of the U.S., have shifted their priorities over the years and how much of teaching is counseling.
You hear a lot about how students don't have the attention spans they used to with texting and tweeting being main forms of communication. As a teacher are you seeing this in the classroom? And, if so, have you had to change your teaching methods/style?
I do see a difference in students’ attention spans and focus, but the bigger difference I see is in expectations of students' attention spans and focus. The educational system has, rightfully, made more accommodations for students with learning disabilities and differences. This has ballooned into a general assumption by students, parents and teachers themselves that all students need and deserve individualized instruction as the norm and manifests itself in teachers being actively discouraged from lecturing and assigning the classics and encouraged to assign group projects and student selected readings.
While I embrace empowering students and recognizing their differences, I do think we need balance in the classroom. I am “old school” and take away cell phones when students are repeat offenders, texting and checking their messages during class time. I try to balance individualized assignments with some lectures as I do think they need to learn to listen and take notes. Not only will they need that in college, but may in the workplace, as well. I also think they need to read books they wouldn’t select themselves and might not want to read, in order to leave their comfort zone and expand their understanding of and sensitivity to the world around them. There is no better way to walk in another’s shoes than by reading a well-crafted piece of fiction that speaks to the human condition.
I see a general trend to try to attract students’ attention by giving them what they want. You choose the book; you choose the assignment; you choose the due date. But I think that being a good teacher is a bit like being a good salesperson. My job is to expose them to what they need to grow as students and as individuals, and to convince them to want it.
How much of being a teacher has also been being a counselor and a substitute parent over the years?
I think that to be a good teacher, you have to like people even more than you like your discipline. I think and worry about my students every night before I turn off the light and throughout the weekends and summers. My one regret as a teacher is that I haven’t the hours in the day to give to each student who deserves more time, energy and attention. The heartbreaking trend I’ve seen over the past years is the increasing number of students being treated for anxiety and depression. We’ve convinced these kids that they are their GPAs, the number of AP classes they take, their SAT scores. We’ve given them the impression that if they don’t have a stellar GPA, or take a mind boggling number of AP classes, or get into UVA,[the University of Virginia] that they’ve somehow failed us and themselves. I find this appalling.
It totally marginalizes the students who struggle to get C’s and makes them feel inferior. I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s when we were told that our job was to make the world a better place, however we could do it, that we all had different and unique talents, and that our job was to discover and foster those talents and then use them for good. This empowered us and gave dignity to our choices and life paths. When and why did that message change?
Did having kids change your approach to teaching at all?
Having my own kids just made me realize, as they stressed out over the same numeric morass as my students do, just how pervasive this message is to this generation of children. Even kids whose parents don’t buy in are sucked into the vortex of testing, testing, testing, and feel defined and smothered by numbers.
Has the average student profile changed over the year or are you seeing the same general set of students? And what about the average parent profile?
I don’t think they’ve changed; I do that their anxiety level has increased and that their pure enjoyment of their teen years has diminished. Parents, I think, are scared and the kids sense this. We all read about how much harder it is to get into college than it was decades ago. We all want our kids to be successful, happy and financially independent as adults. As a result of this fear, parents tend to hover more than they did years ago. Grades are online and updated every day. Many parents check on a regular basis and contact teachers as soon as they see a dip in grades. While I totally understand this concern and even enjoy getting to know parents and find that learning more about a student’s personal life to be incredibly helpful, my concern is that some parents shift the responsibility from the child to the school.
We tell the students the homework, we write it on the board, we update our web pages daily so it’s online, but some parents still find fault with the teachers when their children don’t do the homework or study for tests and their grades suffer. Some even demand that grades be changed. (And then there are the parents who fill in the college applications and write the essays.) As a parent, I know that it’s a tough balance to stay involved and aware and not to take over for them. We all love our kids and we all worry.
Most of the teachers I have met have had that moment when they think, "I am outta here," and on the flip side, moments when they think, "This is the reason I am a teacher." Are there highs and lows that have really stuck with you?
Yes! I don’t think I’ve ever thought “I’m outta here” but I have looked forward to every summer, as that’s when I paint the bedrooms and clean out the garage, catch up on the reading that I want to do, and reintroduce myself to my husband and children. Grading as a high school English teacher is so incredibly all-consuming that we work seven days a week during the school year.
Here’s a bit of math for you. Say I have one set of essays to grade. Say I have 135 students. If I read each essay twice and write comments on it, that might take 10 minutes per essay. That’s 1350 minutes or 22.5 hours. And that’s just one set of essays. I also have quizzes and tests and lesson plans to prepare and the books that I’m teaching to reread. Don’t even get me started on research papers; they take a lot longer. So, the lows aren’t the kids. The lows are the piles of papers!
But the highs are when students write me lovely notes or emails from college thanking me. I had a note this year from a senior specifically thanking me for telling the class that they are more than their GPAs and, that while they should do their best, they should not define themselves by their grades. She said that it changed her sense of herself. I also love when they Facebook friend me after graduation and stay in touch. I was at a baby shower a few months ago for a student I taught 20 years ago! Yes, I love my job.
What is missing, if anything, from what standardized tests are asking students to know when it comes to reading, writing and literature?
Love. Love of literature. Love of humanity. Empathy regarding the human condition. Centuries ago, Aristotle wrote about the connection between tragedy and a catharsis of emotion. That catharsis of emotion connects us to the universal – the human condition – and makes us better neighbors, friends, lovers, citizens. You can’t touch any of that in a standardized test.
What would you tell your own kids if they came to you and said they wanted to teach high school English as a career? Think that will happen?
Hmmmm. I do not think that will happen as they see the piles of papers I’m grading on weekends and holidays. Their dad comes home from work, and he’s done. He can be fully present. I come home and set up a work station on the dining room table and start grading.
My daughter started crying once when she was around six, “Mommy, all you ever do is grade papers.” That was a wake-up call for me. I tried to be more subtle after that, talk about it less and grade more after they went to bed. Of course, by the time they became teenagers that became impossible as they are up later than I am. However, if that did happen, I’d recommend that they be very mindful about where they teach as the working conditions for teachers vary widely throughout the country. I have been blessed to have spent my career in Arlington County.
Tell a little bit about your teaching career, including at what point you knew you wanted to be a teacher.
I came by teaching in a rather circuitous way. I always loved to read and creative writing was my emotional outlet throughout childhood. I majored in English in college on the advice of a beloved uncle who was a lawyer and considered it the best preparation for law school and the bar exam. Being a lawyer was the most common career path in my mother’s family, and so I considered that my fait accompli. Simultaneously, I was volunteering for a week each summer at Camp Fatima, an all volunteer one-to-one camp for severely handicapped kids, in my home state of New Jersey. I learned a bit of sign language to communicate with nonverbal campers, and then enrolled in some classes at Gallaudet, the college for the deaf and hearing impaired here in DC.
Ultimately, I wound up with an undergraduate degree in English from Trinity College, and 24 credits in sign language from Gallaudet. But it was 1981, and about half of my graduating class was heading off to law school, and I’d long before realized that I preferred working with kids. For the next three years, I worked for Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial in Arlington Cemetery, giving tours in Civil War era costumes and periodically using sign, while I pondered my options.
The career office at Gallaudet recommended that I get certified to teach and then specialize in the hearing impaired. I was accepted to both UVA and William & Mary, but the latter gave me money and recommended that I get a Masters degree. As I was finishing up my coursework, Arlington County sent a rep to William and Mary to recruit; I went on an interview and was hired. Voila! High school English teacher at Yorktown High School. I finished my Master’s thesis while starting my teaching career, still thinking that this was a temporary career shift. But then I discovered that I really loved it. This will be my 32nd year in the classroom. I tell my students this story to illustrate the fact that they don’t have to be able to predict what they’ll be doing at 25 when they’re only 15, or 16, or 17, and that a series of small, thoughtful decisions can lead to a fulfilling life’s path.
Interview by Suzette McLoone Lohmeyer