Lizzie Smith

Inspired by C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the Staples Letters are a series of essays in the South Side Weekly written in the form of letters from a veteran teacher, Staples, giving advice to a young teacher, Ms. T. All events in the Staples Letters are drawn directly from real-life experiences in Chicago schools, and names and identifying details have been removed in the interest of privacy. Though fictional in form, the letters are used to address a variety of issues in education, from quotidian classroom considerations to national policy.

Ms. T—

Have you considered you’re working too hard? Or at least working too hard at the wrong times? I mean, you say your jaw aches at the end of each class, that you’re bleary-eyed from reading papers late at night, that you’re guzzling coffee. I mean, some of this stuff just comes with the job, and your letter is admirable in a way. But I have to ask: do your students do anything? Or are they just watching you work?

I think some teachers get so tired of coaxing students to work, they just start doing it all themselves. Hell, I’ve seen teachers conduct whole classroom discussions like it’s a one-person show and the class is the audience!

Student 1: I, uh, liked it.

Teacher: Ah, so what you’re saying is that Holden’s red hunting hat is really deeply symbolic! That it represents his desire to be seen as his own person and that his choice to love it despite its strangeness reveals something essential about his character? Is that what you’re saying?

Student: Uh.

Teacher: Wonderful!

We want meaningful work to occur so badly we sometimes convince ourselves that the mere words being spoken aloud are enough, that if only we cast the right spell knowledge will automatically pass to the students. Teachers caught in this deception are often disappointed when they get a look at the students’ tests or papers.

“I can’t believe everyone did so poorly,” they’ll mutter. “We talked all about this in class!”

No, you talked about it in class. No one else did a thing.

I saw a teacher in my building the other day reading to the class. It was first period, early in the morning, and the students could barely keep their eyes open. The teacher had clearly made the calculation that the students would never read on their own, so she decided to do it for them.

Lord knows I’ve found myself in that situation. And bless the teacher’s heart—she was willing to work extra hard for what she thought was the good of the students. But is reading to your sleeping students for thirty minutes good for them? C’mon. No way. You’ll get a sore jaw for your trouble and not much else.

So how do you avoid reducing your students to a passive audience? Well, I think there are a lot of structural causes that are beyond the teacher’s control. For one thing, school starts way too early. Way too early. It’s one of the stupidest things about school. Anybody who knows anything about adolescent sleep will tell you that, but no, we persist with this ridiculous—actually, okay, I’m gonna stop there for now. Let’s talk about sleep later.

But okay, aside from better sleep, what else? That teacher was reaping the problems inherent to a certain mindset: that the teacher is the knower who possesses all the knowledge, while the students are empty and require the teacher to fill them up with skills and information. This is how most teachers structure their class, whether they are aware of it or not. They don’t always have much choice, of course—this is the same mindset of the standardized testing system teachers are required to take part in—but it’s destructive.

I’ve found, too, that teachers sometimes develop a martyr complex. They’re so used to working so hard and sacrificing so much for their job that they start to see those things—hard work, sacrifice—as inherently good, as noble no matter what outcomes they are in service of. This is why it’s so easy for politicians or principals to take advantage of teachers, and why teachers end up reading all morning to their sleeping class. They start to think that their suffering is a precondition of student success.

But relinquishing perceived authority can be scary! Believe me, I know. By spending as much time as possible at the front of the room speaking authoritatively to your silent students, it feels like you are reducing the chances the class will slip into chaos. By jamming as many facts into your students’ heads as you can, it feels like you’re accelerating their learning. But these are illusions. This learning is not real. Like a mirage in the desert, the closer you approach it, the more completely it will vanish.

To really do any good in your room, you have to see your students as active subjects of their own education, not passive objects. With this change will come discomfort—discomfort with the possibility that class on any individual day won’t go perfectly. You have to learn to actually…trust your students!

Okay, what does that look like?

Just take literacy for example: I’m really not down with having every student in your class read the same book. Just think of all the problems that arise from that plan: some kids will be bored by the subject, some will find it too difficult, others too easy. Some will inevitably fall fifty pages behind the class and immediately just give up. Some will, for whatever reason, absolutely despise Catcher in the Rye and resent you for subjecting them to it—some might even conclude it’s all books they hate, rather than just this particular one.

And even beyond all that, does this have anything in common with reading outside of school? A person handing you a book, telling you to read thirty pages, and then quizzing you on the characters? Hell no.

So what instead? Let the students choose what book they want to read. Let them read about stuff they actually care about, whether that’s golden retrievers or Kobe Bryant. Let them read books at their reading level, whether that’s college level or third grade. Teach them how to gather information from a book based on its cover, the blurbs, the summary on the back, word of mouth, the first ten pages. If they find they hate it, let them pick a new one. In short, teach them how to find books for themselves, to create an identity as a reader. Believe me, this will serve them long after they’ve left your class.

We also do this horrible thing where we teach kids to read when they’re six and then never again for the rest of their lives. Some people literally don’t know the strategies that great readers perform intuitively— how to monitor their own comprehension, when to reread a line or paragraph, how to use context clues and background knowledge, etc. This is why they hate to read, why despite their possibly best efforts they retain practically nothing on the page (it doesn’t help that standardized test prep reinforces the worst tendencies). Make these strategies the heart of your class, celebrate effort rather than knowing things, and watch how students who claim to hate reading start taking the book home with them to read on the El or before bed. Will it be a little uncomfortable at first, as every student opens a different book, including books you yourself have never read? Will it be impossible to quiz or test them all the time? Yes, and yes. Lean into it.

In short, create the conditions necessary for your students’ success. Stop trying to perform it yourself.

It might be daunting at first, but I promise any effort in this direction will be repaid one hundred times over.

Your affectionate cousin,


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