I attended two schools of higher education, as different from one another — as the British say — as chalk and cheese.
I did four years of undergraduate work at the University of Toronto, Canada’s toughest university. Our professors were world-class scholars, some of them terrifying in their capes and bow ties, quoting in Latin or German or Greek.
We didn’t dare speak to them outside of class, and rarely during class. They had little idea who most of us were — lost in a sea of 53,000 students across a downtown campus so large it took me 20 minutes to walk from one side to the other.
I later attended the New York School of Interior Design, where I also now teach occasionally, and found a totally different experience: warm, welcoming, demanding but supportive. I love its bright red door on the north side of East 70th., ducking into Neil’s Diner down the street for a coffee before or after class.
Our classes were small, our teachers consistently insisting on our excellence. I loved it all. OK, except for drafting.
I decided not to switch careers, but don’t regret a minute of the thousands of dollars I spent there. I loved my classes and have developed a strong and solid alternate skill set.
Learning can be fun, exhilarating, inspiring.
So, too, can teaching.
Not because simply transferring skills and knowledge is pedagogically complex. People learn at different speeds, with different levels and styles of intelligence, aptitude or interest.
Last Saturday I attended and spoke at a writers’ one-day conference in Bethesda, Maryland; I was on the day’s final panel about how to turn a print career into a book.
I’ve been writing for a living for decades — why bother listening to all the others?
What’s left to learn?
Lots. If you’re open to it.
I sat beside legendary biographer Kitty Kelley at lunch and heard delicious out-takes from her book about Frank Sinatra as we ate our sandwiches.
I heard a law professor describe her solution to the exact problem I’d just faced in my own classroom and asked her if she’d advise me more in future.
I heard one biographer describe how much — after years of work — she decided she loathed her subject, Harold Ickes — and gave all her materials to another writer. What generosity!
This week I’ll teach my two college classes, as usual, on Thursday.
Then, all day Friday and Saturday, I’ll sit in stuffy hotel meeting rooms for the American Society of Journalists and Authors’ annual conference in New York City, and learn as much as I possibly can — about new markets, about how to do social media better, about how to improve my thinking and writing.
I’ll meet old friends from across the country, and make some new ones.
Learning is something we do, ideally, until the day we die.
In a few short weeks, I’ll finish the first semester teaching college at Pratt Institute, a highly-regarded private college in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
I’ve loved it, but I’m pooped!
“Teaching” is really a one-word shorthand for describing the multitude of feelings, behaviors and interactions that happen in each classroom, ranging from pride, joy and satisfaction to shame, frustration, even anger — those of the students’ and the teacher’s!
I really enjoy teaching — I teach writing to freshmen and blogging to four seniors — but was taken aback by how much emotion also swirls around my classrooms. I knew that adolescents like, and need, to push back against authority figures, especially in college as they start to discover their own intellectual abilities, and their limits, in a tougher setting filled with strangers.
I didn’t anticipate how challenging it would be to manage those emotions publicly, making snap decisions in the moment how to respond to pushback or rudeness while knowing the wrong choice could destroy whatever classroom environment of trust and enjoyment I had been able to create.
One of the many challenges I’ve faced as a teacher is when, how, where and if to chastise a student for their laziness or poor work and when to praise them.
Publicly or privately? Face to face or in an email?
I remember all too well what both feel like as a student.
So I was intrigued, and a little horrified to read this New York Times story about the ClassDojo app now being used by many American teachers:
ClassDojo, a behavior-tracking app that lets teachers award points or subtract them based on a student’s conduct. On the board was a virtual classroom showing each student’s name, a cartoon avatar and the student’s scores so far that week.
“I’m going to have to take a point for no math homework,” Mr. Fletcher said to a blond boy in a striped shirt and then clicked on the boy’s avatar, a googly-eyed green monster, and subtracted a point.
The program emitted a disappointed pong sound, audible to the whole class — and sent a notice to the child’s parents if they had signed up for an account on the service.
ClassDojo is used by at least one teacher in roughly one out of three schools in the United States, according to its developer. The app is among the innovations to emerge from the estimated $7.9 billion education software market aimed at students from prekindergarten through high school.
I was badly bullied in my Toronto high school, and every day meant listening to the taunts and jeers of a small group of nasty boys. Praise and kindness, from any source there, meant the world to me in contrast.
One day — and thank god for Mr. Stickney’s compassion — I lost my shit. The redheaded asshole, whose nickname (yes, really) was Moose, kept droning onandonandonandon, a litany of the same old insults toward me, as he sat in front of me in 12th Grade math class.
Our textbook that year was hardcover, thick and heavy. I raised it, and whacked him, hard, on the back of his head.
Finally, blessed silence. All I wanted was to be left in peace, to learn.
“Caitlin, can you please sit at the back of the classroom?” Stick asked.
I could, and did.
Being a student, whether you’re four, 14 or 20, means making yourself deeply and publicly vulnerable to the judgments about you made by fellow students, your teachers and school administrators.
If they’re kind and sensitive, (and it’s usually a mixed bag), school can be a place you look forward to and thrive in — or a special daily sort of hell.
In my early teens, I had become something of a troublemaker in my Toronto boarding school, miserable and frustrated to be parked there while my parents were….elsewhere. By the end of Grade Nine, I was asked to leave.
An app like ClassDojo would have made my life even more nightmarish, making clear to every class how much trouble I was in and dragging them down with me. It would have further concretized the alienating and shaming consensus that I was something annoying to be gotten rid of — instead of the deeply unhappy and smart little girl that I was.
It was bad enough that our area’s neatness, and our behavior, was graded every single day on a chart by the door of our shared bedroom. Public shaming is not an effective way to motivate!
No one simply bothered to sit me down and ask: “How are you? What’s going on with you these days?”
There’s no app for compassion.
There’s no app for sensitivity.
Teacher — students — what do you think of this sort of thing?
I’m now halfway through my first semester teaching at Pratt Institute, a small private college in Brooklyn focused on art, writing and design. My two classes, writing and blogging, one with 12 freshmen and the latter with four seniors. are going well and I’m loving the experience.
But it’s a marathon.
When I stepped back into those two classrooms, I hadn’t taught in 20 years. I’d read everything I could about millennials, and arrived fearful of finding a room filled with entitlement and attention spans lasting mere seconds — a challenge with a two-hour class.
For any thoughtful teacher, it’s a cringe-making look from the students’ seats, and gave me a lot to think about.
From the Washington Post:
Key Takeaway #1
Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.
I could not believe how tired I was after the first day. I literally sat down the entire day, except for walking to and from classes. We forget as teachers, because we are on our feet a lot – in front of the board, pacing as we speak, circling around the room to check on student work, sitting, standing, kneeling down to chat with a student as she works through a difficult problem…we move a lot.
But students move almost never. And never is exhausting. In every class for four long blocks, the expectation was for us to come in, take our seats, and sit down for the duration of the time. By the end of the day, I could not stop yawning and I was desperate to move or stretch. I couldn’t believe how alert my host student was, because it took a lot of conscious effort for me not to get up and start doing jumping jacks in the middle of Science just to keep my mind and body from slipping into oblivion after so many hours of sitting passively.
I was drained, and not in a good, long, productive-day kind of way.
Here are ten ways I find this work challenging:
Teaching demands self-confidence
It takes guts to stand before a room filled with dubious/tired/hungover/distracted/nervous students, hoping to forge useful intellectual and emotional connections with each of them and to foster a collegial atmosphere among them. As someone who was badly bullied in high school, I find it stressful to be looked at and listened to, so the very decision to teach means facing and conquering that fear each week.
You also have to really know your stuff! When a student challenges you, hard, are you ready and willing to discuss the question with the full confidence everyone else is watching you as you do so?
Teaching demands stamina
It takes sustained energy — physical, mental and emotional — to teach a 15-week semester with consistent enthusiasm. You might feel ill or have personal issues distracting you. I have a 90-minute driving commute just to reach campus, then climb four flights of stairs to reach my first classroom, lugging books, papers and computer. I bring a large thermos filled with tea, and was heartened to see that another professor I know has an equally stuffed tote bag, including her large thermos of tea!
Teaching demands self-control
This is a big one. When a student hits one of my buttons — if I feel they’re being disrespectful, for example — it’s a challenge to remain calm and even-tempered. They’re young. Some are very immature. It’s my job to set the tone and keep things cool.
Teaching demands self-awareness
Every week, interactions with students force me to reflect on my own emotions and sensitivities. I try to separate my feelings from my work, but it’s not always simple or easy. You have to strike a balance between being too friendly or too stiff. While I want to be warm and approachable, I don’t want to be someone they feel they can take advantage of.
Teaching demands exquisite attention to time management
This is a big one. I do set lesson plans, but also know that when things are going really well, it’s best to stay in the moment and enjoy it! I recently did a “rapid round” — asking each of my 12 students to share something surprising about themselves — and we did it four or five times. It took longer than I’d planned, but it was so much fun and we were learning a great deal.
Balancing the need to communicate enough timely specific material, while allowing enough room for students’ ideas and questions, is a challenge every single week.
Teaching means not taking anything personally
Another big one, at least for me. I grew up as an only child and have been working alone at home for the past eight years. I’m hardly feral, but I’m not someone who grew up with the rough-and-tumble of a large, close family, or has a collegial workplace where I can reality-check my experiences. Having other friends who are teaching to turn to for advice is extremely helpful!
Adjuncting — which leaves us wholly vulnerable to student evaluations for our ongoing employment, little contact with my dean and none with my fellow teachers — is lonely! I’ve leaned hard on others teaching writing as well, a friend in Tucson and another in Minneapolis, to help set me straight.
Teaching demands emotional openness and sensitivity
I don’t have children or nephews or nieces. and grew up in a family with little to no bandwidth for my own struggles, so facing students’ fears and worries is new for me. I’m glad when they feel comfortable enough to share those with me, but not always sure how (best) to respond. Parsing fear/bravado/anxiety in them is not easy.
Teaching demands a deep, broad knowledge of your material — and engaging students in it
I’ve been writing for a living since I was a college undergrad, and can both recall my initial nervousness about my career and my excitement as I realized I could make a living as a writer. I enjoy sharing my insight with those hungry for it.
But knowing how to make my knowledge comprehensible and immediately useful?
Teaching means trying to fully engage a room full of strangers
By definition, we each bring different forms of intelligence and learning styles to class. It’s daunting, indeed, to discover that some of my students also struggle with dyslexia, anxiety, depression. Some are bored. Some are lagging. Some are happy to speak out, while others sit there silently, no matter how many times I insist that class participation is essential to their grade. I also think students need to own their education, not sit back passively.
I have to work harder to find ways to not just drone on and get them excited and involved.
Teaching means being able to pivot — whether mid-class, mid-term or mid-conversation
I handed out mid-semester evaluation forms recently to get a sense for what’s working, and what’s not. It helped a great deal and I made changes to one syllabus as a result. But flying solo means having to figure it all out on the fly.
Fellow teachers — and professors — what do you find most challenging?
As some of you already know, I’m an award-winning journalist who’s published two non-fiction books of national reporting and writes frequently for The New York Times. My work has appeared in publications in Canada, (Chatelaine, Flare, Toronto Life, Maisonneuve , etc.), the U.S., France, Ireland and New Zealand, including The Wall Street Journal, VSD, Marie Claire and Ladies Home Journal.
I’ve also taught journalism at Concordia University in Montreal, New York University, Pace University and The New York Times Student Journalism Institute. I also recently taught the first webinar here at Kristen Lamb’s online conference, WANACON.
I’m offering six webinars:
Think Like a Reporter
Finding and Developing Story Ideas
Growing Your Blog
Writing for A-List Editors
You, Inc: The Business of Freelancing
Crafting The Personal Essay.
Each is 90 minutes in length, half of which is saved for your questions and comments.
They range in price from $100 to $200; details, prices, dates and sign-up are all here. After you’ve registered, I’ll email you each directly with the sign-in location for the webinar.
The first is Sunday November 3 at 4:00 pm. Eastern time.
Finding and Developing Story Ideaswill be helpful to anyone who’s freelancing, or hopes to. I’ll talk about which ideas are best suited to websites, newspapers, magazines or non-fiction books — sometimes all of these.
Three recent students say:
“By any metric, Caitlin soars as a teacher, especially her sincerity and kindness. Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Caitlin embodies that – with the experiences she can share, the skills she can teach, and lives she can change.”
— Amer Taleb
Caitlin is an exemplary mentor and teacher. She doesn’t just provide excellent training for the exacting standards and requirements of journalism and authorship, but shares her experience and knowledge readily, offering real, pertinent information and how to use it.
She invests herself in those she teaches, helping them to develop the wide array of skills and instincts they will need to succeed in any area.”
— Cadence Woodland
“I enjoyed Caitlin’s presentation very much. As a journalist with only a few years experience, I appreciated her willingness to share her expertise and experiential wisdom. She made herself available for questions afterwards, which was particularly helpful. Her experience was insightful. If you have a chance to take a class with her, don’t hesitate. Great value.”
— Lisa Hall-Wilson
If you have any questions, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I hope you’ll sign up — and please spread the word!
I went back to my Toronto high school, (the same one Margaret Atwood attended), yesterday to guest lecture about what it’s like to write for a living. But if it hadn’t been for the powerful encouragement of my English teachers there — Mr. Bullen and Mr. Bickell, one who has since died and one retired — would I even have become a writer?
Or felt as confident of my choice?
From my earliest years, I was winning awards for my writing, a clue that this might be a good choice for me vocationally. We look to teachers, for better or worse, for adult appraisals of our talents and skills. A cruel or indifferent teacher can crush us, (and often does), pushing us away from a life we might have enjoyed or thrived in had we simply ignored them.
Our teachers, from early childhood on, leave powerful and lasting impressions on who we are and what we might become.
Like you, I suspect, I can still name my grade school teachers and some of their quirks, like Miss Dalton, ferocious and Irish, who taught us to memorize the shape of countries by tracing their borders with carbon paper or Miss Brough, (rhymes with rough!), who had us use dictionaries in Grade Eight to read The Scarlet Letter. Every fresh paragraph meant flipping it open to find a new word — but she taught us never to fear the unfamiliar.
My ninth-grade English teacher, in my most turbulent and unhappy year at private school, left the most lasting impression of all. She was tall, strikingly beautiful, with long, thick black hair and single. Unlike most our ancient, widowed or never-married staff, she offered a vision of someone we might like to become.
I was a mess then: angry, lonely, in trouble all time. Yet she was kind to me and treated me with the same attention as the better–behaved students in her class, for which I was miserably grateful.
In high school, bullied, I was difficult again. This time it was Ana, (we could — daringly — first-name her!), our Yugoslav art teacher, who added joy, beauty and humor to our tedious suburban Toronto days.
I ran into her years later and she introduced me, affectionately, to a fellow teacher’s wife: “This is Caitlin. She was always pain in ass.” True.
But she loved me anyway and, like Ms. Z., had still welcomed me into her classroom, her compassion and calm a needed refuge for me.
In their classrooms, I was allowed to be all of me: smart, sassy, funny, difficult. There were consequences, but there was also badly-needed comfort, acceptance and encouragement of a messy, creative complicated girl.
Great teachers see the pilot lights that flicker within us, that of our possibility and potential, sometimes long before we even know it’s there. They help us ignite the flame of our passion — for biology or German or computers or watercolors — that may light and warm us, possibly for decades to come.
A great teacher can also help us grow (up) emotionally and intellectually, can show us a different, perhaps more useful or social or interesting way of being or thinking or behaving than what we see inside our own families or amongst our peers.
My husband, Jose, is a photo editor at The New York Times, and helped them win a Pulitzer prize for photos taken on 9/11. He’s photographed the Olympics, three Presidents, war, Superbowls.
He was once, though, a minister’s son in Santa Fe, modestly expecting, and expected to become a teacher, as had many of his relatives.
But in tenth grade a teacher saw some photos he had taken for the high school yearbook. Mrs. Frank told him he had talent and should consider pursuing it as a career; when some of his basketball photos ended up in the local paper, that was it.
I’ve done a fair bit of teaching — at the undergraduate college level, and to adults. I love it. It’s such a thrill when students “get it.”
Here’s a powerful and moving video about a teacher in Los Angeles — faced with suicide attempts by fifth-graders — determined to help her young students feel good about themselves.
Which teacher most affected you and your later life?
How and why?
As a teacher — which I know many of you are — how do you feel about your power to affect your students?
I grew up in a family of, if not lone wolves, non-joiners.
Team spirit? Not so much.
My father, mother and stepmother were all freelance creatives: film, television, magazine journalism, almost always done working from home, sitting at a desk piled with papers, an ashtray overflowing (step-mom), a cold cup of milky coffee defining our “office.”
No one ever worked for The Man, or could count on paid vacation and sick days or a pension.
No one went to church or synagogue or played a team sport or joined a club or organization. My two brothers and I have all been nationally ranked athletes and super-competitive jocks, but usually in individual sports (riding, rally car racing, skateboarding, fencing.)
So it’s been an eye-opener to see what pleasures lie within community, not defined geographically — as it classically is for most of us — but through interests. After my divorce in 1994, alone in the ‘burbs with little cash and no pets or kids to pull me into those groups naturally, I started racing on sailboats of all sizes as a crew member, and did that for about five fun years.
My communities, now, include:
— the board, and 1,400 membership of, the American Society of Journalists and Authors
— the board of the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, a body that grants up to $5,000 quickly to writers in desperate financial straits
— a co-ed softball team that includes a literary agent, a pastry chef for a Big New York restaurant, high school teachers, a medical editor, a retired ironworker, an orthopedic surgeon and a cantor. We’ve played Softball Lite for more than eight years right until the ground freezes and the snow flies, and I love them dearly. Here’s my love letter to them that ran in The New York Times.
— my Episcopal church, an uneasy fit for me and my sweetie (both career journos) in that most of its members are wealthy, conservative and work in finance, law or high-level corporate jobs. But I’ve been there since 1998 and have made a few good friends. St. B’s and its pastors and assistant ministers has seen me through some major crises
I never really thought about “community” in this way until I read the obit of the sister of a dear friend of mine. When I called him to offer my condolences, he said, “I never knew how many communities she had.” It made me realize how many we enjoy, far beyond our traditional and individual roles of friend, daughter/son, wife/husband, partner, employee/boss.
Being a member of a community, de facto, shapes you. Every group has its own character, standards, acceptable (and not) forms of behavior, interaction and address, how to handle conflict or disagreement.
In Softball Lite, for example, we all know (and love) that cell phones are verboten and no one is allowed to freak out or berate a fellow player for a bobble or error. The operative word — in hyper-competitive New York where we are all so hungry for a friendly break — is Lite.
I only have one more drawing class before this four-week session ends. This morning the teacher set up a still life so utterly daunting I sat there paralyzed while I tried — like some medieval warrior staring up at a very large castle — to figure out my point of entry.
It doesn’t sound like much: a 1940s floral print linen tablecloth, and on it a pale yellow Fiestaware teapot, a red tea tin, a dark blue mug with a spoon on top and a sterling tea-ball. Perspective! Scale! Color! All those highlights (reflections) on the glossy surfaces of the pot and mug and spoon.
The exercise was to work in primary colors: red, yellow and blue. Easy, right? Not when the yellow ceramic is soft, pale shade — and my pencils are all strong colors. I managed to get the teapot and the mug done in two hours, when the teacher finally came by to take a look.
The great thing with drawing is it’s immediately obvious when it’s lousy. The problem is — how to fix it. The pot was too small, the mug too large. There was no fixing it.
I started again. Do-over!
This time I focused only on the teapot and spent 60 minutes just on it. It was certainly recognizable as a teapot. It was just lopsided.
As the teacher helped me figure out how to do it better next time, she packed away the items, including the tea-strainer that I’d just spent three hours looking at — focused on it only as something I had to capture and portray realistically, as a problem to solve.
I hadn’t even noticed that this tiny elegant object was itself in the form of a teapot, sort of a sterling silver fractal.
“Sometimes you have to step away to see things clearly,” she said. Indeed.
The pleasure of my drawing class is that, for three hours out of my week, I get to make a big fat mess in my sketchbooks as I (re)-learn how to see and how to translate what I see into something that makes visual sense and might even be attractive. I have two stories due to The New York Times today; no “mistakes” welcome there.
Unlike much of the rest of my life, class offers me a safe place to “fail” — to try something new, to do it poorly, to take gentle and helpful instruction, to go away and think hard about why I couldn’t even see clearly that which was before my eyes for so long. My fellow students are planning to show their work soon, but I’m in no rush to join them. I don’t need or want that validation — or that pressure to do it right or well or good enough.
My lousy drawings, my “failures”, are giving me great joy. That’s plenty for now.
I wonder how many sobbing Rhode Islanders would feel if they knew their kids were stuck with crap teachers — and stuck with their already insanely high taxes paying their full salaries for sitting in “detention” as it were year after year thanks to union protections.
In New York City, these splendid exemplars of pedagogy are banished to what’s called the “rubber room”, where they spend a workday collecting full pay, accumulated sick days (and since they are never absent, that’s a lot of sick days and vacation) and growing their tax-payer paid pensions for not teaching, for staying as far away from students as possible.
They are being handsomely rewarded for not doing their jobs!
The Bloomberg administration has made getting rid of inadequate teachers a linchpin of its efforts to improve city schools. But in the two years since the Education Department began an intensive effort to root out such teachers from the more than 55,000 who have tenure, officials have managed to fire only three for incompetence.
Joel I. Klein, the schools chancellor, above, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg say cumbersome state laws hamper their efforts….
Ridding schools of subpar teachers has become one of the signature issues of national education reformers, but the results in New York City show that, as is true in many school systems around the country, the process is not easy.
The city’s effort includes eight full-time lawyers, known as the Teacher Performance Unit, and eight retired principals and administrators who serve as part-time consultants to help principals build cases against teachers. Joel I. Klein, the schools chancellor, said that the team, whose annual budget is $1 million, had been “successful at a far too modest level” but that it was “an attempt to work around a broken system.”
Mr. Klein and his boss, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, said they were hampered by cumbersome state laws that had been heavily influenced by the teachers’ union here, although many of the rules that govern the cases were agreed to by the city.
“The process makes it virtually impossible to remove a teacher within a reasonable amount of time,” Mr. Klein said in an interview. “Nobody thinks that the number of cases is reflective of the teachers who should be removed.”
Ten others whom the department charged with incompetence settled their cases by resigning or retiring, and nine agreed to pay fines of a few thousand dollars or take classes, or both, so they could keep their jobs.