Maybe you remember getting lost as a child, that moment at the shopping mall or carnival when you looked up to discover a stranger instead of your mom or dad. I still occasionally feel the same disorientation, though the particulars have changed. I expect what I know and find something else instead.
Most recently, at work. As a colleague teaching in the room before me hurriedly gathered his materials, he responded to a student noting all the desks pointed in the same direction, toward the board.
“Test?” the student said.
“No,” my colleague said, “Probably some English teacher arranged the desks this way. They like that.”
I said, “Oh yes, we’re into that full-frontal teaching thing.”
Then it occurred to me, that period I was teaching U. S. Social History. I was a history teacher, not an English teacher.
Back in the hippy-dippy sixties and early seventies, when people asked teachers what they taught, they were supposed to say, “Kids.” Teaching was teaching, and the subject mattered less than relationships with students. I believe that. The fundamentals of encountering new information, thinking about it, and demonstrating mastery aren’t that different from subject to subject. The methodology may change—examining history and novels demand diverse skills—but the teacher’s role as a guide is largely the same. You know. You understand. You can do what they can’t yet. Your job is to instruct them in learning, to help them figure out how to absorb and explore what, a few moments before, was new.
Nonetheless, I quickly corrected myself after identifying as an English teacher. “But this is history,” I said, “I’m a history teacher right now.” I suddenly feared losing the students’ confidence. They might begin to question if I knew my stuff, and a panicked part of me shouted “Imposter!”
As an English teacher I come in with big ideas and hope the class will find passages and episodes to discuss them. But in history, I’m more fearful. If we’re talking about the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Jefferson doesn’t come up, I know I’ve screwed up. Or, anyway, that’s how I feel in my imposter moments—knowing my stuff is critical. My history department chair says “No.” He says, as long as I teach them to think about the implications of historical detail and to grasp the way historians assess it, dates and events matter less.
If the colleague who teased me was covertly sincere in his commentary about the desks, maybe he doesn’t make a distinction, as he implied English teachers love to lecture the way history teachers, as the cliché goes, love to impart the Story of Civilization. Yet any history teacher who describes the past moment by moment had better be a brilliant story-teller. Any English teacher holding forth on his or her interpretation had better be brilliant. Most of the time, spilling secrets and playing “Guess what the teacher is thinking?” fails. While I hope I know more history than my students, I also hope they’ll engage the detail they encounter, perhaps even empathize as a reader might.
For many years, I’ve been co-teaching a course that combines American history and literature. I teach the literature half, but I’ve traveled through the national story several times. What I gained from watching the other teacher wasn’t the information she knew—though she knows an amazing amount—but her skill at encountering it, her knack of changing the angles on what students thought they knew, and drawing them back to documents and artifacts that spur fresh theories. It’s not simply stuff to her.
It will take some time before I answer to “history teacher” and perhaps longer to feel I deserve the title as she does, but maybe forgetting what I’m teaching is another sort of progress, the recognition that, whatever I am this period, I’m just trying to help.