Easy. It’s one of the worst insults that a teacher can endure. It’s a goal that stays consistent for me as an educator, year after year: to keep my students working until they can’t hear over the snapping of their own synapses and their hands seize up in typing cramps. When I check ratemyteachers.com (yeah, I check it), the only rating I care about is my Easiness score. It’s got to be three or fewer out of five stars, or else I’ve got some serious revamping to do.
My obsession started in one of my junior college prep classes at St. John’s during my first year of teaching, 2000. I had wandered into the professional wilderness, fresh out of grad school and the ivory tower of educational theory. And on the first day of school I had told the boys in A Block–all 27 of them–that they could expect to write more in my course than take quizzes and tests, because quizzes and tests didn’t fit with my student-centered, creative-process philosophy. What this meant was that I, myself was a terrible test-taker, and so my own anxiety and years of painful multiple-choice memories had somehow morphed into my pedagogy. I was going to be the cool teacher, too. I was going to inspire these kids to looooove writing, to experiment with their storytelling voices, to empathize with very human characters and to craft original worlds in short fiction and poetry. (They did end up experimenting with their storytelling voices, but mostly in the form of excuses for not doing homework or not coming to class.) In any case, sometime around Christmas that year, one of my students called my class “a joke” in front of all 26 of his peers, and the room exploded in laughter.
I got mad. Wicked mad. You want a hard class? Okay, you got it. I started spending hours making up cranky reading quizzes and ball-busting tests for our units on The Scarlet Letter and Huck Finn and My Antonia.
What color are the eyes of the actress who plays Hester Prynne in the PBS film version of The Scarlet Letter, which we viewed two weeks ago?
Name two specific details of the crockery cat and dog that Huck finds in the Grangerford house.
Finish this sentence, the last sentence of Chapter 10 of My Antonia, with the correct phrase: “Mrs. Harling declared bitterly that ___________.”
The tone in that room changed, all right. It had taken me too long to realize that these boys equated a challenging teacher with the number of quizzes and tests that he gave. That’s right: he. I felt that this mindset correlated with the “maleness” of this prep school, which was traditional and New-Englandy. The kids’ favorite teachers were men; those teachers spoke in baritone and wore ties and yelled at them to take their hats off and tuck in their shirts, demanding that kids operate within certain limits…including the limits of a series of numbered questions and prompts, to be completed within a certain amount of time. The male teachers kept them regulated within boundaries and they didn’t know what to do with a female teacher who had flowy hair and wore billowy blouses and asked them to feel the implications of language in their guts and souls. So I provided them with what they needed to take my class more seriously.
Fifteen years later, my reading quizzes are still pretty impossible. However, I have been able to secure a decent reputation for mining kids for their best writing, for making them write often, and prolifically. One of my favorite accomplishments is being the subject of a rumor, spread over the course of the summer from my previous year’s students to my new batch–“You got Mrs. Mastrangelo? She’s tough.” Even better is the story from a parent on PTA night about her son who willingly stayed up to work on a horror story I assigned, not the night before the due date, and against his parents’ wishes.
Though I’m not thrilled about getting older, one invaluable benefit is that I am no longer an inexperienced teacher and will never go back to those first years of debilitating self-doubt…doubt that trembled in my lips and in my assignments and in my conversations with high-paying parents, vulnerable to everyone’s exploitation. Whereas I used to torture myself by visiting ratemyteachers.com and reading comments such as, “Not a bad teacher, had her her 1st year at SJP, and we walked all over her and owned the class, so she’s cool in my book,” now I hunger for the feedback. If I see my Easiness rating start to rise, I will take extreme measures if necessary.
Until then, I will ride on the high that the following review gives me. It just might be the highlight of my teaching career.
“Having Mrs. Mastrangelo is a win/lose situation. She’s an extremely challenging teacher who pushes us to succeed. The homework she assigns can range from thirty minutes to three hours. She gives constructive feedback that helps us shape our writing techniques. However, walking into her classroom is like a visit to the orthodontist: You don’t know what to expect but most of the time it ends up being painful but in the end you benefit from the experience.”
I love you, too! Open wide!
Liz you hit a nerve with this one. So true the ultimate insult, rather have the word “witch” thrown at me then hearing Easy!
Thanks for this, Liz. To be honest, whenever I meet a kid I taught during my first year as a teacher, I want to just apologize to him. It wasn’t his fault that I was more in tune with the material than how to connect it to mostly indifferent 15-year-olds. It wasn’t his fault that I didn’t know a key teaching truth, namely, that what moved me to care about language might not be the most important consideration in my teaching (simply because of the obvious fact that my students are NOT me!). What’s tricky (and you speak to this here too) is that those moments that work in the classroom seem to be weird balances between traditional rigor and, for lack of a better term, unabashed love and admiration of language in the hands of great authors. I also feel that the most liberating sentence I can utter in a classroom is, “I don’t know.” It took me a while to realize that! Thanks again for making me think.