I’m Elizabeth Gessell and I’m an English teacher at Mountain View High School in Orem, Utah. I’m also the English chair and I have taught there for 12 years, and in fact that consists of my total teaching career.
Well I believe that the first item that you need to be a really good teacher is something that necessarily can’t be taught, but I think you need to care. And you need to care deeply about what you do and about the students. And from that caring should stem all your other things that you need to be; you need to fulfill their needs, you need to be able to answer their questions, you need to prepare them for the future. And so it’s not just simply a matter of teaching your subject, which they may or may not remember and mostly will not, but you have to understand that you are educating someone who will go out into the world. And with a little bit of what they learned from you, be one of those wonderful people that help make our world a better place.
The first is that you yourself are a better person. I really believe the better you---educated you are the better a person you are simply because you’re able to relate to people better. And I think the second thing is that you can make connections. I teach Humanities as well as English and that is the most wonderful class to teach because I talk about Pythagoras as a philosopher as well as a mathematician. And I talk about war and why art and music was affected or why people decided that they were disenchanted with society and so it affects the literature. And you can see how things are inner connected in the world. We talk about being inner connected and we really think that we are interconnected and then we go into our own little classrooms and the idea that you can teach only one subject. I really do try in my teaching, I teach mostly American Literature, I try to, uh, bring in history, I never knew American History, I had to learn it to make sense. That’s a really good example; I had to learn American History to some extent to make sense of American literature. There’s just really no other way. And if you say, well I’m not going to be affected by technology or the technological revolution means nothing to me and I can just stay in my room and---and just be, you know, like side blinded and only do my subject, that’s---that’s not right because then you’re not part of society anymore. General education makes you part of society and it enables you to help kids be a better part of society.
Um---in the autobiography of Fredrick Douglas there’s a time when he is a slave in Baltimore and the m---mistress of the house begins to teach him how to read and then the master finds out and says, ‘no, you must never ever do that.’ And he goes, uh, and bribes boys to teach him the alphabet and teaches him how to read. And then he said, ‘when I knew how to read I was so unhappy because I realized what I had missed.’ And to me that is so poignant because I realize the power of education. When you educate---a democracy only works with an educated public and if you have a segment of the public that is not educated or does not have the freedom to read or be educated, then you have a part of the public that’s a slave or in a lower position where you can manipulate their thinking. I mean the blacks had no power because they had no access to knowledge. And the only way our society can work is if, in a democracy, everyone has power to knowledge. Power to gain that knowledge and to participate in that knowledge. So public school isn’t just about learning, you know, who the Nobel Prize winners were from American Literature, I mean, bless my dear heart, but that is useless information. But what it’s about is making them understand where they fit in to this great drama and the responsibility they have as American citizens, where it’s been before and where they can take it in the future. To under---to do that, at least from English, from my point of view, you can look at the literature and see, you know, where it’s been and---and what the American dream is and what the land meant to the people and then decide what part they’re going to play in that great drama as it continues into the future.
I think a poorly prepared teacher, number one I’ve seen teachers who are in the classroom because they don’t know what else to do with their lives and that’s a---that’s a shame. It---it’s a shame for them and it’s a shame for the kids. And I’ve seen teachers who are there because they don’t like, I mean, they don’t even like students and I think what the heck are you in high school with a bunch of teenagers for. As far as gen---uh, as far as poorly prepared within their subject, um, I have teachers who don’t know grammar, who can’t construct sentences and so---and especially outside of English you’ll find that, so---and you have some---you always have bright, bright kids (laughs) and they’ll catch you, especially in high school, they’ll catch you. And so you keep making mistakes and you don’t make connections and, uh, you come off looking pretty bad, at least in high school. Maybe you can get away with it in elementary, but it’s an embarrassment, it’s---it’s terrible to have a parent come in and say, ‘huh, you didn’t know this?’ It’s awful.
No, I think I said the most important---well, actually there is (interrupt) and you can’t use it. But years ago the first time I became a teacher it was, um, I was in Junior Sunday School, and they had driven out two---they were a group of ten-year-old boys, and they had driven out two former teachers. And if nothing else I was just stubborn and when I walked in the room they were throwing chairs around. And by the end of the---and I went home after I don’t know how many times just in tears and my mother said to me, ‘Elizabeth, all you need to do is love them.’ And actually that is the most important advice. Also, ask yourself, for future teachers, are you the kind of teacher you would like your child to have? Is this all you would like your child to have? I mean think of what teachers have done for you and treat each child as though they were your child and that you wanted the very, very best for them. And then go out there and try to be the very best.