The Ladder of CraftPrint
By Paula Marantz Cohen
I come from a family of teachers. My sister and brother-in-law teach, as does my daughter. My mother did, too, as I’ve written about before. She spent 30 years in a suburban New Jersey public school system and would have continued teaching had she not taken ill.
Growing up, people around me always seemed to be talking about teaching. Yes, they talked about uncaring administrators, paltry salaries, and moronic colleagues—but also about the rewards of teaching, which mostly had to do with the students: the curious ones, the diligent ones, the eccentric ones. My mother used to regale us when she got home from school each afternoon with a familiar cast of characters: the class clown who always fell off his chair promptly at 11:30 A.M., the aspiring model who came to homeroom dressed for the fashion runway, the genius who read all of Racine over spring break. She often expressed enthusiasm at seeing an under-performing student become enlivened by an insight or a book. My mother was always reworking the material she planned to teach, keeping up her files of relevant articles and ideas, and grading papers. I cannot remember a car trip when she wasn’t sitting in the front seat with a pile of these, flicking through the pages with her red pen.
All this constitutes the stuff of teaching. But when my daughter, who is finishing her first year teaching high school science as part of the Teach for America program in rural southern Arkansas (the subject of an earlier column), asked me recently: “How do you work to perfect your craft?” I was at a loss.
The craft of teaching comes from working deliberately on methodology, and I don’t think I need to work on this anymore. Neither did my mother after a certain point. We both became better teachers as we grew older, but this resulted from our having acquired a deeper understanding of ourselves. Teaching is something so organic, so deeply wedded to who I am—my interests and my identity—as to now make the idea of craft seem unnecessary and trivial.
I confess, though, that I do sometimes wonder if my attitude is wrong-headed—reflecting a comfort with what I am doing that I should question. I am comfortable in the classroom, and at times I worry if comfort is a companion to complacency and even laziness. Could the ladder of craft, which I assume I no longer need, get me to a new place as a teacher, a place that I haven’t yet thought of going?
Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and the recent What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper.
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