To Teach A Teacher Ill Beseemeth Me
High school English teachers are incredible people. They are the ultimate humanists, trying to keep the flame of civilization alive in the face of educational systems and governments convinced that the humanities are disposable and the only “real” education is in inventing, building, and programming various machines.
They dragged you, kicking and screaming, through some of the greatest accomplishments in world literature, from Edgar Allan Poe to Langston Hughes. They taught you how to read effectively, to communicate gracefully, to organize your ideas, and to develop empathy for others’s experiences. They taught you how to argue and how to flirt. They supplied you with intellectual-sounding quotes for your AIM profile and your email signature. They were like an estate attorney, fighting for you to get as much of your cultural inheritance as you possibly could.
They tried to enrich your life while you made fun of their dorky sweaters, skimmed Cliffs Notes, and then spent your adult lives blaming them for your laziness and lack of intellectual curiosity.
I can’t go three days without hearing someone say something to the effect of:
Being assigned classics in high school turned me off of reading.
Shakespeare shouldn’t be taught in high school English because it ruins Shakespeare for young people.
Studying literature is useless; students should study more practical life skills like tax law and business finance.
Whether it’s devaluing the subject they’ve devoted their life to teaching, blaming them for students’ lack of interest or motivation, or indicting them for teaching a multidisciplinary artform in the “wrong” discipline, they seem to be everyone’s favorite punching bag.
This is either especially true in the world of Shakespeare, or I am just especially aware of it because that’s the field I work in. But it seems like the high school English teacher is everyone’s favorite scapegoat for why people don’t like Shakespeare. I spent a miserably toxic few years participating in the Shakespeare section of Reddit, which is exclusively populated with morose “scholars” bickering joylessly over minutiae and high school students asking for help with their homework. Every time a student asked for help with their homework, the “scholars” saw fit to critique the teacher’s curricula. Every reading assignment, quiz question, paper topic was lambasted as symptomatic of why people don’t like Shakespeare. Because English teachers are incompetent and teaching it all wrong!
Helen Mirren recently made headlines for saying that teaching Shakespeare in school ruins Shakespeare for young people and that everyone should experience Shakespeare exclusively in the theatre — presumably after some harried, thankless English teacher has explained to them the definitions of words like bodkin and given them a background in classical Greek and Roman literature and English medieval history.
The idea that Shakespeare should be experienced exclusively on the stage seems to be an interrelated idea with the general abuse of high school English teachers, as it enables theatre practitioners to blame the literature curriculum for people’s difficulty understanding and enjoying Shakespeare, rather than the 400 year gap between when his plays were written and their current performances. I’ve already written about the silly belief that there’s any “right” or “wrong” way to experience Shakespeare, but to summarize: you miss out on some things when you exclusively watch Shakespeare, and you miss out on other things when you exclusively read Shakespeare. Telling people that they should only watch Shakespeare is tantamount to saying that you expect everyone to have not only a working vocabulary of early 17th century idioms, but also a passing familiarity with contemporary Elizabethan and Jacobean politics and society. Something all theatre-goers have, obviously.
High school English teachers are overworked and underpaid for the laying the foundations for everything that we do in the world of the arts. We write books that we want people to be able to read and comprehend, we produce television and film and theatre that we want people to be able to appreciate and interpret, and yet we incessantly disparage the very people who teach those things.
Those teachers love literature and culture and the arts just as much, if not more, than we do. And they are arguably doing more to advance the cause of the humanities than any of us two-bit “artists.” And we constantly blame them for the fact that in high school, we were bratty, insolent, stupid, ungrateful philistines and they were not getting paid nearly enough to put up with us.
A lot of “scholars” should try teaching high school (or try teaching it again if it’s been a while since they were in a classroom with a bunch of 16 year olds). It’s not easy. They’re a skeptical, ignorant audience that swing wildly between paying no attention whatsoever and demanding you to explain and justify everything you say. Unlike your fellow scholars at academic conferences who will knowingly nod their heads when you say fluffy bullshit like “Hamlet has the most expansive consciousness in all of literature” or some other such drivel, a class of high school students will ask what you mean by that. And then if you try and handwave away their question by quoting from some book of literary theory they’ve not read, they’ll ask you to explain what that book of literary theory means. And then, if you can’t really elucidate what you mean in concrete terms understandable to them, you’ll start to question if you understand the material at all or are just used to impressing other academics with the literary scholarship equivalent of the Emperor’s New Clothes.
This is why high school English teachers are the greatest scholars, because they deal with a challenging, skeptical audience that won’t swallow bullshit simply because it’d be impolite not to. They won’t give you the benefit of the doubt, and they don’t want to be in your class in the first place. So high school English teachers have to find a way to convey complex giants of literature to an audience who doesn’t know anything about literature and would be quite happy to never learn anything about literature.
It’s honestly a heroic task.
Literature, and the arts in general, will never seem valuable to the STEM dogmatists who are on a never-ending quest to build better and better mousetraps, even though those same folks would suffer just as much as the rest of us in a world without television, film, or music.
But those of us who love books, love theatre, love art and music know how much it enriches and gives meaning to our lives. How it has built us bridges, lit our way out of dark times, opened our hearts and helped us to see ourselves in others’ shoes.
And regardless of whether you like to admit it, your high school English teacher had a hand in opening that part of your brain. You might be an enlightened, cultured adult, but you were a snotty, ignorant, lazy teenager who would’ve been just as happy listening to the same Limp Bizkit album on loop while guzzling Mountain Dew and playing Playstation. The fact that you grew into someone better and smarter with broader horizons is thanks to someone that you and a lot of other people have never properly appreciated.
In my education work I spend a lot of time with high school English teachers, and without exception they’ve all been wonderful human beings. Often tasked with teaching Homer, Toni Morrison, Mark Twain, and Elie Wiesel in the same semester, they do work that would fluster the most accomplished academics. They are brilliant, fascinating, enthusiastic people doing some of the most important work in the life of our culture. They do not ruin anyone’s love of reading, they are not the reason people have difficulty with Shakespeare, and we would all be much worse off if their classes were replaced with “life skills” classes on finance.
If you’re an idiot, it’s in spite of, not because of, your high school English teacher.