If you have been an English/language arts teacher for more than a year, you understand how demanding your career choice is. The number of competencies for which you are responsible, the endless avalanche of grading, and the varied student ability levels you encounter each year are not for the faint of heart. When I occasionally vent (I get tired like everyone does) about my workload to other teachers, they often say things like, “I don’t know how you do it! I would NEVER be a language arts/English teacher! That’s why I chose math/social studies/science/fill-in-the blank! There is far less grading, and the grading is easier to do!”
These teachers have a point, although I do wish more would embrace the responsibilities they, too, have towards improving students’ literacy skills. If they did, they would see how improvement in these areas can increase students’ understanding of major concepts in their own content area. The old excuse of “I didn’t choose to be an English teacher, so I shouldn’t have to teach reading/writing/ listening/ speaking” is not really effective in the twenty-first century. Today’s jobs require students to have command of these skills more than ever, and since the other content areas are the gateways to these jobs, it makes sense that literacy skills should be emphasized when applicable.
With that said, I agree that language arts is the toughest subject to teach. When compared to other subject areas, I do believe the workload of a hardworking English teacher far exceeds that of many other subject areas. After 22 years in the field, I am certain I spend more time grading than my counterparts do. The grading requires constant presence of mind because I am often attempting to follow the students’ thinking in the writing they produce. This type of grading is far more challenging than correcting multiple choice questions, and now there are computer programs that will do that for you.
Yes, language arts grading can be exhausting. And I am fine with that. Why? Because these skills have, in my opinion, the most impact on my students’ futures. Literacy is central to success regardless of a student’s career aspirations.
The standards required of a language arts teacher can be overwhelming. Lets take a quick look at the list:
- Reading – Students should be able to decode, comprehend, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate new grade level text independently.
- Language – Students should be able to identify and use correct grammar, spelling, punctuation, and grade level vocabulary.
- Writing – Students should be able to apply the language skills and craft longer pieces of writing: the argument, the informational piece, and the narrative. Additionally, students are to use technology and apply effective research skills, and students should be able to cite evidence and use proper internal citation and create works cited pages. Finally, students should be able to use the writing process to draft, revise, and edit writing for publication.
- Speaking/Listening – Students should be able to come to discussions prepared, follow rules for effective discussion, listen to speeches and analyze ideas, elaborate on those ideas, and speak effectively when they give their own speeches.
When you review this list, it is easy to see how these skills impact every person, regardless of his or her future. These skills require a person to think, problem solve, effectively express themselves and communicate with others. While technical expertise is becoming more and more necessary in new 21st century careers, the need to think critically, problem solve, and communicate with others effectively is just as important, areas that are deeply embedded in the language arts curriculum.
So Why be an ELA Teacher?
As you can see from the standards we teach, this career can be incredibly challenging, but that’s why it is, by far, the most rewarding. While I teach adolescents first, I chose English/ language arts as my vehicle to effect change because I have seen firsthand how it transforms students’ lives, which is why I am in the education business. Improvement in any of these areas gives students a voice, changes future opportunities, and positively impacts future generations.
Literacy Builds Confidence
Students who tackle and improve any aspect of reading, writing, speaking, or listening exhibit more confidence. Regardless of the literacy strand, students who grow in any of these areas gain confidence. When students gain confidence, especially after struggling with a skill, they become more determined. People who are more determined experience more success, regardless of their chosen paths.
Reading better is a huge confidence builder. Over 22 years, I have seen students who choose to improve their reading skills gain confidence. Each year, students who once melted into walls when asked to read transform into people who raise their hands and exuberantly shout, “Please, let me read!” Students who finish their first chapter books can’t wait to tell you the plot to show they “got” it have taken the first step to understanding content in any subject area they want to investigate independently. Non-readers who discover the joy of reading for the first time realize they can become anything they want to because they have learned how to learn.
Writing teaches students they have a voice that deserves to be heard. When those who never considered themselves writers find their voice, it has a dramatic effect on how they view themselves in the world. When students who see themselves as terrible writers, primarily due to all the grammatical and convention errors marked by previous teachers, come away from class with a new found confidence because they know something they wrote impacted another person, they realize they can connect with and make a difference in the world in which they live. When students say for the first time “I know I am a writer,” they look at what they read differently, appreciate the writer’s style, and will never look at the written word in the same way. When students start journals, write for the pure joy it offers, struggle to effectively communicate their intended meaning to their intended audience, they enter writing contests, publish for the first time, and realize words have power. When students realize they can use words for this purpose, they, too, realize they have power and can make a difference.
When students once terrified of public speaking give their first speech with confidence, they overcome a fear more prevalent in our country than the fear of dying. This success instills a key understanding that successful people do not allow fear to prevent them from trying new things which will take them out of their comfort zones. They learn to overcome fear of failure deal with nerves that often prevent others from reaching their true potential. Future job interviews are now possible as are careers that require public speaking, and these students will possess a skill many don’t have.
How can I Meet All these Demands?
My answer to this question? I don’t know. In twenty-two years, I have never followed my curriculum map with fidelity, and I scoff at district mandated pacing guides. Because literacy skills are so intricately interwoven, I haven’t found a logical way to map out the sequence of how these skills are best taught, particularly when various aspects are internalized differently by each of my students. Quite simply, reading and writing are processes. Some of the processes are easily acquired by some students while other skills are not. The acquisition of these skills depends upon how each student’s brain is wired.
I often equate teaching language arts to being a doctor. I first administer baseline tests to determine what reading, writing, and language skills are present. Then I “prescribe” various treatments and measure their effect on students’ abilities as readers and writers through a variety of formative assessments. Sometimes, as in the world of medicine, a treatment doesn’t work, so I try something else. As language arts teachers, we are tasked with developing anywhere from 80 – 160 individual treatment plans during any single day of teaching, so no, I don’t put much stock in curriculum maps and pacing guides.
Instead, I do believe in analyzing several sources of data. Our school uses the state test, the MAP test, and baseline writings. That works for me. I believe in those sources, but I also trust my own observation of students. I listen to them as they discuss what they read, I analyze the writing they do about what they read, and I make a plan based on the data and my observations based upon what skills the most students need at the time.
This obviously takes a great deal of time. I don’t get to everything, but I do see students grow over time. I measure my success as a teacher on three things: Do students enjoy reading and writing more after leaving my class? Do students believe they are better readers, writers, speakers, listeners, and thinkers after leaving my class? Can I see improvement in students’ reading and analysis skills through the writing they create at the end of the year? If the answer is yes to these three questions, then yes, I have made a difference. And yes, ELA is the best subject to teach!