Day 144: Emily, teacher and Chair of the History Department

[ By on May 18, 2013 ]

How do you best maintain the engagement of second-semester seniors on a seventy-five-degree May afternoon immediately following lunch?  Well, if you’re me, you break into an elaborate tap routine, spinning and falap-heel-toe-heel-step-brush–heeling your way around the room while rhythmically reciting key points from relevant Supreme Court decisions.  That always gets their attention.

As I employed this desperate tactic this afternoon, it occurred to me that studying tap has made me a better teacher, and not just because there’s a significant element of egotism and performance involved in standing in front of a roomful of hypercritical adolescents every day.  I think of myself as a pretty scrappy dancer.  It takes me a long time to master the mechanics of a new step or to weave various elements of choreography into a seamless routine, and I get frustrated, panicky, and even despondent when the instructor moves too quickly.  Nevertheless, I work really hard at it, and though I may not be the most graceful person in the world, I take a certain degree of pride in the precision of my technique.

I guess my students feel much the same way when approaching their writing.  Trying to assimilate concrete factual information while also categorizing and analyzing that information in useful ways is a bit like mastering a complicated choreography; there are important technical skills involved, but there’s also artistry and grace, and, as I well know, that grace doesn’t come naturally to everyone.  It’s been good for me to put myself back in the position of a frustrated learner, one who plugs away relentlessly at a required skill but still finds that final veneer of sophistication elusive.  It has taught me a certain kind of empathy, and it has ultimately made me a better teacher.

Now, empathizing with their desire to spend this glorious spring day outside on Jones Lawn?  That’s something that does come naturally.

Emily  has taught History at Riverdale since 2005, and currently serves as the chair of her department.  




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