When I called my parents to tell them I had officially passed my exams, they, of course, celebrated with me, but it didn’t take them very long to ask me, what next? And not because they are demanding sorts of people, but rather because…they know me. And they know my incessant drive to learn new things.
Well, I said, the next thing I have to do is write my prospectus. But that shouldn’t be too difficult since I won’t have any class requirements, and I can just read and write whatever the hell I want, now.
My mom was 100% skeptical. Really? You are done taking classes for the rest of your life?
I managed to be all cavalier about it. Yeah, I shrugged, I guess I was done with classes.
About two months after that conversation, I sat down with the directors of the UIC MAT (MA degree in the Teaching of History) program, and accepted a place in their new brainchild–the PhD Teaching Certification track.
Again, I called my parents to tell them about my upcoming endeavor.
Ok, Mom said, that’s more like it.
And there’s a reason she feels that way.
Beside my own tendency to gobble up as much information as possible and build my academic schedule to just below the breaking point, there is this inevitable and immutable tendency in my family, as a whole, toward teaching. It’s a multi-generational, unbroken tradition.
My grandmother so felt a need to be in the classroom that she turned down my grandfather’s marriage proposal some five years running, just so she could go off to Illinois State Normal University (later ISU), make her way in the world, and then settle back in Bradford, IL to lead her own classroom.
Even after she married Grandpa (he was super persistent with those proposals) she continued to teach in less formal settings. She took a position as a Catholic Catechism instructor and developer of curriculum, sharing another of her unshakeable faiths for years, and she taught her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren for the entirety of her life.
When I would get my report cards in grade school, the first person I wanted to show all my As to was Grandma, not only because she gave the best hugs in the world, and I got a hug per A, but also because she would patiently listen while I recited my litany of projects and papers and then ask me questions about my favorite subjects. Even when a stroke took away her verbal communication skills, she still listened to me talk about my MA thesis and gave me a one-armed hug when she saw my diploma.
And I would say that Grandpa was an educator, too. He never walked his way up and down the aisles of a classroom, but his knowledge of farming, smithy work, welding, carpentry, animal husbandry, gaming, orchard-development, you name it, was formidable. And as a master story-teller, he could weave just about any skill into something anyone age six and upward could understand.
My grandparents were also life-long learners. They were forever taking classes to learn new skills. Sure, my grandparents’ retirement included a good deal of lazing by the “fifth-wheel” out in Arizona RV parks, but it also involved a lot of rock-tumbling, jewelry-making, hiking, bicycling, site-visiting, and friend-making. They would come back to Illinois for the summer, and we would pour into the farm over the weekends anxious to see what they had to share.
Of their seven children, three went on to get degrees in teaching–Aunt Angie teaches grade school Math, Uncle John taught collegiate level English Literature, and Aunt Kate majored in Home Economics and then became the principal of a Catholic school for years.
And those who didn’t become educators in a formal sense became educators for their children in extraordinary ways. I would say I probably learned more from my mother in the first years of my education than I ever did from my “actual” teachers. I’ve mentioned before her art-talk and book-talk guest lessons in the classroom, but she also planned field-trips for my brothers and I, all through the year, got us all excited for accelerated summer school classes (although that didn’t take much prodding on her part), and constantly brought new educational materials into our home to supplement our schoolwork.
Teachers married in to the family in droves, as well. Two of my uncles married women with degrees in education, and my Aunt Kate married another administrator, who also happened to be a self-taught polyglot and avid writer.
And, again, those who married in without formal education degrees, nonetheless, educate. My dad, for instance, despite his demanding job (I remember him going in to work in the middle of the night until I hit about high-school age), read with us, told us amazing, off the top of his head stories, taught us about the weather, attended every school program, and instilled in us a sense of adventure, which all good learners need.
And, you guessed it, a number of grandchildren became or married teachers. I suspect great-grandchildren will probably do the same. And sure, I have cousins and siblings who wandered away from education into medicine, computer engineering, media, managerial positions, and a bunch of other professions (…there are like 75 of us), but every one of us knows how to teach someone about what we do, and every one of us prizes learning.
I am (obviously) proud of this tradition. And I am pleased, especially, to follow in my grandmother’s footsteps. I can only imagine what kind of hug I would get right now, if I could tell her about this new undertaking.
But I also have reasons for pursuing the PhD Teaching Track, apart from family legacy.
Mainly, I feel that as a future professor, it is my responsibility to make sure that I can share my knowledge in a way that is accessible, organized, and interesting. I love my research, and I love rooting around in archives and getting excited about weird and esoteric things. But I refuse to be one of those professors who stands up in front of the classroom and lectures ad nauseum, fails to keep office hours, and stares at students like they are alien invasions into an otherwise library-guided lifestyle.
So, when I got the email about this new Teaching Track certification, I pounced on it.
The certification consists of the following: HIST 500–The Teaching and Philosophy of History; HIST 420–Teaching the Social Sciences; one education department class of my choosing (and I’m choosing to take a special ed course); a semester internship with the director of the MAT program; 50 hours of observation in area high schools; a final exam
Logistically, at the end of the program, I will know how to set up the administration for my own MA in the Teaching of History program, should a potential hire ask me to do so. I’ll also know how to navigate Illinois State Standards, direct training courses for graduate Teaching Assistants, and build lesson plans that incorporate multi-media into the classroom. And, although the program will by no means make me an expert in the following, it will at least give me some further tools to help English Language Learners and students with registered disabilities through their respective difficulties in the classroom.
Philosophically, at the end of the program, I will be fired up as all hell. I am already fired up as all hell.
The Teaching Track springs from a core belief that History, as a discipline, is tailor-made to teach students about civic engagement, social responsibility, critical thinking, and advanced analysis. Therefore, those of us in the program are open advocates for History training that moves beyond lists of names and dates, and, instead, engages with students’ lives, goals, and communities. History that moves away from rote memorization and toward problem-solving, writing, and diversified outreach. History that puts less emphasis on whether or not a student can fill in the right bubble with a nice, dark, #2 pencil smudge, and asks instead, what were the thought processes that brought you to answer the question asked of you? How can “historical thinking” make you a more thoughtful person, generally?
It’s gonna be awesome.