by Heather McNamee
“What am I doing here?” I thought to myself, as I stood in an undecorated classroom in a rural Arkansas high school. This was never part of that life plan I had taken so seriously as an undergraduate and then Masters student. I was supposed to be enrolled in a PhD program eagerly checking my email for lengthy booklists from professors, but instead here I was considering what type of border to put on my bulletin board. Regardless of my best-laid plans, this was my reality.
This reality was borne from the financial exigencies of perpetual studentdom and embarrassingly meager adjunct income. Although I laughed outwardly when saying I was choosing a career as a public high school teacher just to make more money, I was actually crying on the inside.
Speaking of crying, I had also cried a couple of weeks earlier when my grandmother lay dying in a hospice bed in the living room of the home where she had raised two generations of children. I expected her to be disappointed that I was taking a detour from my plans to pursue a PhD in favor of a job with meager but stable income. She looked at me with a sincerity that can only come from someone whose final days are upon them and said “Heather, teach your heart out. Those kids need you.”
This memory jolted me back to the present. Whether it was part of my plan or not, this was an important job—perhaps the most important job. And like any driven Type A personality, I would do this job to the best of my ability, detour or not. I had no way of knowing that day that this detour would be the most important of my life.
My grandmother was right; my high school students needed me. As most public school teachers will admit, at any given time we are therapist, life coach, and even nurse, all while attempting to do the thing we thought we signed up for: convey our content in a meaningful way. What my grandmother may not have anticipated though was the extent to which I needed my students. They challenged me in ways that shaped my teaching philosophy, asked questions that altered how I thought about history as a discipline, and inspired me to see teaching as an activist endeavor. I finally went for that PhD, but it was more difficult leaving my detour than I ever imagined. My time as a secondary school teacher continues to shape my role as an academic historian.
I went into that first year with the mindset I had brought into my college courses as an adjunct instructor, where the survey history classes I taught were mostly lecture-based. I incorporated some primary source analysis into the PowerPoints and attempted to facilitate class discussion, but in many ways I fostered a passive environment. Students were encouraged to read the corresponding textbook chapters for my lectures and there were four exams scattered throughout the semester.
I thought this was the most effective way to construct a course, so I planned to teach my high school classes similarly. I believed my content knowledge and passion for history would inspire my high school students and that after a short period of being intimidated by my brilliant mind, they would carry me out on their shoulders. After lecturing back-to-back for seven hours, I honestly wish they had just carried me to my car. I was completely exhausted. I am also fairly certain that the vigor and passion that I displayed (or at least thought I displayed) in my morning classes were nearly gone by fourth period. I felt I was teaching my heart out because I was emotionally and physically exhausted every day. I took pride in the professional rapport I fostered with my students but something was off. My students seemed bored and disengaged. A reflective person by nature, I examined my approach. If my ultimate goal was to encourage critical and historical thinking skills, was my classroom environment and curriculum actually fostering that among my students? My answer was a resounding “No.” The consequences of ‘teaching my heart out’ had to be something more than physical and mental exhaustion. It had to mean students were leaving my classroom with specific skills. It had to mean I was doing my best to help students meet those established goals. Ultimately, I determined I had to adopt a more active curriculum.
I believed my content knowledge and passion for history would inspire my high school students and that after a short period of being intimidated by my brilliant mind, they would carry me out on their shoulders. After lecturing back-to-back for seven hours, I honestly wish they had just carried me to my car.
I was fortunate enough to teach in a district that encouraged the integration of technology and project and problem-based learning (PBL) strategies. Contrary to popular belief, PBL does not always have students working collaboratively nor are they always giving presentations or making documentaries. Project-based learning in a history classroom looks like students asking questions, reading primary sources, addressing source authenticity and bias, and writing. It looks like what we as academic historians do every day. This process of ‘doing history’ has far-reaching implications. It fosters a greater appreciation for the historical craft and allows students to think about the connections between the past and present in a meaningful way. Students see that history is more than rote memorization and is instead an inquiry-based discipline that examines the intricate web of human relationships across time. If I hoped to employ more active strategies, I also wondered what greater purpose this could serve. If many of my students will not attend college and those who do will most likely not be history majors, what was the point in facilitating historical thinking skills in a high school classroom?
It was then that I thought about the ultimate purpose of history and social science courses in general. In an age where anyone can Google the list of presidents in two seconds and where many get their information from social media, I determined my goal had to be more than ‘covering’ my content. I needed to do things that encouraged students to actively interrogate their sources, whether that be a textbook, website, or a meme their grandmother shared to Facebook.
I learned that teaching, just like research and publishing, can be an activist endeavor. To be clear I do not suggest a biased spouting of personal political beliefs or a classroom that devolves into a chaotic screaming match. I mean that I came to realize the best way to combat this age of anti-intellectualism is to encourage and help students learn how to effectively interrogate sources and be critical of what they read.
I also realized that in my attempt to ‘cover’ all of United States History, I was perpetuating a rich-white-male centered narrative that often did not resonate with students who dealt daily with the effects of income inequality, misogyny, and racism. The shift toward a more active learning environment allowed my students to address questions they had based on personal experiences. They asked terrific questions. They asked the ‘Why?’ and ‘How did things get this way?’—questions that historians ask at the beginning of research projects.
My grandmother was right; my high school students needed me. What my grandmother may not have anticipated though was the extent to which I needed my students.
Of course there were frustrations. Of course some assignments were better than others. Like any form of assessment grades varied—not everyone got an A. There was still some direct instruction and lecture. Overall though, I took greater pride in what my students were doing and the skills being honed in my classroom.
Although I no longer teach high school, those four years shaped me in ways I could not have imagined when standing in that undecorated classroom. As I continue to teach as an adjunct and think about how I will organize courses if I attain that elusive-tenure-track position after I finish my PhD, my high school students are ever present on my mind. I made plenty of mistakes as a high school teacher and I apologize to my students for them. Ideally though we learn from our mistakes. In encouraging me to reflect on my own teaching philosophy and think more deeply about the role of a history course itself, these high school students ultimately taught me more than I taught them.
I do not stand in the college classroom and wonder what I am doing there. I am there to teach my heart out. High school students in a rural Arkansas town helped me learn what that meant. I am forever grateful.
Heather McNamee is a third-year History PhD candidate at the University of Memphis. Her research centers on the intersection between Southern and African American History, specifically the post-Civil War coerced labor systems, rural labor organizing, and African American resistance. She obtained her MA in History at Arkansas State University and has been an adjunct instructor there since 2010.
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