Voices from the Classroom: Reflecting on a teacher’s role- I find meaning in “To Kill a Mockingbird” (Ludlow High School)

Voices from the Classroom: Reflecting on a teacher’s role — I find meaning in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird

By Chris Wright
Ludlow High School

Lately there has been a national debate regarding what roles our teachers ultimately play in our schools. It is difficult to turn on the television and not find a hot button issue regarding our schools being dissected from virtually all angles. One common theme that continually arises: What is the teacher’s role beyond that of a deliverer of the curriculum?

To truly understand the answer to this question, we must understand what our curriculum is.  As a high school English teacher, my curriculum starts with an understanding of state standards designed to equip students with skills needed for college and career readiness in the areas of reading, writing, speaking, and listening.  What does this mean exactly?  It means that we read, write, speak, and listen our way through an incredibly broad variety of text types.

In my view, educators cannot be great at what they do without being constantly reflective regarding their profession. With this in mind, I am continuously evaluating and re-evaluating what types of texts are most appropriate to my students and their particular needs.  One such text that I have recently found myself evaluating is Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

“Mockingbird” has recently been panned by some critics for being out of touch and no longer relevant to the students in our schools. Taking a page from my own teaching standards, I’ve decided to examine some of the “Key Ideas and Details” of the novel, particularly some of the important quotations.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

It has occurred to me that there are those who would scoff at the idea that one of the primary sets of standards an English teacher would be charged with teaching would be listening.  The ability to listen, it would seem, should come as natural and involuntary to us as being able to breathe. Turn on one of the television shows I mentioned earlier where men and women “debate” the important issues.  Analyze the way the debate unfolds. Generally, are the participants truly listening to each other or are they rushing to get a rebuttal that fits with their own world view and what they believe to be right?

When we live in a society where it is generally accepted that we don’t legitimately listen to each other, we will never develop the empathy required to truly understand worldviews different than our own.  Working together to come up with creative solutions to our problems will become increasingly difficult. Students must be taught to listen. They must be trained to consider that we all have different points of view. They must realize that everyone is entitled to their point of view, and that they should never dismiss another’s view as invalid because it is different.

Students do not need to be forced to waffle in their conviction; on the contrary, students should learn to have their conviction shaped through a true understanding of other viewpoints, an appreciation that is acceptable and necessary to fully understand where others are coming from and why they think the way that they do.

“Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I’d have the facts.”

Considering the digital age that we live in, there are a far greater number of sources of information available to us than at any other point in human history.  One particular phrase has played to many people’s insecurities regarding how we delineate facts from our news.  While this has come more and more to the forefront in recent years, English teaching standards have long called for students to be able to identify false statements and fallacious reasoning in informational texts.

In my class, we always have a discussion about what Atticus’ idea of deleting adjectives means.  We evaluate ways that a writer might use hyperbole in an attempt to strengthen his or her case.  We also discuss ways that this may be detrimental to the author’s own cause as they potentially discredit their own points by spreading false and exaggerated information.  Atticus was teaching his daughter to be mindful of confusing commentary with fact, a lesson that is as important as ever as students learn to decipher information and move toward voting age.

“I wanted you to see what real courage is….It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.  You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

In evaluating this particular quotation, I often wonder if this is the most important idea that I teach. Regardless of where you stand on a teacher’s role in any number of issues, there is a truth to the fact that teachers only have a finite amount of time with our students before they move on. We all face a day when we will no longer be considered students and are forced to face the “real world”.  What is the “real world”? From one point of view, the “real world” is a series of successes and adversities that we must deal with.

To offer full confession, I often find myself hoping that I have done my part to help students develop the skills needed to deal with these adversities. These are the moments that I truly appreciate what my role is as a teacher. I understand how critical it is to use the teaching standards to help students learn the skills necessary to find success in whatever they choose to do after they have left the classroom, left the title of student behind.

How do I do this this?  By not only connecting with them, but by connecting them with the texts that demonstrate what those life skills are.  As I evaluated To Kill a Mockingbird I realized that the book, for my classroom and my students’ needs, is far from irrelevant; in fact, my students need the lessons of a text like this now more than ever.

Chris Wright is a teacher at Ludlow High School.