Dr. Susanna Benko works as Director of the English Education program at Ball State. As a professor and researcher, she is interested in the teaching of writing—in practice and in policy—at the middle and secondary level. Read more about Dr. Benko and her work on her faculty page.
To close out the #WeFly #WeTeach campaign, Dr. Benko wanted to provide a few closing thoughts. In this letter, she discusses why now’s the time to be an English teacher, why Ball State is the perfect place to venture down that path, and how to support those pursuing a profession in education.
We were not even six weeks into my Introduction to English Education class when one of my students came to office hours and asked the question that I knew would come from someone, at some point in the semester. “I always have thought I wanted to be a teacher,” she said, “but, now I’m not so sure.”
As the director of our English Education major, I have this conversation often. This fall, partially in response to this question, the English department worked to feature the good work of our BSU English Ed alums and current students. Through their stories, we’ve collected many reasons why now is the time to be an English teacher, and why BSU English is the place to start this journey.
Now is the Time to Be an English Teacher
As an undergraduate, I was a double major in English and education. My parents (much like parents today) were especially concerned about two things: Could I get a job? Could I pay off my loans? For me, the answer was yes. My dad, out of genuine concern for my well-being, was focused on whether I could make a living. Neither he nor I were prepared for the impact that teaching would have on my life.
When I think back on my middle/high school teaching days, the ones I remember best were when I taught mostly sophomore English at a small high school on the west side of Evansville, IN. My strongest memories of that school are mostly of the community, where faculty, students, and their families welcomed me and made me feel like I had grown up there. The band director (who became one of my closest friends) brought the tiny marching band to play “happy birthday” outside my classroom window when I turned 25; a family invited us to their home to watch the Colts play in the Super Bowl when they found out we didn’t have anyone to watch the game with; my students would surround me at football games. I thought it was because I was their favorite teacher, but they just wanted to get my husband’s Xbox gamer tag so they could play Halo with him.
It’s not an exaggeration to say I loved those kids. I joked with my homeroom (sophomores when I began) that my plan was to teach them through senior year and go on to teach them in college. We moved to Pittsburgh the summer before their senior year. I cried on their first day of school, wishing I was back in Indiana kicking off the school year with them. When I arrived at Ball State in 2012, that crew was graduating from college. I just missed them.
This month, our Ball State English Ed alumni have written some of their own memorable moments, sharing their “why’s” for teaching.
We created an Instagram account (please follow us!) and launched the #WeFly #WeTeach campaign. Our alums told of ways that teaching English is an adventure into the unknown.
They shared pictures of their students’ writing and spoken word poetry and showed how they’ve led students to interpret literature.
They’ve also gone on to new adventures. For example, Joel Summers is a Master Builder at LEGOLAND in Florida, proving that critical analysis extends beyond text and to Lego castles.
Paige Pobocik shared how English teachers can take on challenges outside the discipline, as she’s been co-teaching Biology (yes, really). In her words, she is “teaching YA novels that none of (her) coworkers get to teach, connect(ing) biology content into lessons and help(ing) with pig dissections.” This was probably not the kind of Animal Farm experience we’d expect a new teacher to have, but it’s a great example of the unexpected things our grads are encountering!
Ball State English Ed alums are changing lives and connecting with students in many important ways.
Whether they are working in virtual schools or educating teachers on best practices for teaching about the Holocaust, our students making a difference in education. They are inspired by and inspiring students.
And it’s not just our alumni—our current students are inspiring, too. We have students like Karen Palencia, who looks forward to teaching English Language Learners. Other students like Lauren Alvarez say, “I know what it’s like to hear a teacher say something as simple as one sentence and have my whole world, and everything I thought I knew in it, turn upside down… and I can’t help but wonder what it’s like to be on the other side.” When I look at the 21 students currently in my ENG 150 class, I am so optimistic about the future of our profession. I learn from them every day.
Katie Morario, a 2014 alum, wrote beautifully about her “why” in this post where she’s pictured with a few of her students. The whole post is worth a read, but my favorite part is this:
“What shocks me the most is that no one ever told me that I would love it this much. No one told me that I would chat and giggle and play Bananagrams with students between bells. No one told me that students would write encouraging messages and draw quirky doodles on sticky notes for me every single day. No one told me that I would cry when the last student left on the last day of school because of how empty the room would feel. No one told me how often I would look up from my desk and think, ‘I can’t believe I get paid to do this.'”
Our faculty members Jeff Spanke and Lyn Jones shared their why as well. We’re also planning a “Stars to Steer By” event in April 2020 on becoming a teacher.
Why be a teacher? Why right now? Our alumni’s answers are the same now as mine were fifteen years ago: Teaching is a way to make a living. It’s also a way to make a life.
Ball State English is the Place to Learn to Be an English Teacher
I recognize that I’m a little biased, but I’d say that the English Department at Ball State is an amazing place to learn to teach. Ball State celebrated our 100-year anniversary last year—this anniversary is both for the university and our department, which was one of the first eleven departments when the university opened. And, we’ve got a bright future. As our chair, Pat Collier, wrote, moving into our next 100 years, our department will continue to help students “realize the power of words and stories to change the world for the better.”
We especially do this through our English Ed major, which prepares secondary school teachers, carrying on the proud tradition of Ball State’s “normal school” roots.
Our four-year undergrad major prepares our students richly in content (we’re English majors, after all!) and pedagogical content—not only thinking about teaching broadly but rather about teaching English.
What better place to study teaching writing while also taking classes from our incredible faculty in rhetoric, linguistics, and creative writing?
What better place to think about literature pedagogy than alongside our innovative literature classes?
In addition to our awesome English Ed classes, we have an English Ed club that helps our students develop their professional identities from the beginning of their collegiate career.
Our English department is host to the Indiana Writing Project, a professional development organization for teachers of all disciplines focused on improving writing across grade levels and content levels. It’s the perfect place for teachers to come for professional development after graduation.
Everything that a new English teacher needs is right here.
Our students agree. Sarah Bredar is one of our current students who will student teach in Germany next month. In a blog post for our Pilgrim Soul series, Sarah described her experiences as an English Ed major here, highlighting the range of opportunities our students have beyond their curriculum.
Laurinda Webb, another student who will be student teaching in central IN, wrote about how our English Ed program has been a place for her to be challenged and to grow. She wrote, “Teaching is about adaptability, accessibility, all the little nuances we find. And, when we ‘fall on our faces,’ it’s a chance to learn and grow— that’s what it’s all about!”
We’ve always needed good teachers—that’s still the case. I won’t dismiss the many challenges that do exist in secondary teaching right now—it’s true that teachers are underpaid, especially in Indiana, where teachers make about $10,000 less than average teacher pay in the U.S. It’s true that teachers work long and hard hours (and anyone who tells you it’s “8-3 with summers off” is mistaken).
Sure, our grads get jobs, and that’s a good thing—but, part of the reason why is because teachers are leaving, and there’s a shortage in many subject areas, including Secondary Language Arts.
The rhetoric around teaching right now is disheartening, and that’s putting it mildly. Rather than leaning into that narrative, though, I suggest that our #BSUEnglish community push back and act.
This is not a job for teachers only—it’s a job for anyone who cares about public education, about an educated society, about the future for our children. It’s a job for us all.
So, what can we do? I have three suggestions—and, unlike many notes that go out to our alumni, I’m not asking for money!
Thank a teacher.
I’m quite sure that anyone reading this has a teacher who has influenced their life in some meaningful way—tell them so. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. It can be a quick email to a former faculty member, middle school teacher, coach, band director. Tell them they’ve made a difference. Those notes get teachers through the hard days.
Encourage someone to be a teacher.
If you know a young person who you think would make a good teacher, say so. Your confidence may be just what they need to take the leap. Send them this blog post, or one of the posts featured above. Tell them why they should consider teaching (and, if they should be an English teacher, send them to us!) And if a young person tells you they’re thinking of being a teacher, don’t talk them out of it! For every reason you can think of not to teach, our alumni are showing us there are more reasons to teach than not to.
There are many ways that you can support teachers, but here are a few ideas:
- Teachers need allies—people who stand behind them as they advocate for policies that improve their jobs and working conditions (which are, by the way, children’s learning conditions). On November 19th, the Red for Ed Action Day saw thousands of teachers gathered in front of the Indianapolis statehouse to demand legislative action. It is times like these, when teachers stand up for what they need, that we need to listen to them, stand alongside them, and amplify their voices however we can. Write letters, attend board meetings, and speak up for and with teachers. Ask any teacher what she needs—she’ll tell you. High-quality, public education is a concern for all of us.
- Perhaps you are purging old school supplies, books, or even furniture—ask a teacher if they’d like those things before you donate them elsewhere. Teachers are usually supplying their own classroom libraries and aspire to have flexible seating arrangements or library nooks. I wish we lived in a world where teachers didn’t have to rely on their own money and the kindness of others to outfit classrooms, but the reality is that they often do.
- If you know a teacher who is running a campaign for classroom materials (on GoFundMe, DonorsChoose, etc.), consider a small donation—small donations quickly add up, and take the burden off teachers spending their already-small paycheck on their classroom. Even if you can’t contribute, you can share their requests on your own social media pages to signal-boost their needs.
Our official “#WeFly #WeTeach” campaign is over, but if you’re one of our English Ed alumni, we still want to hear from you! You can follow the instructions on this page to have us share your stories about your “reason why”, you can share your good news with us so we can share it with the rest of BSUEnglish, or you can just send us an email and let us know what you are up to these days.
And… if you wanted to donate to the department, hey, we’ll take that too—and put it towards our continued work with future teachers.