The Syllabus and the School Year Calendar by Bob Henderson, Head of School
This is the first week in November, so that means that it is also time for Oliver Cromwell and the English Civil War. The passage of my school year can be measured by the progress of my syllabus in AP European history. Back To School Night for parents in September always occurs simultaneously with the Black Death (entirely a coincidence!). At Veterans Day I am immersed in the Scientific Revolution. When I return from winter break I am dealing with Napoleon. And by mid-April, just as I am doing battle for the seniors’ waning attention, I am slogging through the Cold War. For more than 20 years I have been teaching this class, and the timing and sequence of the course changes little from one year to the next. I inescapably associate certain historical events, dilemmas and personalities with specific times of the year. It is a depressing fact, for instance, that I will spend time right after the delightful rejuvenation of spring break discussing the horrors of 20th-century dictatorship and warfare. The amazing thing is that I never seem to tire of it.
When I was in my graduate degree program my advisor kept pushing me to consider continuing my studies and completing a Ph.D. He thought I would enjoy working at a university because it was a career centered on the life of the mind. He argued that the great advantage at the college level was that you didn’t have to immerse yourself in the daily developmental issues that confront teenagers. Instead, as a professor you could do your research and present your lectures without significant interruption or distraction from the actual students, and every year you could master your field with greater intimacy. This man was a wonderful intellectual mentor and a great scholar, but he could not begin to understand why I wanted to continue to work at the secondary school level. I told him that I genuinely enjoyed wading through the peculiar challenges faced by adolescents, far more than I liked doing research. Moreover, teaching for me was not about deepening my mastery of subject matter so much as it was about honing the craft of teaching itself.
I will read two or three books on topics in European history each summer, improving my familiarity with current thinking in the field, but it is highly unlikely that I will attempt to write and publish an interpretive article. Rather, I will reflect on the way I handled certain classroom relationships and how I might navigate such situations better in the future. I will consider new classroom strategies, revise my reading list, update my class website, and contemplate more productive ways to use the iPad. And I certainly will press myself to improve my presentation of various topics. In more specific terms, in order to make January a better month for my class next year, I need to rethink how I approach the Industrial Revolution.
These are the sorts of considerations that motivate secondary school teachers to excel in their profession. While the focus may vary from one academic discipline to another, the central concern of the best secondary school teachers is the search for better ways to engage the passion and talent of adolescents, and to launch a lifetime of curiosity and learning for young people. This drive, in addition to a deep and genuine love for and intuition in regard to this age group, are the critical factors that lead to great teaching.