Josh: FROM THE TIME I WAS A HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT, I’VE IDOLIZED MY ENGLISH TEACHERS. TODAY, I HAVE THE PLEASURE OF INTERVIEWING NOT ONLY A TEACHER, BUT AN MFA IN CREATIVE WRITING CANDIDATE AT HAMLINE UNIVERSITY. ROB, CAN YOU PLEASE TELL ME ABOUT YOUR CAREER TRAJECTORY?
Rob: I’d been a theatre major in college, with the goal of directing plays. I went out to Chicago to do that after college, and unfortunately, that career did not take off. I had to reevaluate what I wanted. Did I want to scrape by on temp jobs to pay the rent, trying for years to get my break in the industry, or did I want to do something with more stability? So I came back to Minnesota to work on getting my teaching license, as well as coaching speech. I got experience working in schools, and it was great to be a part of that community. I got my licensure, started at St. Anthony, and I’ve been there ever since.
Josh: I THINK THE FIRST THING SOME PEOPLE THINK OF WITH “ENGLISH TEACHER” IS FREEDOM WRITERS. IS THERE ANY TRUTH TO THAT ARCHETYPE?
Rob: There is something about the job that opens you, perhaps, to a lot of possible creativity you can use in teaching literature and writing, as opposed to some subjects that are more cut and dried. That said, there can be drudgery. Grading papers is terrible. I would say, though – I’m currently pursuing my MFA at Hamline in Creative Writing – that I get to use a lot of the material I’m learning in that program to the classes I’m teaching. I actually find that I enjoy grading their work, because I can see them growing, and expressing themselves beautifully. It’s especially a really good outlet for those who are marginalized – students of color, LGBTQ kids, kids with mental illnesses – and if I can turn them on to creative writing as an outlet to the things they’re dealing with, then I’ve done them a service that goes beyond academics.
Josh: I KNOW YOU CAME OUT AT A PRETTY YOUNG AGE, IN A TIME THAT WAS OBVIOUSLY NOT IDEAL FOR BEING LGBTQ. HOW DO YOU USE THOSE EXPERIENCES TO TEACH?
I came out to a handful of people as a freshman in high school. It was the mid-90s, and it was the kind of environment when the principal wouldn’t allow us to have a Gay-Straight Alliance (though it later became illegal to deny). Back in middle school, other people had identified me as queer, and targeted me as result of that. Once, a kid in my communications class asked the teacher if he could ask a question to the class. He said, “I’m here to take a poll. Who thinks Rob is gay?” It wasn’t remotely the worst thing that happened, but it was a typical day.
By the time I was a junior in high school, I was out to all my friends. I showed up to school with a piece of paper with a pink triangle on it that said “Yes I am, and I”m proud of it.” Some said I was brave, but I was just tired of tiptoeing around the issue. It was easier to self-identify, and let the chips fall where they may. I do my best to advocate for kids who are on the margins. Some people go into teaching because their best years were in high school, and the popular kids are the focus of their attention. Some, like me, had the opposite experience, so we give attention to the kids on the margins.
Josh: IN KEEPING THE KIDS SAFE EMOTIONALLY, I SIMPLY HAVE TO ASK ABOUT GUN VIOLENCE.
Rob: It’s dreadful. I was teaching the day Sandy Hook happened. The nation’s complete inability to do anything afterwards was so disheartening. There’s now a culture of fear. When the Parkland shooting happened, one of the kids said she assumed it was going to happen here eventually.
In addition to fire drills, we now do an active shooter drill. We lock our doors, turn off the lights, and sit quietly while the administration comes around and tries to open the classroom doors. I don’t know how any of it is really helping, but it does teach you to be hypervigilant of certain things. You know by now what a “shooter type” is, and you might identify students that fit into that profile. I try to build good relationships with those students, so they don’t feel so alienated.
As a creative writing teacher, though, kids sometimes write things that are disturbing. I have to ask myself, “Is this serious?” I’ve had students write about suicidal ideation, or have made attempts, but I know that I can take that to a counselor. There are other students who write extremely dark and violent things about murdering people. Sometimes it’s because they want to be the next Stephen King, but other times you notice a pattern. I’ve gone to parents and counselors before to tell them it’s something I’ve noticed.
Josh: HAS TEACHING CHANGED FOR YOU WITH THE INTRODUCTION OF TECHNOLOGY? AND WHAT ABOUT FOR THE STUDENTS?
People do treat technology as if it’s “the answer” to all our woes. But school districts don’t have a ton of money, and when they spend that money on the newest technology, it might be outdated in a couple of years.
The phones do become more of an issue every year. Some kids are constantly on theirs while you’re trying to teach them something they’ll need for their future. There’s literally no lesson plan I can come up with that’s more interesting than that. I could sing and tap dance, and it won’t get them off their phone. Sometimes, I have to take away their phone, and it’s not who I want to be. We do have some students who are particularly addicted to the instant feedback, though. And so much of the bullying is on social media, and there aren’t always a lot of consequences for the bullies. It’s part of the reason anxiety and depression are spiking amongst our students – particularly our girls.
JOSH: THANK YOU. I DO WANT TO MAKE SURE, THOUGH, THAT WE GET TO THE GOOD PARTS OF TEACHING. WHAT DO YOU ENJOY TEACHING?
Rob: One of my favorite aspects of my 10th grade honors course is teaching critical theory. We cover things like reader response, the Marxist lens, the Feminist lens, Postcolonialism, which the kids often find interesting because they haven’t encountered it before. It helps them understand they can read literature in different ways, and that there are different ways to view a given text.
I think the most important thing about teaching is teaching critical thinking. It’s one of the most important skills we have for making sense of the world, and for making informed decisions as citizens, as opposed to believing everything we’re told and everything we read – being subject to other people’s agendas.