Dana teaches AP Literature, World Literature II, and advises the school newspaper at Tenafly High School in Tenafly, NJ. She was also recently awarded the Princeton University Distinguished Secondary Teaching Award! Congrats, Dana, and thanks for sharing your story.
Type of school: public high school
Years taught: 24
Number of students this year: 132
What was it like to get the Princeton award? How did it help you reflect on 24 years of teaching?
I had never dreamed that a teacher could be honored in such a way, and I am deeply grateful for it. I think teachers need to receive positive feedback, and too often, especially in the current climate of evaluation, we are not often enough receiving respect for our work and our commitment. So to know that some outside experts and discerning eyes were commending me for what I have dedicated my professional life to doing was extremely validating. I just told someone recently that the award was like adding a jet pack to my back: it gave me an energy boost to keep propelling me forward in my career, and to stay in the classroom so that I can continue to do what I do well.
The award highlights your work on student-led inquiry and action — please explain what this means, and why it’s worth teaching with this model.
Over the last six or so years, I have spent much time reading, learning and thinking about how we can prepare students for success in the 21st century. I am happy to see the fruits of my labor develop over the last five years into a curriculum for Senior English students that challenges them to ask, research, and act on a question they have about the world. For example, one student asked how the Jewish-American experience is portrayed through literature, and another asked how literature conveys the importance of reading.
I think that students deserve to make and are motivated by making their own decisions in the learning process; I also think that all learning can be even more meaningful when we take our learning into the world and create impact with it. I love the idea of blurring the lines between the English classroom and other disciplines — and also between the classroom and the world.
Ed. note: You can watch Dana and her students explain their inquiry and action on MSG Varsity.
Why did you become a teacher?
I always felt fortunate to have the abilities and opportunities I have had, and I have always felt that I was responsible for using my advantages to contribute to the world. From about the time I was 16, I focused on how public schools might be reformed; and on how schools can foster (more) motivational learning environments. My father had left our family when I was young, but in my teenage years I spent more time with him than I had in years, and through him I became exposed to some thinkers such as John Holt (How Children Fail, How Children Learn) who were very critical of public schools; having had a wonderful public education experience, I was motivated to be a reformer of public schools.
Figuring out that I was actually a teacher involved doing it (teaching) and then knowing that I enjoyed it and that I had some ability to do it. I found challenged by the workload and the need to learn (constant, if we do this well). As a teacher, I found that I never watched the clock and that time flows quickly . Before I was a teacher, I worked for a year as a reporter, and I pretty much hated my job. By contrast, when I started working with kids, I felt as if I was in my element.
I was also blessed to have been ushered into teaching by Sister June Favata at Saint Vincent Academy (in Newark), who constantly gave me feedback, advice and mostly praise. She inspired me then and inspires me now; I am forever grateful to her and feel lucky to have her as a role model in education.
What do you most enjoy about your work?
The kids — kids are life, and teenagers are so very lively and funny. Except when I am in really bad spirits, I find high school to be endlessly enjoyable and funny; it is a place of lots of life, of humanity.
If you could change one aspect of your job, what would it be?
I am very interested in creating and nurturing environments in which teachers are supported for who they are and what they can do. Teaching can be demeaning, unfortunately. I would change the public perception of teachers; and I would create structures that are inspiring, supportive and motivational to teachers. I believe that there should be a trajectory for growth across a teaching career; I think a teacher should understand that he or she can grow and learn. There should also be limits on what is expected of a teacher. Right now the expectations and the stress are not sustainable. I worry about that. Even where I currently teach, I have seen my student load go up 50% across my time here; on top of that, so many demands on teachers have increased.
What’s the biggest misconception about what you do?
I guess “teaching literature” is a misconception about us as English teachers. Through literature and more, we are teaching so many important things, including skills, understandings and knowledge. I think people do not understand how exhausting teaching is — though they would learn with just one day following us — and how summer is about re-charging to do it again. Maybe they don’t know how so much of what we do is helping young people navigate through life and helping them develop.
What teacher made the most impact on you and why? What would you tell him/her now?
My 5th and 6th grade teachers, Mrs. Hannah and Mr. Epstein at South Mountain School in South Orange, New Jersey. Honestly, I think about them all the time. They were also so unbelievably supportive of me; I felt truly loved and “seen” by them. Through them, I started to see myself as a creative writer. They also taught me so much about how to be a good teacher. It just so happens that I think a message I sent to them, via the mother of a friend, actually reached both of them only a couple weeks ago.
What advice do you have for aspiring or beginning teachers?
New teachers should know that they are truly doing something honorable and important. I honestly believe that teaching is just as important as many professions to which society generally grants higher status.
I think it’s also important to know that to teach is to learn; as Chaucer says of the Scholar in The Canterbury Tales, “And gladly would he learn and gladly teach.” Teachers should, I think, be engaged in a constant process of teaching and learning; this makes teaching authentic and engaging.
Young teachers especially should make an effort to seek out those with more experience and expertise and seek to learn from them. If possible, observe classes; ask for feedback as you work on an assignment or develop a unit plan. Do not go into the profession thinking that you know more than those who have dedicated their lives to the profession.
If and when possible, be yourself with your students. One of the things I often tell my student teachers is, “forgive yourself.” We all make mistakes, and teaching is not a perfect practice. You can admit when you are wrong while retaining control and authority. Just try your best, and don’t forget to take care of yourself.