Close Encounters of the Teaching Kind

After 9+ months of teaching, the end of the school year always seems to come at the perfect time. The refreshing reprieve of summer is wonderful for many reasons: the absence of bells dictating where I have to be and when, the ability for lunch to extend beyond 25 minutes, ample time for leisure reading, etc. I often find myself in a strange mental place during those first few weeks after the last paper has been graded and final textbook counted. I’m exhausted from the marathon school year, but my mind can’t yet fully join my body on vacation. What worked well this year? What’s next? How can I get better?

In an attempt to actually unwind, I indulge in one of my guiltiest of guilty pleasures: Ancient Aliens on The History Channel. From the unsubstantiated, outrageous claims that __________ is so because of aliens to Giorgio A. Tsoukalos’s epic hair, this show is the perfect escape from teaching that I need from time to time. It was, anyway. As I watched about a week ago, I realized Ancient Aliens connects to my teaching life much more than I could have ever imagined. Hear me out.


The staple of the show is what is known as the Ancient Alien Theory. Theorists maintain that alien beings with advanced knowledge and understanding of science and engineering visited Earth thousands of years ago and shared their technology and expertise with early civilizations, forever altering and advancing the path of human history. Framed in such a way, these “aliens” were master teachers, injecting some sort of knowledge and understanding into the minds of those they visited that forever shifted the trajectory of their growth and development. As an English teacher, this is the impact I aim to have with all the students I interact with, that I’m able to shift their thinking in some meaningful way that positively changes their academic development.

One of the unfortunate realities of being a teacher is that we don’t always get to see the complete paths our students take; we don’t get to see the full extent to which we’ve influenced those we’ve taught. Acknowledging this teaching truth, four people come to mind who’ve “visited” me and shaped my professional trajectory. Here are my teaching close encounters:

Janelle Hinchley — I entered Saint John’s University in the fall of 2004 as a Communication major. I had visions of grandeur that my future included me becoming the male Katie Couric. As I started taking communication classes, however, I began to realize that, although I enjoyed writing, the journalistic world was not one I was completely energized to become a part of. I remember speaking with my First Year Symposium teacher, Janelle Hinchley, on multiple occasions about this, and I would often bring up the idea that perhaps teaching would be a field for which I’d be better suited.

Janelle was great about listening to what I had to say, and I always left our sessions feeling as though she really cared about me and my future. She put me in touch with professors who were more knowledgeable about the English and Education programs than she was, and, shortly after, I was on my way to becoming an English major/Secondary Ed. minor. Switching majors was one of the best and most defining decisions of my undergraduate career. I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t get this support and knowledge that I could, in fact, do this teaching thing.

*Author X — After switching majors at the end of my freshman year, my very first collegiate English course was Reading Fiction and Poetry. I was very excited for this course, as the professor teaching it was a published poet. As fate would have it, I arrived to class on the first day to discover that she would be on maternity leave this semester and the class would instead be taught by a local author, Author X (*I’m using a pseudonym for a reason that will become clear shortly). It had been a year since I had taken an actual English course, but I had always been a fairly strong writer, so I didn’t anticipate much difficulty. A few days into the course, we were assigned our first writing assignment: a short piece of fiction. That night, as I sat down to begin the rough draft, my mind completely froze up. To this day, it was probably the most severe case of writer’s block I’ve ever had. I simply could not come up with a single, decent topic to write about. As night crept into morning and the hours ticked away, I had to write something, so I elected to write about a college student who was struggling to write a paper. Admittedly, not a story that would find its way on any bestseller list, but at least it was something.

I turned in the draft the next morning and didn’t give it much thought until that same page of loose leaf was returned to me a few days later with the following commentary as the sole bit of feedback.

Author X comment

I guess you’d call this DESTRUCTIVE criticism?

If you haven’t guessed by now, this encounter was not exactly a positive exchange. I get that there’s a time and place for constructive criticism, and that honesty is one of the keys to effective revision, but I have to believe there’s a better way to provide said feedback than by telling a student that you fell asleep while reading his paper. Though I had just recently become an English major, Author X managed to destroy any confidence I had in creative writing. Confidence that I wouldn’t reacquire until I experienced Level 1 of the Iowa Writing Project five years later. I hope that was worth the ego boost, sir. Words matter. Communication matters. Thanks for teaching me that early on, Author X. You don’t remember me, but I’ll never forget you. You’re the teacher I never want to be.

Carissa Letsch — The summer after my second year teaching full-time I began the MA:TESS (Teaching English in Secondary Schools) program through the University of Northern Iowa. I came back to Dowling Catholic the following fall ready and willing to be a contributing member of the English department. I decided I’d no longer lie back in the periphery of the action but, instead, I’d become an assertive and active contributor within the department. Carissa Letsch, the then department chair, seemingly noticed this shift in me. She allowed me to take on leadership roles: we collaborated and planned together for the common class we taught, she sought out professional growth opportunities for me to attend, and she demonstrated that she genuinely valued my opinion on matters pertaining to our department and education in general.

Simply put, she allowed me to see myself as a teacher-leader. This vision would prove to become vital when, two years later, Carissa and her family moved to Denver, and I was asked, in just my fifth year teaching, to take on the position of English Department Chair. My time with Carissa taught me the importance of collaborating with colleagues, valuing the input of others, and fostering the growth of prospective leaders. I’m a firm believer that we stand on the shoulders of those who’ve come before us, and I am a better teacher and leader today because I followed her lead.

Penny Kittle — I first discovered Penny Kittle’s work when I read her book Write Beside Them during Level 1 of IWP in the summer of 2010. Her work with writer’s notebooks really resonated with me and set me moving toward offering more choice when it came to my students’ writing. I had no idea then, however, the extent to which her work would impact my teaching. A few years later, in 2013, she published Book Love and completely obliterated everything I thought I knew about teaching reading. As soon I finished that book I was an unabashed Penny Kittle disciple. I began to add to my classroom library in earnest by scouring Goodwill, Half Price Books, and other thrift stores, and I started planning for how I’d provide reading time every day for every class. I applied for the inaugural Book Love Foundation Grant, something that would prove to be a yearly tradition as it turned out, and anxiously awaited the the 2013-14 school year. As fate would have it, Penny was the keynote speaker at the ICTE Fall Conference that year, and I registered without hesitation.

Meeting my ELA hero!

On the evening of the first day of the conference Penny led a writing workshop, and I was obviously in attendance. At the conclusion of the workshop I approached Penny and, while she signed my excessively annotated copy of Book Love, I told her who I was. She told me then that she remembered my application and, although I wasn’t selected that year, she had been impressed by it. The words inscribed inside that book have motivated me for years.

note from Penny Kittle


The next morning Penny delivered her keynote address centered on Book Love, and I sat in awe. Lunch followed the address, and since I was seated at the front, she happened to sit at the table I was sitting at. I soon found myself engaged in deep conversation with my role model and faraway mentor from Conway, NH. And that’s when the unthinkable happened. Penny, in front of my friends and colleagues sitting around me, remarked that she’d heard from conversations with others at the conference that I was a “future leader” in Iowa. Those at the table knew the level of affection I had for Ms. Kittle, and my quickly reddening face didn’t do much in the way of hiding the pride I felt at that moment. It’s rare that you get the opportunity to meet your idol, let alone that you get so much out of the transaction. This singular event has caused me to strive to become the best teacher and reader I can be. If there is one thing I’ve learned from Penny it’s that there’s always another level to climb. The more I learn, the more I realize how much more there is to learn. And I’m okay with that.

As teachers, we have immense power to shape the lives of those who walk through our classroom door. Even on those days when it doesn’t seem as though we’re getting through to our kids or we question whether or not we’re making a difference, I firmly believe we are. Sometimes what seem like tiny and insignificant gestures end up initiating monumental evolution and change. Just because we don’t always see each stage of that evolution doesn’t mean we’re not responsible in some way; we impact that trajectory. We may not be little green beings who descend from flying saucers, but we have the ability to be Ancient Aliens for our students. And that’s not theory. That’s a fact.

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