Only a Teacher - classroom
audio file
Only A Teacher
Teachers Today
Ann Cook
Linda Darling Hammond
Dean Eastman
Aurora Fleming
Terri Grasso
Carolyn Lawrence
Tsianina Lomawaima
Frank McCourt
Lorraine Monroe
Tom Mooney
Brian Sheehy
Gerry Speca
Sandy Warner
Alex White

Interview With Brian Sheehy
Brian Sheehy is a second grade teacher in Hadley, Massachusetts.

Q: Why did you choose teaching as a career?

I decided to go into teaching to a certain extent as a reaction against my own educational experiences as a child. Now that point of view has been modified by experience over the years. I'm not quite the anarchist I was, educationally speaking, as I was when I was young. But I got into teaching because I wanted to put life's blood into it. I wanted it to be vital. I didn't want there ever to be a dull moment for kids. And although I realize that is impossible to live up to over the course of a career, I still aim to go to the heart of things and fascinate kids; to find whatever kernel it is that does that.

Q: Why did you choose to be an elementary school teacher?

The issue of gender is really central to my, was central to my decision initially to become a teacher. I mentioned before there was sort of a spirit of anarchy about how I got into it, to reinvent what teaching was. Part of that reinvention was to reinvent the gender roles a bit. I have to say I'm disappointed over the fact that now I'm twenty years into this profession and I have not seen what I thought would follow. I thought I was in the vanguard of a kind of a wave of men who would turn and embrace the role of early elementary school teacher as a viable one. That in fact has not happened. I still feel somewhat unique. And I think that's a shame because children need to have male and female models at all stages of development. I firmly believe that. And I'm sure there's research to back it up. And I can't imagine there'd be research to the contrary. So I'm really glad I'm.... I've staked my camp out, this turf because I feel good about that. I think it's important for kids.

Q: How important are the teaching of values to the elementary school curriculum?

I think the teaching of values falls somewhat inadvertently into the teacher's lap because you are with those children all day long. And school is not some kind of hothouse, artificial environment that exists apart from life. The whole goal is to take children into life. I think one of the primary ways to integrate a values curriculum into the classroom is through literature. I think the selection of literature is critical because that's the experience of sharing art with students. And if you select art that is high-minded and morally purposeful then values are shared. And that intersects perfectly with the mandate for you to be a teacher of reading. It's all one piece. I think values exist throughout the curriculum in thematic areas too. I mean, you unavoidably encounter issues whether it's the environment or an evaluation of historical figures, it comes up in the information. And if you attempt to do more than just skim the surface of these issues and to open it up to discussion on the part of the students, then you very quickly enter terrain that has everything to do with values.

Q: How do you structure your time so that you're meeting both the academic and emotional needs of your students?

It is really an ongoing difficulty, this issue of dividing your energy as a teacher, between the emotional needs of students and the academic needs. And we're hearing more and more about time on task -- the need to keep teaching, direct instruction. And yet, we also are hearing from parents and from professionals in the social sciences and in education that kids need to be supported emotionally and need to learn to function not only cognitively in society. So there are two strong mandates that often war with each other. And I'd have to say it's a judgement call. Like so much of teaching, it's a judgement call on a moment-to-moment basis. There's a time when something strikes you as being a compelling issue socially that must be dealt with and you just have to make that decision and shelve the academic issue. Sometimes the decision is just the opposite. And there are times, serendipitously, when moral issues and cognitive educational issues just dovetail together. That happens a lot with literature. It happens a lot in reading. Suddenly you’re dealing with an issue that has a direct connection with a playground issue that involved kids not getting along, except you are talking about maybe now a global conflict. And so you're meeting all, all your various objectives in one fell swoop which is great.

Q: Students of education still study the early 20th century philosopher John Dewey. Is his work still relevant to the contemporary classroom?

I think John Dewey's idea of creating a sort of microcosm in the classroom where children learn to function in a democratic society is an excellent idea, an idea that I think all teachers respond to almost in a kind of reflex way. You can't have 25 people packed into one space without availing yourself of the engines of democracy or you'll have either a dictatorship or chaos. So hopefully, if you want neither of those two things you'll create almost by default a democracy or at least attempt to do that. And I think that if you do that then certainly it seems clear to me that serves children well. They can move from that out into society as long as your vision of democracy is broad and inclusive enough to send them out into the real world. You know, if you create a democracy that's somehow freeze-dried and too perfectly molded then kids might be overwhelmed by the chaotic element that does exist in the real democracy out there. But I think all teachers strive to do that. And I think we come as close as can be expected.

Q: Many people seem to think that teaching is easy. Especially on the elementary school level, it's sometimes even considered babysitting. How do you respond to that assessment?

I think it is a lot like ballet in this respect, that you see one dancer lift the other and then they jump and it just seems like a form of play. And it's not until you get up close or try it yourself that you realize the strength and discipline involved. It's one of those things that has to look easy if it's working well. If you're working hard, it looks easy. And so because so many of us do work hard and therefore our teaching functions well people can stand and watch it and think it just pours naturally from us. It doesn't. A thousand decisions are being made at every moment. It is so incredibly vital and overwhelming. And it is so unpredictable, too, in that it's interactive. So you never know where the appropriate stepping stone will be, where you should place your next footstep. Because of that it's so dynamic. But it can't be seen by those standing just to the right or the left of it. There's the illusion it's more natural than it is.

About the Series | Timeline | Pioneers | Closeup | Show & Tell | Teachers Today
Screensaver | Online Resources | Professional Development
Purchase Video | Feedback | Credits

Brian Sheehy