A desk of one’s own

It is an honor to be guest-blogging here along with Rachel Levy and Michael E. Lopez, two of my favorite education bloggers.

There’s much discussion lately (and not so lately) about what can be done to make teaching an elite profession. Some of the suggestions focus on teacher preparation; others, on teaching conditions. I will propose something that I haven’t heard mentioned: to improve conditions substantially, in a way that will encourage good teachers to stay, give each teacher a desk.

By this I mean a desk of one’s own (I’m thinking of Virginia Woolf), a desk that no one else uses, where items don’t get taken or shifted around; a desk in a relatively tranquil room, where one can work and think.

Why is this important, and why is it rare?

First, a disclaimer: I am not complaining about any particular school. Everywhere I have taught, there has been shortage of space, and teachers have had to share desks, use tables as desks, or go without a desk entirely. In my first school, one of my colleagues regularly did her work in the auditorium, in an audience seat. (It was possibly the quietest room in the building.)

I don’t think many people would question a teacher’s need for a desk–but I’m not sure they deem it especially important, either. For instance, they may consider it acceptable for teachers to share desks or to work in noisy classrooms. But many private schools have teachers’ desks in department offices, outside of the classrooms. This is both because they have space and because they recognize the importance of a desk.

Sharing a desk has all kinds of complications: your scissors disappear, your Gumby eraser walks away, your Machiavelli goes into exile, etc. Beyond that, a shared desk becomes, in the mind of the school, a shared desk. Anyone may sit at it.

Noisy classrooms can make it difficult to get work done, unless you have noise-cancelling headphones or can block out the sound. You end up doing most of your work at home.

There are also reasons that go beyond the practical. When you have a desk that’s reliable, you are able to do intellectual work–reading, lesson preparation, grading–during the school day. This affects the school’s atmosphere; there’s greater respect for the quiet work that goes on at the desk, since room is made for it. Like urban planning, a school’s allocation of space reflects its priorities.

Also, because this work does take place at school, it can give rise to interesting discussions. How different the conversation is between two teachers who have been thinking about Oedipus Rex, and two teachers who are running past each other in the hallway in search of a room or supplies. (I have had both kinds of conversations, with or without a desk, but there’s more room for the former when I have a place to work.)

Why, then, is it a rarity for each teacher to have a desk? [Read more...]

Unafraid of Virginia Woolf

Community college students usually read nonfiction in first-year English courses. Freakonomics and Fast Food Nation are standards. Katherine Boutry taught Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours to her composition students at West Los Angeles Community College. Most rose to the challenge of reading complex literature. Three students were inspired to get tattoos with a Dalloway line, “fear no more.”

Also on Community College Spotlight: Researchers look at ways to raise graduation rates for community college student.