Tuesday, December 20, 2011

High School Tuesday - The Teacher, Friend or Foe?

Friend or Foe - Do teachers work for or against your YA characters?  As I’m finishing my first semester as a real life high school teacher, I’ve thought a lot about this idea.  Prior to this, I’d been teaching K-8, where the art teacher is generally well-liked.  I was nervous about high school.  All of a sudden, I was one of THEM. The infamous THEM.

I think of John Green’s LOOKING FOR ALASKA - the teachers at Pudge’s boarding school were merely road bumps in the way of living a true and good boarding school life.  In Laurie Halse Anderson’s SPEAK, Mr. Freeman, the over-zealous art teacher, helps the MC work to let her inner tree grow and blossom and speak.  In UNDONE, by Brooke Taylor, Doc Ramsey is both concerned, interesting teacher and worrisome meddler.  

Middle Grade books I think of (Mrs. Granger in FRINDLE and the wonderful faculty at Hogwarts) tend to show more well-rounded teachers, real people, with bumps and bruises, warts and smiles, but usually with the student’s best interest at heart.

So how is it in real life?  This is what I’ve figured out from my one semester.

  • Teenagers can spot a phony.
  • Teenagers will laugh at you if you try and show off a tramp stamp or wear a thong - but they think small piercings and small tattoos are super cool on a teacher. (in other words - act your age - not theirs)
  • Teenagers want to be heard.
  • Teenagers can tell if you’re truly seeing them - and that matters.
  • Teenagers don’t want to be talked down to.
  • Fair matters, but most understand that fair does not equal same.
  • Teens are reasonable (usually) if given reasonable logic.
  • Teenagers know if you care and if you care about their learning.
  • Teenagers appreciate laughter and the chance to socialize.
  • Teenagers respect teachers we will admit mistakes.
  • Teenagers respect teachers we are firm with their policies (if those policies makes sense).
So, if a teacher can remember and act on the above- you end up a Mr. Freeman or a Doc Ramsey. But if you’re not, you end up foe.  

Can you think of fictional teachers that fall into these categories?


  1. Great post! Last night I read a book, Paper Covers Rock, that doesn't fit into these categories -- in many ways the book was really about the teacher, Miss Dovecott, and could have been written from her perspective for an adult novel.

  2. Oh, that's one that just got an award - I believe the author lives in Asheville, not terribly far from me. Would you recommend?

  3. I have to admit that I tend to gloss over the high school parts of most of the books I read--I don't know why. But, I did happen to like the teacher in the House of Night series (I can't remember her name for the life of me), but she wasn't the typical teacher--the MC knew she was really evil, despite what everyone else thought. It struck me as being different enough to enjoy it. Fun post!

  4. YAs often think they need to feel a teacher is an adversary, and this scenario is almost a cliché in the genre.
    Goodbye Mr. Chips, To Sir with Love and their ilk were the conventions of yore. I must be very old, because I miss those teachers...

  5. Yes, very true about high school teachers. I feel like in most YA teachers are the enemy, with the exception of one cool art / English teacher. So I try to have a variety of teachers in my books, good, bad, and more every day types. Congrats on finishing your first semester of high school teaching!

  6. Meradeth - I read the first of those and I know the teacher you're talking about - but I think I was thinking more flesh and blood than blood and blood, LOL!

    Mirka - I'm afraid real life is a bit like that, too, these days.

    Anne - Yay for teacher diversity in your books!

  7. I can't think of a single fictional teacher right now other than the ones you've mentioned here -- ( blame this on doing too much teaching myself today). It's tempting to make fictional teachers too sympathetic and engaged in the protagonist's life; in reality, teachers are generally too busy to take a particular interest in any one student unless that student is extraordinary.

    Congratulations to you, getting through a year of teaching high school students -- NOT a small achievement.

  8. The teacher from The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt is pretty cool (can't remember her name - but that one won a Newbery Honor). Can't think of any foe teachers off hand. Interesting to think about.

  9. In high school, we always disliked it when teachers tried to act like one of us instead of the teacher. That's a teacher character I'd love to see in YA.

  10. i love this list! sounds like you are a fantastic teacher!


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