Making Meaning: Reflections on NCTE 2016

By Katie Wheeler, 7th grade English Teacher, Cheyenne, WY:


A BBQ sandwich wrapper and empty beer can sit on the desk of my hotel room. It is my last night in Atlanta and the evening before I return home from the annual National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Convention. This year I’ve requested to stay through Sunday night so I can finally attend all those great Sunday afternoon sessions and process the hours of ideas I’ve absorbed. Researchers Steph Harvey and Anne Goudvis pointed out in a session earlier today that information on its own has little meaning. Without time to think and process, information can never turn into knowledge.

With that thought in mind, I take a shower, put on my pjs, and devote my remaining hours in Atlanta to making meaning. I pull on my t-shirt that reads, “Bitches get stuff done,” words of wisdom from actress and comedienne Tina Fey. I can’t help but think of all the teachers I’ve encountered this weekend. Although “bitch” is a title I wear with pride, it isn’t one others necessarily appreciate, so I’d like to substitute “teachers.” Teachers get stuff done! I quit counting the times this weekend that I dreamt about what teachers could accomplish if they could spend more time with students and less time navigating the system they find themselves entrenched in.

I saw this in Jackie, the young teacher who is not yet tenured, but has thoughtfully planned and organized her classroom into a place where students read, write, think, talk, and become better humans, all within a 50-minute period. She discusses how she does this within the confines of her curriculum, and how that  requires occasional readjustments throughout the year. I believe Jackie –- and many other teachers in her shoes -– likely know better ways to reach students than those laid out by the curriculum. However, because they love what they do, they sacrifice their knowledge in order to maintain their passion.

I heard from a professor in a teacher education program. She works to prepare teachers to enter the profession. As she discussed the limitations placed on her by legislators and laws in her state, I tried to imagine the implications of her work (or lack thereof) on incoming teachers. What would they need to do in order to get stuff done?

There has long been a notion that parents and community members appreciate and support teachers they know, and I definitely feel that backing in my community. I’m guessing many other teachers do too, yet we still find ourselves navigating systems that require us to sacrifice our expertise in order to maintain our participation in the profession. Something about this seems very wrong to me, especially considering that we want our students to become people who can also “get stuff done.” Shouldn’t we, as teachers (or as bitches for that matter), have the ability to put our knowledge, expertise, and wisdom to work?

One of my professors and mentors once said, “Our goal should be to prepare teachers so that they’re difficult to con and harder to govern.” As I make meaning from my experiences at NCTE, I know his words are a reality, but I also wonder what kind of work we could get done if no one was trying to con or govern teachers in the first place. We are a profession of doers and problem solvers. Perhaps it is time to let us govern ourselves. It might be surprising to see just what sort of “stuff” we can get done.