Kevin Kearney On John Gardner and the Importance of Thank-You Notes

Noodle Expert Kevin Kearney tells us how a high school American Studies class made him want to teach, how novelist John Gardner shaped the way he works with students, and the importance of a cross-country road trip.

Noodle Expert Kevin Kearney tells us how a high school American Studies class made him want to teach, how novelist John Gardner shaped the way he works with students, and the importance of a cross-country road trip.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

John Gardner. In his essay "John Gardner: The Writer as Teacher," Raymond Carver recalls the late novelist's generosity and honesty in a Creative Writing 101 class. In fact, that essay has informed much of how I approach teaching writing -- creative or otherwise -- in my own classroom. What seems most impressive is the way in which Gardner wholeheartedly believed in the process of revision. Carver's essay makes it clear that Gardner was the kind of teacher that provides encouragement alongside challenges, a combination that inspires a student to accomplish what he or she previously thought was impossible.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

My mom always insisted that my siblings and I write 'thank you' cards. No matter the event, if we were given a gift then we were to send a 'thank you.' At the time I found it incredibly tedious and, overall, pointless. Was my aunt really going to treasure this card? But as I've grown I've come to understand the importance of affirmation. This is especially true at the end of a school year. After all of the hours, energy, and emotion that I've dedicated to a class, it is incredibly gratifying to have a student thank me.

Where would you send a student who hasn't traveled before?

On a road trip through America. Unfortunately, many people are either incapable or ill-equipped to look at life outside of their own circumstances, especially in our concentrated metro-bubbles. Seeing as much of this country as possible provides a better perspective on who we are as a nation.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

The first day of high school Spanish II was a nightmare. I was somehow awarded a decent grade for the introductory course despite learning very little of the language, but the full-immersion philosophy of Spanish II was not something for which I was prepared. I made it through the course, but at times it felt like an endless struggle. Looking back on it, I never really gave myself a chance. I decided during that first class period that the subject was over my head — that I was too far behind to catch up to everyone else in the class. That's a poor excuse. I try to keep that in mind now with some of my students who have decided that they are not "readers" or "writers." Providing excuses for yourself is the first step to failure.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

I was first inspired to teach during my sophomore year of high school. Up until that point I was a decent student, though my studies were not something for which I had a sincere passion; schoolwork was something that simply had to be completed. That apathy changed when I was enrolled in a class called American Studies. It was a double-period, team-taught class that combined the requirements of American History and American Literature to produce a sprawling, comprehensive course. Perhaps the most significant impact that the class had on me was that it showed me learning could be enjoyable: I looked forward to the class discussions, to the assigned readings, and most importantly, to the intellectual stimulation. I decided that I wanted to be at the front of a similar classroom, inspiring young learners like myself.

Something that is different than I expected is the amount of work that goes into teaching. Most people realize that the physical work of teaching for hours every day can wear on you, but they often neglect the additional hours of grading, lesson planning, extra-curriculars, parent/student meetings, college recommendations, and so on. A weekend without additional work is a rare luxury. With that being said, I still believe teaching is a worthwhile pursuit. Even over the summer I am consistently re-imagining and re-configuring my courses for the fall.

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