Seth Czarnecki on Avoiding Tourists and Embracing Spontaneity

Noodle Expert Seth Czarnecki discusses his failing grade on a high school English paper, how his teaching has embraced spontaneity, and what he learned from his mother's brutal honesty.

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

Here's the most boring answer ever. I'd choose a professor I had as an undergrad. Her name is Haivan Hoang, and I believe she's still at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. When I had Haivan as an instructor, I was in awe both of her content knowledge (her focus was in composition studies) and of the ease with which she made her students better writers. I'd like to take her classes again, so that now, as a veteran teacher (if I can call myself that), I can study the ways in which she does what she does and what makes her so effective.

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

I'm not sure if my mother ever gave me any one liners about how to live well. Still, she modeled for me the best lesson I could have ever internalized, which is to live honestly. If my mother didn't like you or if you bored her, she'd let you know. As a teen, I hated this about her. I would say, "Ma, you can't tell people that. You'll hurt their feelings." But what I didn't realize is that she wasn't being mean nor was she being unpleasant. She just didn't see the point in lying to others or to herself. I carry this tradition on because I understand that life is too short to put up a front for others. We'll all be OK in the end. There's no use in pretending to be someone you're not.

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

I'd recommend going somewhere off the beaten track — the towns or cities next to the places tourists go. For me, that place is Genoa, Italy. Some friends and I took a train there after spending a few days in Milan. Unlike Milan, where high fashion seemed to be all anyone cared about, Genoa had character. Genoa is a blue-collar town populated by real people, most of whom did not speak English. We were forced to use the language and engage in long, sometimes confusing, conversations with locals about where the best beaches were or where we could get some gelato. We would get lost and stumble upon churches and museums that rivaled any we saw elsewhere. And yet, there were virtually no tourists. Most of the places we stopped we had to ourselves. It was intimate and wonderful. So to that student who hasn't traveled, I'd say embrace the places less visited. They have wonders all their own.

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

In Mrs. Smith's class in 11th grade. Mrs. Smith had just passed back our papers on Othello, and on the top was written, "F — Please, see me." I was shaken because for the first time I had actually read a book for school and didn't turn to SparkNotes or Pink Monkey Notes (if that's still a thing) for support. After class, when I met with Mrs. Smith, she explained that while my thoughts and ideas were intriguing and it was obvious I had put a lot of thought into the paper, there was no evidence to support it. I had used no quotes, and as such, my arguments held no water. Never did I make that mistake again.

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

As I alluded to in the answer to the previous question, I was not the model English student in high school. I rarely read the books I was assigned. I was engaged more by the social aspects of school than anything else. It wasn't until I enrolled in English classes in college that things started to make sense. In these classes, the instructors held us accountable and valued our voices. We were encouraged to experiment with our writing and to break the mold of the five-paragraph essay. It was awesome, and I wondered why school couldn't always be like this. This is what got me hooked on English and on teaching.

After five years of teaching, I've realized that every day is, and should be, different. When I was an undergrad studying to become a teacher, I had thought that at a certain point a teacher figures out her approach, and it's smooth sailing for there. But frankly, it's not like that at all. Every day I want to change something or to do something different. In fact, the vast majority of my plans go down the toilet because I'll have some epiphany on the drive to work. Of course, this makes things more difficult, but frankly, I don't think I'd want it any other way.

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