Beth Thompson

One of the highlights of my classroom career was teaching alongside Beth Thompson at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. By 2005 when I showed up at UNCSA, Beth had already been teaching for 30 years, most of it as an English teacher in Brookline, Mass. After 40 years in the classroom, Beth has more energy than most first-year teachers. In fact, Beth is more energetic than any of her students, all of whom she greets with a hug at the classroom door. If I were building the perfect teacher they would have Beth’s joy, enthusiasm, compassion, and steel-trap mind.

First Year Teaching: 1974

Top Song in 1974: The Way We Were - Barbara Streisand

President in 1974: Gerald Ford

Hometown: Dallas, Texas

School: The University of North Carolina School of the Arts, since 2003

Subjects: English, AP Psychology

Subject you can't imagine teaching: Math though I'd like to imagine I could learn!

Favorite Beatle: John

First Name of a Beloved Student: Tarso

Favorite Book to Teach: One Hundred Years of Solitude

The television show about your teaching life would be entitled: Jammin' starring - I wish Meryl Steep but it is more likely Bette Midler.

School would be so much better if: We could do fewer things well rather than many things poorly. AND we could spend more time outside.

Tell me about your when you first started teaching. It started in 1969 when a lot of alternative schools started. The students in protest set fire to the library and said, you know, we need to have changes in the school. So I didn’t start teaching there until 1974 and I taught most of my career there. I’ve always taught in alternative kinds of schools.

How have students changed in those years? One that really occurs to me is when I started teaching early in the 1970s the students had a big sense of questioning authority and they had not an adversarial but a spacious relationship with their parents. The kids were in an adolescent world – they did things with their friends - their parents were not enemies but the kids had their own world. At SWS (School within a School) their was an office and there was one phone, of course this was pre-cellphone and I remember when all of a sudden when it changed – 90s – they started to call their parents during the day and now when I start class the kids are all on their cell phone, “Mom, Mom, I love you, too. Mom, I love you, I’ll call you after class. I love you, bye Mom.” And I think they talk to their parents all the time, they constantly say, my mother is my best friend.

You wouldn’t have heard that in the 1970s? No. The relationship with parents is one of the most striking things I’ve seen.

Does that change their relationship with you? It does. In the old days the teacher was a savior hero, and it does change the relationship. The kids seem much more dependent on and are in such close contact with their parents these days. Kids are much less risk taking today. Students are being trained in a systematic way and so there is less exploring or learning about something. So of course those people are more willing to knuckle under to authority - they are followers. Back in the 1960s or 70s you go in any office and there’s a poster of Thoreau, he was a hero at Brookline, now my kids think he’s ridiculous.

What poster would kids today like? I mean – discipline – work hard get ahead. They are goal driven.

Tell me about a teacher you had who was inspirational. The reason that I decided to become a teacher-I went to big public schools, I’m a baby boomer – 40 people in a class always – and my initials were – my last name was a T and when I went to 1st grade when they got to T they had run out of seats and my mother just cried thinking about it. So I shared a little desk with somebody. So I was always in these huge classes. And when I was a sophomore in high school I took a course in speech and we had to write speeches and stand up at front and deliver them and we had to comment on each other. This was the first time I thought, this is a great class. Because you were looking at the faces of your classmates – it was the first time ever – in the 10th grade – because we had always sat in rows and you could only see the back of their heads – and now you could see someone’s face and you could make a point and you could see if it meant something to them. It was a give and take – and I thought – that was the first time I thought – I want to be a teacher. Her name was Ms. Lyons and she was the debate teacher and the speech teacher, and I remember thinking, oh you say something and you can see on the face of someone else whether that’s working. So I always wanted to have a discussion class and a place where you could see each other. She really inspired me – your talking meant something.

And do students ever resist the discussion class? They resist sometimes. You have to train them. Some people just direct their comments to me and here’s the whole class and they only talk to me and I’m like, “those people can’t see you, turn around, talk to them!”

At the end of the day, you look back, how do you know your class went well? I really like when unusual interaction happens in my heterogeneous classroom. Here’s an example: Miranda, who is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, said something and then a few minutes later this other kid who was super smart said, “I want to pick up on something Miranda said because I thought it was really good.” And Miranda’s face just lit up when she heard that. So when April read her exam to class and she has these great quotes from Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. School is supposed to be, you know, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable and changing the power structure and when that happens to have someone like April (a have-not) reading those lines from Salinger and when people step out of their comfort zone and learn something new and particularly when there’s some interaction with people who wouldn’t normally interact together I like that. That’s something right now that when it happens I think that’s good – I mean our society is so divided right now – The haves and the have-nots. And it’s hard if you say to a student, “your’re privileged!” You have these little white boys in class and when you’re like “Men control the world” and you have these little skinny white boys and they’re in love with some voluptuous gorgeous woman in class, I mean they don’t feel like they have the power – at all – and so you can’t be like “White Men have all the power!” I mean you can’t just hammer them over the head – so interaction between people that’s not typical – where they thought something new – that’s a successful class.

Can you recall anything really funny that happened in class? I had this student who had his head down on the desk all the time. And the student had to turn in papers one day and all the good little girls had these perfect papers and he pulled out these little scraps of paper, and I saw that every other line from his paper was crossed off, and then there were these strange ideas and phrases on his pages that were almost poetic. I went home and tried to make sense of it and I typed up all this Dylan Thomas for him. I was a student teacher, and so idealistic, and I spent like hours and hours on his paper. I turned it back to him the next day and he was like, “Ms. Thompson I don’t know how to tell you, this was my typing homework.” And the joke was really on me! I wanted so hard to make something out of this. I wanted to find something in it, and I tried so hard, but it wasn’t there. I had done all the work – the joke was on me. Once there was this girl and we were talking about a book and all of a sudden – apropos of nothing she busts out with – “I just had an abortion!”

And how do you deal with that? If somebody breaks down crying you want to give them attention but you don’t want to give too much, and then what do you do? “Who else has something to share? Who can build off that?” It’s hard to know what to do and I’m not very good at that. It’s hard to know when to cut them off and say, “okay, enough of that. Move on!” I’ve gotten better at stopping people. And today students were reading their papers to the class and then suddenly this girl gets up and leaves, and then I see her over on the floor getting a backrub in the middle of the reading! I mean, I can’t make them think a certain way, or take the information to heart, but when their classmates are presenting they are not going to give a backrub! I mean I have certain expectations, and I can’t make them think a certain way, but I can make you act a certain way! So I just love my students I’m on their side but you have to have clear rules or they’ll make you really mad and then you will not be on their side.

If you built the perfect student, what would they be like? People who love to learn and you say something and they go, “oh that reminds me of something” or “and that connects to this” or “and I read the other day” – they are generative of ideas, they love ideas, they are excited to learn something, they get so excited and the stuff they learn then means something and their energy can be contagious.

So those students have a spark – how do you spread that to other students? What I’ve always found if the cool kids are the kids who are excited by ideas then your job is so easy. I had this kid Toshi who was half Chinese and half Swedish and named for a Japanese artist. He was smart and warm and everyone loved him and if he was in your class then it was like okay– you’ve won – he helps create that chemistry. But if the kids who are excited are a little off-putting or a little showy then it makes it difficult.

How do you keep your spark and idealism alive? I think I have a little bit of denial. I had this student named Julie and she was crazy, and a few years later I was with a teacher and we saw her running and I said, “I always thought Julie was just a little bit weird.” And the other teacher said, “she was always a lot bit weird, you just didn’t know it!” I always romanticize my students – and then you find out something bad about them – and I think it’s better to be just a little in denial about the bad part. Also I love my subject matter – I LOVE to read and talk about Hamlet and I always try to focus on the positive things.

Do you ever get to the point where you’re like, I’ve already heard everything to be said about Hamlet, I’ve heard it all? How do you keep it fresh? There are books that are like that and I don’t teach them any more. Hamlet ain’t like that. Neither is Catcher in The Rye. There’s always something new because the kids change and the times change.

So you bring new content in? Yes – new content and new approaches – but some of the great ones – that part doesn’t get old – so I love my subject matter and I over-romanticize my students and I’ve secluded myself in the kind of institution where I can do that.

I mean I do think you do have to be on the kids’ side but not let them scam you and that’s tricky. I have to fail kids. You have to have high standards for them.

What is the most important thing in teaching? It is, alas, not something a teacher can produce by him/herself. How do you get the students to buy in? When I was in the School Within a School in Brookline, the kids had to apply. At the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, it’s the same. The kids have to CHOOSE the school. They don’t choose to go to class and be interested every single minute of every single day, but we have a hook in that they have chosen the school and hence a lot of animosity between teacher and student is absent. There is less “Gotcha”, less rebellion. The student doesn’t feel he is giving up his autonomy or personhood if he dives in. I taught for a few, very few, random years in regular schools and failed miserably because I didn’t know how to generate the buy in without the ethos of the school. Ethos is another key word for me. Creating an ethos in a classroom. I can do that on my own, but it is more powerful if the classroom is nestled in an institution that emits the same values.

This interview was conducted by email and in person.