Susan Crago, who teaches AP Language and Composition at Northampton High School, is our latest profile of this year’s Pioneer Valley Excellence in Teaching Award recipients. The richness of her responses made it hard to eliminate any questions we asked her, so we included them all here:
What motivated you to become a teacher/educator? I always loved school and had some great teachers along the way who made me excited about learning and thinking deeply about the world around me.
What support did you receive, or wish you had received, early in your career? I worked with three very talented teachers early in my career and we used to meet every Wednesday after school for coffee to talk about teaching.
What keeps you enthusiastic about teaching/education, and where do you find inspiration? I am always looking for ways to improve my teaching, so once I teach a lesson or unit or give and assess an assignment, I revisit my work to see how I could make it more effective in helping my students succeed. I find that when I’m able to make what we’re doing in the classroom relevant to what’s happening in the broader world, my students are more engaged and begin to see the how all things are connected. I’m not trying to flatter you, but I find much inspiration in programs I watch on public television and stories I hear on public radio.
Who has been a role model for you and why? My mother has been a great role model. She was the youngest of 10 children, born to immigrant parents who never went to school beyond eighth grade. My mother instilled in all of her six children a great love of reading. She worked out a deal with the librarian in my hometown in West Virginia so that we could check out as many books as we wanted. I’d get a huge stack every two weeks–25 to 30 books–read them all and get more the next time. It got to a point where I started reading the same books again because I’d run out of new titles, which taught me the value of re-reading. Although neither of my parents had the opportunity to get a college degree, they made it a priority to send us all to college, even though it was a real financial burden.
What do you find helps you to effectively interact with students? I really like teenagers. I think they are curious about the world around them and want to talk and write about “big ideas.” They are philosophical and thoughtful, when given the opportunity, and they are irreverent and funny without the cynicism one finds in many adults. If kids know you like them and really want to know who they are, that’s more than half the battle.
Do you have a favorite resource, website, lesson/activity that you’d like to share? Here are two great resources for helping create assignments or activities geared toward rhetorical analysis: procon.org (an unbiased site with vetted sources examining the pros and cons of contemporary issues) and changingminds.org (an extensive site aimed at increasing media literacy on every level). For specific assignments I’ve given, you can visit my website at cragosclassroom.com.
How do you try to balance the demands of your professional and personal life? I stay after school for several hours most days to try and minimize the time I have to work at home. I’ve made it a habit to try and keep one weekend day completely free of school-related activities so I can focus solely on my family for at least one day a week during school. Over the summer, I don’t teach summer school. I have to say, though, I am always thinking about ways to incorporate interesting things I read about or hear about or encounter into the work I do with my students.
If you could change just one thing in education today, what would it be? Significantly reduce the amount of time and money and importance placed on standardized testing.
What is some of the best advice you’ve been given? Or what is a favorite quotation? One of my undergraduate professors told us, “Stay out of the teacher’s lounge.” I found this to be good advice for several reasons. Much talk in the teacher’s lounge focuses only on the negative aspects of the school/kids/administration/profession. Also, the coffee is usually bad and the refrigerator and microwave tend to be disgusting.