A Life In School: What The Teacher Learned
By: Jane Tompkins

In A Life In School, Jane Tompkins tells the story of her experiences from beginning school through being employed as a college professor. All the while she speaks about her opinions on the American school system and her teaching theories and strategies. The book starts while she is in grammar school. Although she mentions a few teachers that she thought highly of, Tompkins hated school during these years because of her overwhelming need to impress her teachers. She discusses her college years where she attended Bryn Mawr and Yale. She has very inconsistent opinions about her classes and teachers. While still dealing with her need to impress, she learns a lot about discussion in learning.
The bulk of the book, however, is about her years teaching at many different institutions. During her many years as a professional she develops many ways of teaching. She connects her job to her personal life and she continuously challenges herself and her students. She learns many new methods of teaching and in the end combines many to create her own. Although she went through many ups and downs regarding school in her life, in the epilogue of this book she states that she is content in how it all ended up.

Key Terms:

Excitement and discovery-The passion and interest that should be generated by educational activities. The lack of excitement and discovery made her hate learning. The dry and dull nature of education made her develop an intense loathing and fear of school.

Approval-The absence of humiliation and shame. To be approved meant to be not noticed.

Knowledge and understanding-The application of actual thought and mental processes into schoolwork, compared to the usual regurgitation of information.

Talking –Talking because of love for subject and to display knowledge which lead to Jane Tompkins’ career in teaching.

College –A place where you learn for passion of the topic. Education is loved and coveted.

GraduateSchoolA place where one goes to impress professors and meet personal goals. Passion is no longer the aim, graduation is.

“No-frills” teaching –a method of teaching in which students, for the most part, present the material to the class

Teaching nothing –a method of teaching in which Jane Tompkins wrote no syllabus, did not prepare for class or impose her ideas on students. Instead, she did not put her knowledge of the subject or a prepared text in between what began to unfold in the class’ unpredictable path. See More Private Teaching Here...

Learning –when education results in a change of behavior.

Class experience –the end and aim of education is an experience that is worth having moment by moment; instead of the knowledge that you can take away from class, a certain skill, or a new perspective.

Product capability –a business term referring to what enables production to happen, especially in terms of addressing human needs for nurture and support, which Jane Tompkins feels is lacking in many universities.

Preprofessionalism –a problem that occurs when there are “very few ways to excel academically … that include attention to creativity, self-knowledge, and compassion for oneself and others” (page 214).

Key Passages

“School, by definition, conditions us to believe that there are others who know better than we do; it encourages and often forces us to give up our own judgment in favor of the judgment of those in authority. School, by its existence, militates against the very thing that education is for- the development of the individual. This paradox is at its heart.” – pg xix

“It’s the second image that tends to retain in people’s memories. The teacher, the one who stands in front, who stands while others sit, the one whom you must obey, the one who exacts obedience. For obedience is the basis for everything else that happens in school; unless children obey, nothing can be taught. That is what I learned. Obedience first. Or rather, fear first, fear of authority, yielding obedience to everything else.” – pg 4

“Besides, it was the way reading was taught that made it so boring: everybody listening while the slowest student stumbled and stuttered; everything uniform and predictable; up and down the endless rows, day after day.” – pg 18

“At P.S, 98 the three basics were not reading, writing, and arithmetic but standing in line, not moving, and staying absolutely quiet.” – pg 18

“She aroused our moral outrage, dared us to think harder, challenged our comfortable assumptions. In her class we felt our strength individually and as a group because she pulled it out of us. We like athletes whose feats were mental instead of physical, proud of ourselves and for each other.” – pg 59

“The teachers who made the most difference to me were the ones who loved their subjects and didn’t hide it.” – pg 61

“College was a place where I could exercise my curiosity, develop my talents, and test the waters of social experience without worrying about earning a living or meeting demands of an alien environment. It was a place where what I was good at counted, where I felt challenged but also felt safe.” – pg 69

“Going to graduate school and studying literature for me stood in the direct opposite to the mode of life represented by the station wagon people: suburban, conventional, materialistic, without imagination, sensitivity, or appreciation for the finer things in life. Graduate school was going to give me the means to rise above all that and achieve something special.” – pg 76

“Graduate school- I was finally getting the point- was where you were supposed to show the professor how much you knew and how smart you were; it had nothing to do with loving poetry.” – pg 78

“If it’s against the code of the group to get excited or show you’re committed to something, then discussion is tepid and arguments are short-lived. But when people care about ideas, which means that they have an emotional stake in them, that’s when they jump into debates, find the best arguments, hang in there when the going gets rough, and feel excitement and intimacy of real exchange. For this you have an idea, as well as permission to fight for it.” – pg 81

“[T.S. Eliot’s poems] ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and the “Preludes’ … confirmed what I already suspected: that if I hated the image, if it made me feel stupid, numb, depressed, … it must be sophisticated, poetic. If the writing was difficult, dry, emotionally perverse, that made it good, the best”. – pg 116

“I thought to myself for the first time: I have to remember to find out what they want (meaning the students), what they need, … and not worry about whether what I’ve prepared is good enough, or ever gets said at all … I had always thought that whatr I was doing was helping my students to understand the material we were studying … I realized that what I had actually been concerned with was showing the students how smart I was … I had been putting on a performance whose true goal was not to help the students learn, as I had thought, but to perform before them in such a way that they would have a good opinion of me”. – pg 119

“[After beginning ‘no-frills’ teaching] my classes were more alive than they’d ever been before. More students took part in discussions, they talked more to each other and less to me, and the intensity and quality of their engagement with the course material was gratifying”. – pg 120

“Yet while it was true that sometimes they couldn’t deal with the material as well as I could, that was why they needed to grapple with it. It wasn’t important for me to polish my skills, but they did need to develop theirs”. – pg 121

“I believe that school should be a safe place … a place where you belong, where you can grow and express yourself freely, where you know and care for the other people and are known and cared for by them, a place where people come before information and ideas. Schools need to comprehend the relationship between the subject matter and the lives of students, between teaching and the lives of teachers, between school and home”. – pg 127

“The one thing I’ve learned from doing experimental teaching is that you never know, really, what you’ve accomplished. You never know what the students have learned, or if they’d learned anything, anything solid”. – pg 137

“Grades, of course, are judgments. Judgments rendered by One Who Knows. The way I teach now, judgment seems inappropriate – judgment of students by the instructor, or of the instructor by the students, or even of the whole course by all its members. I offered these courses Pass/Fail for a reason: you can’t grade a person’s soul”. – pg 145

“People’s personalities [in a class] won’t be visible, their feelings and opinions won’t surface, unless the teacher gets out of the way on a regular basis. You have to be willing to give up your authority, and the sense of identity and prestige that come with it, for the students to be able to feel their own authority. To get out of the students’ way, the teacher has to learn how to get out of her own way. To not let her ego call the shots all the time. This is incredibly difficult. But I think it is a true path for a teacher”. – pg 147

“It’s students not books that are the important things. And the students are growing. And like other growing things, they need the right atmosphere to grow in. The atmosphere is what determines whether or not they will flourish. Of this atmosphere, books are only one part. What about the rest?” – pg 152

“What was missing from my experience at the large urban school: a sense that I mattered. For all I knew, I could have disappeared, and no one would have known the difference. This was how the students felt, too. At that school each student was assigned a number … they clearly resented it. At the time, I made no connection between my unhappiness and theirs, but it stemmed from the same lack of consciousness on the institution’s part”. – pg 190

“If the places that the young people go to be educated don’t embody the ideals of community, cooperation, and harmony, then what young people will learn will be the behavior these institutions do exemplify: competition, hierarchy, busyness, and isolation”. – pg 194

“[My student] is both a lifelong teacher and an actress, whose view of the classroom is sensitive to its theatricality. She started to mimic what happens when students talk in class, and a new vision of classroom dynamics opened up for me. She raised her hand and began to wave it, her voice filled with anxiety: ‘Am I smart?’ she said. ‘Am I really smart? Am I the smartest?’ In class discussion, students compete with one another for the teacher’s approval. They seek reassurance, and they want to be rewarded with praise”. – pg 209 – 210

“The university has come to resemble an assembly line, a mode of production that it professes to disdain. Each professor gets to turn one little screw – his specialty – and the student comes to him to get that little screw turned. Then on to the next. The integrating function is left entirely to the student. The advising system, which could be of great help, seems to exist primarily to make sure people don’t bollix up their graduation requirements”. – pg 222 - 223