The school year is coming to an end, and as soon as I finish grading 26 papers on McCarthyism, I’ll no longer be a secondary-school teacher anymore. I’ve learned a lot from the four years I’ve spent teaching teenagers.
Teenagers are energetic and funny and quite often frustrating. But, overall, I would say that they try to be good people and want to grow up to do good things in the world. Sometimes, as I’ve seen, this changes in college as they are pressured to major in a subject that will be lucrative (say, computer science), as opposed to one for which they have genuine passion (say, philosophy…or, in my case, Irish history). It makes me sad to see this happen to people who were once so gloriously interested in John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.
I’m an activist and a researcher, not a teacher. The moments I enjoyed most when I was in the classroom all connect with left-wing activism in some fashion. The most gratifying day for me as a teacher was my last day at my first teaching job, when I showed John Oliver’s interview with Edward Snowden. Afterwards, I asked my students if they thought that Snowden is a hero or a traitor. Every single one of my students answered that they thought he was an American hero, and I thought to myself, “I did a good job this year.” I had a similar experience when a student from my second school paid tribute to me before I left, by explaining how much joy he found in my use of Hasan Minhaj’s speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner–that I engaged them in history and current events, and made them think about their own beliefs. These moments put in sharp relief the thousands of other moments that people who love teaching would find satisfying, and yet I do not.
Teaching United States and World history also made clear how much I love researching and talking about Ireland. I tried to find ways to work Ireland into my lessons. I spend an entire day on the Battle of the Boyne when I teach the Glorious Revolution, and I play “Young Ned of the Hill” for my students. I hit on the Penal Laws, Catholic Emancipation, the Great Famine, and the juxtaposition of the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Ireland is my country of choice when I teach about nations and nationalism. And yes, I cover the Unionist perspective and why Unionism is a form of nationalism. Many of my colleagues think all of this is a giant waste of time; but my students have enjoyed it most because it’s what I love to talk about. One student remarked that I’m a different teacher when I teach about Ireland.
I think that student was correct.
And so I’m ending my teaching career this June to return to researching and writing about Irish history and politics. I comment on Twitter, and of course I write here, too. I don’t know what my future will be–I hope there is a career to be had as a consultant on Irish history and politics–but I think this path will make me happier.