The Accidental Latin Teacher
After college, teaching Latin was a placeholder. Now it is my vocation.
A few days before my high school graduation, Mr. Pitcher shook his cane at me and made me promise I would never be a teacher. Teaching had never been on my radar, so it was easy to make this promise. My Career Plan A had been Sports Psychology, but after my first week of Latin III when we started reading Pliny’s letter about the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, I knew I wanted to spend as much time as possible studying Latin.
My junior year in high school, I mentioned offhandedly that I wanted to learn ancient Greek, and the next day — literally — Mr. Pitcher arranged a class as an independent study. I enjoyed that even more than Latin. My senior year, he dramatically displayed a glossy, full-color brochure said, “Look! Catholic University — right down the road! — has a scholarship for Classics majors.” A few months later, he was the one who accompanied me on my college tour. By the time we circled back to the admissions office in McMahon Hall, my new Plan A was to major in Greek and Latin at Catholic University of America.
As I started my senior year in college, Mr. Pitcher — who despite having his Ph.D., never went by “doctor” — encouraged me to do a post-baccalaureate program and then apply to doctoral programs. But a few weeks after that conversation, my alma mater called. Mr. Pitcher was too sick to continue teaching, and since ancient Greek was on his schedule, the school could not find anyone who could teach his classes. Of course I agreed to help out.
Most of my college classes were in the afternoons, so in the mornings Mr. Pitcher and I taught together. I use the word “together” rather loosely. Because of his ill health, he would sleep in a chair in the corner while I interacted with the students. Sometimes he would wake up and say, “What you meant is….” and somehow it would be what I actually should have said. Occasionally, I would lose patience with the slow pace of the class or complain about students’ work ethic. He would reply, “They are fine young people, and excellent scholars.” I couldn’t see their potential, but I always believed Mr. Pitcher. Throughout this experiment, he warned me not to become a teacher. I was supposed to be a professor.
When Mr. Pitcher died, it wasn’t a surprise, but I was still devastated. I remembered his “Please! Don’t teach!” exhortations, but the school desperately needed an ancient Greek and Latin teacher, and I liked the idea of a full-time job. Maybe not all accidental teachers have ignored their mentors’ dying wishes, but a lot of us end up teaching as a place holder.
Did I know Greek and Latin? Yes. Was I prepared to teach? Absolutely not. Even though several professors had recommended we take education courses “just in case,” I thought they were an unnecessary safety net. And, frankly, I thought teaching was an inferior career path. I had not studied Greek and Latin to teach children. Besides, who would want to take a class on assessment when Euripides’ Medea with Father Halton was at the same time? Not only did I avoid the School of Education, I ended up taking so many courses in the Classics department that after I tried to get math credit for a course on Euclid, the registrar warned me that I was taking too many courses in the Classics department.
With a love of Classics and zero preparation for teaching, I walked into the same classroom where I had studied as a high school student, ready to teach Latin, ancient Greek, and a section of Art History. My very first semester teaching alone, I often imagined Mr. Pitcher in the empty rocking chair. I missed the sound of his snoring and occasional, “What you meant to say is….” I was like the child of Spock and Siri. I could convey a lot of information, but I did not know how to connect with students. My main classroom management move was to say “Quiet down” and my idea of student-centered was to have students write sentences on the blackboard.
A turning point came when a blind student transferred into Art History. I sought help from my administrator. And by “help,” I mean that I told her that this student needed another elective. After all, if she couldn’t see the slides (yes, we used slides back then), how could she take the course? My administrator replied, “She signed up to be the student. You signed up to be the teacher. It is your job to figure it out.”
At that moment, I realized there was more to teaching than knowing my content. It didn’t matter how much grammar I understood, how accurately I could write compositions in the style of Caesar, how proficiently I could sight read, or how many ancient Roman monuments I could put on a map. My job wasn’t just teaching Classics. It was teaching students. I had a lot to figure out.
One year in Mr. Pitcher’s stead turned into two, and two years turned into three. I got married, had children, and realized that graduate school in Classics just wasn’t part of my future. Through trial and error and the help of patient mentors, I learned how to do my job. And, I realized that if I was going to stick with teaching, I needed to take the kinds of classes I had dismissed as “too boring and easy” when I was an undergraduate and filled my schedule with courses like Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica and Vergil: Not the Aeneid. The education classes were not enjoyable or inspiring, but that was not the point. They helped me become a teacher instead of an aspiring academic passing the time in a secondary classroom as a Plan B.
Teaching — in a university or at any other level — is not the only option for Classicists looking for work. While I was a single parent, I had a parallel career as a media analyst. While I was a military spouse, I had an interlude career as a mental health counselor. Classics prepared me well for both, but when my husband retired from the military and said, “It’s your turn to choose where we live and what you do,” I chose to be a Latin teacher in a public school. I still loved Classics as much as the day I first started reading Pliny the Younger’s letter about Vesuvius with Mr. Pitcher, but I also knew how to meet the needs of my students so that they could develop the same passion.
I look back fondly on the time I spent as an accidental Latin teacher. And, I still hear from students from point in my career who also have fond memories of their years my Latin classroom. With the benefit of hindsight, however, I know that teaching is best done intentionally, not accidentally.
Dani Bostick teaches high school Latin and an occasional micro-section of ancient Greek in Virginia where she lives with her husband, children, and muppet-like dogs. She has published many collections of Latin mottoes online,has a strong presence as an activist for survivors of sexual violence on twitter, and is available to write, speak, or rabble-rouse.