“Pure, Unadulterated Common Sense”: A Conversation with Virginia Buchanan & Harriet Whitehouse

Authored by: Marty Kelly

What do you get when you interview two longtime educators? A bucket of metaphors apparently. (I hope you see what I did there.) Listening to Julie’s barely twenty-minute interview with now-retired middle school teachers, Virginia Buchanan and Harriet Whitehouse, I counted at least five analogies about teaching and school: being on a journey, being on a ship, preparing a meal, doing housework, and creating magic. For some of us, we perhaps relate most fully to a ship metaphor, envisioning a rocking vessel buffeted with wave after wave of various crises; but lest we lose hope, we are far from a sinking ship, and as Harriet and Virginia confirmed, we are all in the ship together (very High School Musical of us). Read on to see what this math teacher (who taught me as a student) and English teacher (who inspired me as a colleague) have to offer in nuggets of wisdom for those of us not quite at retirement. 

For starters, forget fancy stuff. Professional development is all well and good, but Harriet points out the tool that “works better than any educational strategy” is “pure unadulterated common sense.” And to butcher J.Lo’s song, that kind of teachering don’t cost a thing. But what does common sense in a classroom mean? According to Harriet: “Listen to the kids, see what they need, listen to yourself. Do what’s practical… Just go with what’s logical and reasonable.” As one who has wrestled with and feared and been fatigued by the amorphous goal of “innovation,” I felt a sigh of relief and validation come out of me when I heard her say the words “logical,” “practical,” and “reasonable.” I am finally coming to a place where I realize that practicality and my gifts and my students’ needs and innovation are not mutually exclusive. Who knew? Turns out, Harriet did. 

Also in the category of things I wish I had been told as a first-year teacher, Harriet and Virginia dove into the concept of never feeling caught up. Harriet says, “You know from day one of a school year that you are behind … and you will never be caught up and that is the way it is.” Defeatist? Nay. It’s for real. I feel it. You feel it. We all feel it. And instead of fighting it, Harriet says, “I think making peace with that and making space for it and not worrying about it… that probably kept me sane.” Easier said than done, I’m sure, but Virginia chimes in, “I’ve always thought of it like housework, at least at my house, it’s never all done. If it ever was, it might be for a second because there was stuff crammed in the closet or something momentarily.” So cram away and if you need an extra hand getting that closet door to close, call me. Kidding. I don’t think Virginia wants us to cram stuff away like we do our emotions (is that just me?) but try to accept certain feelings as a part of the natural rhythm of school: “Just go with the flow, evolve with it…. enjoy the journey instead of the ultimate goal.” Okay, Virginia, I’ll try… but no one has ever accused me of being a go-with-the-flow type of gal. 

This next piece of advice is perfection. “Never be bored,” Harriet says, “If I’m bored with what I’m teaching, they will be bored with what I’m teaching. So boredom is not an option.” Now, are there times when I have pulled out all the tricks and strategies and the students still look at me lifelessly and I want to scream like Russell Crowe in Gladiator, “Are you not entertained?!”? Absolutely. But *most* of the time, if students get that we are into something, they can get behind it, and they at least respect the vibe we are putting out. A 5-minute pop culture lesson about teens will tell us it’s all about the “vibes” for them and what they are “vibing” with. I have ended so many sentences with prepositions in this blog, but it felt so awkward to write “with what they are ‘vibing.’” Jests aside, students are actually scarily good at reading people and can sniff disingenuous enthusiasm and hypocrisy faster than you can say ‘Bama Rush TikTok. So if you feel passionately about the Oxford comma (which I do) let it be known and maybe, just maybe, they will campaign for the serial comma too. 

BUT (big but) here: our job is not to tap dance at the front of the room to keep student attention and keep them happily entertained for over an hour (don’t know about you, but I don’t have that kind of stamina). Of course, there is a time and place for everything (at least according to Ecclesiastes 3) including lecturing and being in the spotlight, but I think Virginia speaks for all of us when she says: “I’d much rather be a facilitator than a lecturer. That’s when I’m in my happy place.” Me too, Virginia, me too. Listening to all five of my classes sustain a Harkness discussion for over 30 minutes without my input was what I needed to give me life in the first full week of school, during a pandemic, you know, again. Virginia calls this “eavesdropping” when students are “discovering” on their own. It definitely feels cheesy, but it felt so right to me when Harriet described these moments as “magical.” As she admits, “it doesn’t happen all the time,” but sometimes “there’s just this magic in the room,” and “you feel as if you’re in tune with the spinning of the galaxy.” And for a long time teacher of A Wrinkle in Time, I can think of no more apt analogy.  We won’t ever have perfect pitch in the classroom, but chasing those moments when we are in tune sounds pretty magical to me too. 

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