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Teachable moments

Middle school teacher Tim Dillon said in his quest to teach English, he’s noticed that kids always remember the offbeat, quirky things about literature and language. In a recent unit on Edgar Allen Poe, for example, Kennedy Middle School students easily remembered that the 19th century author married his cousin. But teacher Dillon attempts to create a more lasting impression about the writer, using a “Poe-cabulary list” to ingrain words like “dissimilation,” “sagacity” and “suppositions” from “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and drawing students into dark romanticism. “They like the writing; it’s scary and creepy, and they enjoy it,” said Dillon, 36, an English teacher at Kennedy Middle School in Woburn, Mass., who also shows a Simpson parody on “The Raven” to further reel-in blasé seventh graders.

The interactive lesson on Poe is just one way that Dillon injects his personality into the classroom as he tries to spark what he calls “teachable moments.” “Middle school for many people, including myself, tends to be a blur, so I try to inject a little personality in the way I deliver content, to make it more memorable,” said Dillon.

Although Dillon seems like a natural in the classroom, six years ago, he was in the field selling software for human resource management. The monotonous days, weeks, and months flew by, and he found himself questioning the value of corporate sales. After talking to friends and family in the education field, he decided to begin a three-year progression toward becoming a teacher, getting a provisional license and working toward his master’s degree. Today, he said, “This is not the type of profession you can be half-hearted in. In the corporate world you can play the game and be more opportunistic, but teaching is a whole different mindset.”

Although student enrollment in elementary, middle, and secondary schools is expected to rise more slowly than in the pat, employment of teachers like Dillon is expected to grow by 13 percent to 2018.

Q: You’re a teacher by day, stand-up comedian by night, performing in clubs like Tommy’s Comedy Club in Boston. Does this seep into the classroom?
A: Teaching is almost a type of performance; you want to leave students with some sort of enduring impression. When I read, I try to read with a certain inflection in my voice, that’s just public speaking 101. I do goofy writing assignments, and use hyperboles to keep kids interested. You don’t want to talk too long, or you lose them.

Q: What separates a good teacher from bad?
A: Good teachers intrinsically have good instincts. As a teacher, you’re constantly making decisions and assessments, and sometimes you just have to go with your gut feelings in deciding what the best route is.

Q: What do you do with your summers off?
A: Unlike many teachers, I typically don’t work at camp or teach summer school. I think it’s important to have time off, so I do painting and carpentry jobs and come back refreshed and ready.

Q: Bullying has been in the news lately. Do you see it in your classroom?
A: It’s definitely something we need to pay attention to. It’s not a new thing, but put taunting words online, and there’s a whole new speed to how quickly it gets broadcast.

Q: Have students changed at all through the years since you were in school?
A: There are differences, but kids are still kids. If you pick up a book in a classroom, someone still has often written in it, “If you’re holding this book, you’re a dork.” That’s the same thing we used to do in middle school. And there’s still gum under the desk. That’s never going to stop. We’re all just trying to get by, just like everyone else.

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