By her own admission, UWaterloo English alumna Jill Waters was “never the girl who said, ‘When I grow up I will be a teacher.'” Now she’s the head of English at a local high school. Her unexpected career path, her take on the value of English, and the ways in which the discipline is shifting in the high school as well as the university, make for compelling reading. And her book recommendations may be my favorite yet for a wintery January. Thank you to Jill for participating in Words in Place.–JLH
JLH: How did you decide to study English at UWaterloo? Was it a logical choice, do you think, or more of an intuitive one?
JW: It was definitely an intuitive decision. When I started university I had no idea what I wanted to study. While I was filled with uncertainty about the subject matter I wanted to focus on, I always knew I wanted to go to the University of Waterloo. During my high school years my father had been the manager at the CIBC located in the Student Life Center. As a result I spent time on campus and knew that UW was where I wanted to be. Studying English was something I stumbled into. During my first year I took an English course at St Jerome’s. I fell in love with the SJU campus, the class and the subject matter. I was so excited to attend the class, and to read the books that I decided to major in English with no idea of my future career plan. While I was envious of my friends who had clear paths, I was finally on an educational journey that made me question, think and engage.
JLH: We now have English degrees by co-op, streams in Rhetoric and Professional Writing, as well as Digital Media, and courses in everything from Chaucer to Harry Potter to Games Studies–do you think you would make different choices if you were enrolling now?
JW: I love language, literature, and media with equal passion. I would still want to study literature, but I would not want to focus so greatly on the Canon. When I attended university we all had the Norton Anthology, we all read the classics, took Shakespeare 1 & 2 and many courses in British literature. I am glad to have been exposed to these great works, but if I were to study English today I would love to take courses that look at more modern and international literature.
If I were a student today I would absolutely have to study Digital Media. It is fascinating to me how media has changed in the past decade and the immense impact it has on language, communication, business and entertainment. I think anyone studying English should have to take courses in Digital Media as it is shaping our lives, choices, language, opinions and thoughts. It would be a shame to have a degree in English and not learn to understand how Digital Media has changed it.
JLH: I’m wondering if you see the same shifts in what it means to study English at the high school level as we have seen at the university level?
JW: I have been teaching for 12 years and in that time there have been several interesting shifts in this subject area. For example early in my career many courses had 5 units: poetry, the short story, the play, the essay and the novel. The focus was mostly on the text and text features. Now we often look at ideas in thematic ways, include digital media, and focus more specifically on developing literacy, writing and communication skills. Our courses are no longer defined by the common course text, but by the building of skills. In my own classroom I often use literature circles, student choice of text and varied media texts to encourage rich discussion, deep connections, and many opportunities for students to build reading, writing and speaking skills. I still find value in having a common course text, but realize this cannot be the only method of instruction. Furthermore a greater focus on inquiry based learning, collaboration, and creating for authentic audiences has shaped my own instruction. For example, my students often research in teams about issues that are presented in the novels they read, which allows them to connect their reading to their questions or real world issues. We use discussion boards and blogging so that the teacher is not the sole audience. While the core skills (reading, writing, analysis, speaking, etc.) in the English classroom remain the same, the means in which we teach and evaluate them have shifted.
JLH: You’ve both taught English and are head of a department currently. Could you chart that for us? Did your experience at UWaterloo shape your teaching in particular ways?
JW: I was never the girl who said, “When I grow up I will be a teacher.” But in my third year I realized I needed to find some focus. I needed a plan. I asked myself the question all English majors ask: what do I do with an English degree? With some research, I realized there were a lot of options. I knew myself well enough to know that any job that required me to sit behind a desk staring at a computer would make me dreadfully unhappy. Through my class work, study groups and other experiences I knew I was very good at explaining ideas to others and loved working with people. As my work experience was limited to sales and bartending, I decided to volunteer in different potential career areas. I did a lot of volunteering. After volunteering at both an elementary and a secondary school, I realized I wanted to teach at the secondary level. I had a plan: finish 4th year, travel and work for year and then Teacher’s College. Fate intervened when I walked into the Student Life Center and was handed an information page about Griffith University. I realized I could travel and attend Teacher’s College. Upon my return from Australia, I was lucky enough to begin supply teaching right away. After a few months of supply teaching I got my first teaching job. I spent the next ten years teaching, taking courses, attending conferences, and developing my own professional leadership skills. While at university I learned to love learning. It is this love of learning that has made me continue to continually seek opportunities to learn. Last year I took on a new and exciting role: Head of English. In the past 12 years I have learned a great deal and have continually grown as a teacher, but my time at university taught me a very valuable lesson: passion is important. Anyone who sat in a lecture given by Ted McGee or Eric McCormack knows that passion inspires learning, thinking and questioning. I will always remember that lesson.
JLH: Finally, I’m wondering if you might share a few of your favorite reads from the last year.
JW: I have so many favourite reads that this question is extremely difficult for me to answer. I love fiction, nonfiction, and have an obsession with cookbooks. Over the summer I read The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman. The novel broke my heart, intrigued me and left me with a sense that the human spirit is ever resilient. I also really enjoyed The Nest by Cynthia D’apix Sweeney. It was light and funny. I recently read Bryan Cranston’s A Life in Parts. His life has been fascinating and his voice is engaging. I love cookbooks and have been spending my spare time reading Anthony Bourdain’s Appetites: A Cookbook. The mix of storytelling, beautiful pictures and recipes is perfection.
The book I recommend to everyone is Richard Wagamese’s Ragged Company. I read it in a day. I could not put it down. The writing is hauntingly beautiful and the characters are unique and tragic. Everyone should read this book.