Sunday, August 26, 2007

Roberta Corcoran, Fredonia High School English Teacher

Roberta Corcoran:

“We can all give aid to, and learn from, everyone around us”

By: Michael Reiff

Introduction Roberta Corcoran, currently an English teacher at Fredonia High School, is outwardly warm, inwardly wise, and at times frank in her beliefs. Her long tenure as an English teacher has not only allowed her to master her abilities in teaching students, her life-long passion, but also gain understandings into the human experience and what that experience needs to thrive. Through a lengthy conversation about her passions in and out of the classroom, Corcoran shared snippets of her life story, her unique perspectives on the dynamic of the classroom, and what she perceives as the largest ailments of our global culture.

I began by asking her how she got to where she is today, not specifying exactly, to which she replied, “Michael, I breathed in, I breathed out.” Corcoran briefly noted her travels across the country, “up and down the east coast,” beginning in Wellsville, NY, and then settling in Fredonia, NY, where she resides today. But was there an initial notion behind how she got to where she was? Indeed. An interest “in life” is what has kept Corcoran grounded and continuously learning and growing; shaping herself into what she is today.

Personal History Corcoran began her higher education, after attending school in Wellsville, at SUNY Fredonia, where she acquired both her Bachelor’s degree and her Master’s. Her initial work at Fredonia was a bit different from what she finished with and what she had wanted to really do. “I was kind of in denial about what I wanted to do,” Corcoran remembers. “I wanted to be a teacher since I was a tiny, tiny girl. Before I was in school I wanted to be a teacher. But there didn’t seem to be a market for teaching when I came to school, at all; there were just no jobs.” So Corcoran began her college career as a psychology major, but soon switched her concentration to simply English literature. Corcoran says she did this “so I could spend four years reading and have a really good time, which I think English is supposed to be about, just reading good books and talking to people about good books.”

When Corcoran finished her Bachelor’s degree in Literature she knew that there wasn’t going to be many jobs in that area. Luckily, she acquired her first job through a public relations course she had taken. “Thank God I took that course, because the day before I graduated the County Executive called me and asked if I was interested in a job working in the government.” Corcoran took the job, and the day after graduation began her work in public relations and economic development, gaining an income while she waited for teaching jobs to open up.

Good Teaching Corcoran began her teaching career in 1992 at the Fredonia Central School District, and has taught there since, working in a wide range of grades. She now teaches 9th grade English students, a section of advanced 12th grade students, and AIS [Academic Intervention Service] 11th grade students, “which is the group of kids that are expected to be less likely to graduate,” Corcoran says. “I really, really love working with them.” From her first students to those she teaches now, Corcoran has gained some knowledge of what a good teacher needs to have. “Care even more for who you’re teaching than what you’re teaching,” Corcoran asserts. “I think that almost everybody that becomes a teacher, certainly on a secondary level, is really in love with their subject matter… but if you’re going to be a decent teacher, if you’re going to be an inspired teacher, hopefully an inspiring teacher, the kids have to be more important than the [subject matter],” Corcoran continues.

Life Success To succeed out of the classroom, Corcoran has a few ideas on the matter as well, and fear is the big limitation to overcome she believes. “Try to stay two or three steps ahead of your fears. Literally,” Corcoran notes as the path to personal success. “I think that fear is the biggest limitation. I think that it causes the greatest conflicts between people, and I think that if you look at the conflicts between people, as a mirror on yourself as an individual, you can see that fears are what cause conflicts in yourself. So if you can recognize what your fears are and stay a little bit ahead of them, you’ll be okay.”

Mantras / Limitations In some ways, Corcoran has also succeeded in life by not only understanding her fears, but also coming to terms with her limitations. The mantra, “patience is a virtue” is something she ascribed to in college. “I tend to be kind of an impatient person, and I’ve had to really talk to myself on a regular basis to be patient, to calm down. It’s something I fail at, occasionally, because it’s my limitation,” Corcoran notes. Currently, though, Corcoran has been subscribing to a different set of words. “‘Love, and then do,’” Corcoran says. “I [have been] motivated to consciously think in terms of loving more than anything else as a first impulse. Across the last year as my sister was ill and dying, it became obvious to me that if your first expression is an expression of love, then any action you take is probably not going to be a negative one. So that’s kind of what I’m trying to live by now. Love first, and then take action.”

Influences Corcoran says that she is influenced by “everybody I’ve ever met. I mean literally.” Corcoran says that she is in tune with how people interact with her on a daily basis, whether they know it or not, “even the person who passes me on the street and elects to say hello to me or not say hello to me, and give me a moment of their day.” As a singular figure, though, her mother is the largest influence in her life. “My mother was one of those moms who constantly told the five of us kids that there absolutely wasn’t anything that we couldn’t do,” Corcoran says, “and I think getting that message, and having that message be a reality in your life, really helps you do whatever you want to do… It was hugely influential on me.”

Inspiration When it comes to things that inspire Corcoran in her daily work, she opts for that which impacts her day in and day out during the school year. “It’s going to sound cheesy,” concedes Corcoran, “but I look to my students for inspiration.” Corcoran, who integrates much of how students react to what she herself is doing in the classroom, says “I take my cues from my students, so I take my inspiration from them.”

Strengths When asked what Corcoran thinks her personal strengths are, she doesn’t hesitate. “I know I’m a good teacher; kids learn from me, and that’s unmistakable,” says Corcoran. “It’s considered, I think, unbecoming to talk about your strengths as a teacher. I think we’re all supposed to say, ‘Well, I just don’t know, and my students, they’re what make me golden.’ But the reality is that, when your kids are learning from you, you can’t help but notice that you’ve been involved in that process. I know that it’s important to give my kids room and space and allow them to take risks. I don’t think they know I’m giving them that.” Corcoran also feels her approach to curriculum planning, keeping the topics fresh even if the content is static, as one of her strong suits. “I always know what I’m going to teach,” relates Corcoran, “[and] I change up what I teach. I can teach the same novel five years in a row and never have the same conversation. It’s always about what’s happening in the world at the moment I’m teaching the book, and the world changes, constantly.”

Overcome While in the classroom, most of her students will tell you that her welcoming nature and calm approach to even the most challenging of situations are some of her greatest assets in building student trust and classroom community. Corcoran notes, however, that inner feelings of control and power have been things she has worked to quell since understanding her limitations at a young age. “I had wanted to be a teacher before I had ever been in a classroom,” Corcoran says. “When I was three and four years old I would line up my stuffed animals and conduct classes, and I didn’t even know what class was, which is sort of an argument for reincarnation. But one of the things that I learned early on in that process [is that] if you find yourself beating your stuffed teddy bear because he comes up with the wrong answer, and you’re four, that’s a power thing,” Corcoran remembers. More plainly stated, Corcoran says, “As a small child, I had issues of impatience, power and control. I am a very controlling person.”

However, Corcoran has worked hard to temper that natural inclination, and today relies on her philosophy of education to keep herself in check. “I absolutely believe with all my heart that I don’t have any of the answers, none of them,” Corcoran muses, “[and] that the learning process is absolutely collaborative. I’ve worked really hard to make sure that the environment that I create [in the classroom] is one that allows kids to feel safe in taking a risk to express their reality, because as much as I’d like to think that there is an answer, I also know absolutely that the only way that I’ve gotten to a place where my own head works where I need it to work, is because someone let me make my own decisions.” In the end, combining this collaborative and student-expressionistic philosophy has led Corcoran to temper those controlling urges. “I have to step back and make sure I don’t impose myself,” says Corcoran.

Hobbies When it comes to hobbies, Corcoran keeps it pretty simple. “I just read, read, read, read,” Corcoran says. “[I] swim if I’m able, you know, if the weather’s good.” Corcoran continues with what may be a slightly surprising hobby of hers, considering her lifelong enthusiasm for the best literature. “I have a really nasty, nasty, penchant for reality television,” confesses Corcoran. “I love looking at people’s lives and watching them either make fools of themselves or redeem us as a species, and it happens a lot. People complain about reality TV a lot, but I find an awful lot to believe in, there’s a lot there.” Corcoran is also a fervent member of the Democratic Party, but notes that, “I’m far more liberal than the Democratic Party is, but there’s no venue that’s better equipped to give me a voice.”

Goals Teaching is fully ingrained in the being of Corcoran, and in the future she hopes to continue to be able to give her time and ability to those who need it, even after she has left Fredonia. “One of the things I would like to do, for example, I would really, sincerely like, when I retire from teaching here, is to go some place like…Belize, or Mexico, or the Philippines, or someplace where I can live fairly comfortably with very little money, very few American dollars…and teach the indigenous population, for free. Find a group of kids who don’t have a teacher and do some work-shopping as writers or readers. That would be a gift to me,” Corcoran says. However, Corcoran is aware of the limitations on this dream. “You can do whatever you want, but if there is not the means, you can’t. You know, if oil no longer provides us a way to get across the country, and across the world, and I think that could happen in ten years,” then her goal wouldn’t be achievable. “I do know that I could certainly be sitting on my own patio with a group of local young people, doing writing workshops,” Corcoran believes, “and I will do that. I’ve done it in the past.” To Corcoran, the goals are all about teaching those that need it, not about the money or the materials. “As long as I can, you know, pay my bills, I’m fine. We don’t care about money,” Corcoran says.

Favorites Corcoran, for all of the books she reads, is able to narrow down her vast reading experience to one novel, A Prayer for Owen Meaney by John Irving. Corcoran believes that novel is her favorite, “hands down,” and also says that Run Lola Run, ranks as her favorite film. “I could watch it 85 times a week,” Corcoran says. Corcoran is also a devoté of the culinary combination of ice cream and potato chips, citing the “crunchy and creamy” match-up as hard to beat.

People to Be With When asked what type of people she likes to be with, Corcoran opts for an eclectic mix over a homogenous group. “I like diversity. I like variation. I like people who have different values from me. I like arguing, I like debate,” says Corcoran. “I can steamroll you in an argument about what’s going on in the world, you know, how the world works. I have very strong opinions,” Corcoran relates with a wry bit of glee. “So I love having people who will argue with me.”

Irks There are few things that ruffle Corcoran’s perpetually calm feathers in the professional world, but she concedes that, like most of her colleagues, the crunch of bureaucracy can be at times a strain on teachers like herself. However, Corcoran understands the minimal need for it, recognizing that, “every job comes with layers of bureaucracy, of administration, that just interfere with your ability to really do what it is you want to do. That said, in order to get your paycheck, there’s got to be some administration.” On the whole though, Corcoran feels “blessed,” at the work she is able to do in her professional life. Corcoran notes that Fredonia was the only district she wanted to work in, that “[FHS is] just a great community, and it’s been a great school. It serves the community extremely well, and the school itself is a community which functions really well.” In addition, Corcoran notes that, “I’ve always been blessed, to be continually surprised that I get a paycheck for doing the things I do. I never know when it’s payday, I always get my mail, and there’s a paycheck. And that’s great, if you can do a job where it’s a blessing, to be surprised, every two weeks, by the paycheck. That’s really cool.”

In the world as a whole however, the irk that Corcoran fights against the most is intolerance. “I don’t tolerate stupidity and intolerance very well,” Corcoran notes. To Corcoran, intolerance of other people, their beliefs and cultures, is a matter of self-imposed ignorance and is something wholly rejected by her.

Further Family History “Family is really important to me,” Corcoran notes, and her family history lives through her, and strengthens her. Corcoran’s parents were relatively disparately matched, as Catholic families could have been in the 1950’s. Her father was from New York City, and her mother was born in Texas. They settled in Wellsville to raise their family, and Corcoran says that “we were renegades and outlaws, in that area,” citing their personal dynamics brought from their different origins. Her mother stayed at home while her children grew up in Wellsville, and was the main parental presence in the family; Corcoran’s father worked during the week, mainly in Ohio during Corcoran’s childhood, and would only be around the house on weekends. Still, Corcoran notes, the entire family would go on some stellar summer trips. “We always took really cool trips, not big extravagant trips, but every summer there would be the trip way up into Canada on the Hudson Bay, or all the way to the tip of Maine, long trips,” remembers Corcoran. “My mother liked to stop at every single educational site on the road, which she would seek out without the assistance of Google or a computer,” Corcoran continues, “all of the potential little hotspots that she could take us kids to see during a three week or four week journey across the summer.” All in all, Corcoran looks back on her childhood with great fondness, and it is a strong ingredient in what made Corcoran who she is today. “I had a great childhood. Loved it,” says Corcoran.

Favorite Time of Day Corcoran prefers the mornings over any other time of day. “In general I like mornings, whether I’m at school or at home. I really have for all my life been a morning person,” Corcoran notes, mentioning that when she was younger, she still stayed up late with her friends, and says that she had to become a “24 hour person” out of necessity. “But I really have always been a person who likes to be up and out and doing things in the morning because there’s such a long stretch of day ahead of you then, and I appreciate that,” Corcoran says. “Even as a child, I appreciated the knowledge that there was a whole bunch of time in front of me, that I could use in a lot of different ways. It was an allowance given every day, and there was a lot of it.”

Favorite Time Period When I asked Corcoran what time period she would like to visit, or live in, she didn’t hesitate, saying, “13th Century, 14th Century England. And I’m not an idiot about what those times were like,” continues Corcoran, “it was rough. But the world was changing so rapidly in that time. And it’s amazing to me how far out of the squalor those people brought their art. That just blows me away. Geoffery Chaucer could be sitting in the kitchen, in the castle in London, eating some porridge, and writing a sonnet, while the goats are taking a crap under his feet. It’s just amazing to me, that time period.”

Changing One Thing When I asked Corcoran what she would change if she could change one thing in the world, Corcoran aimed high, bringing in a radically moral stance uncommon in our current country. “I would declare consumer capitalism invalid and destroy its function on our planet, immediately,” Corcoran intones. “This notion that the way we prove worth on this planet is by producing stuff, and that the stuff has value because you can convince people to purchase it, whether they need it or not, is horrifying to me. And it’s working really well. It’s an abomination, a complete abomination. That which the west is, is most exemplified by what America is, the United States of America, in terms of how we declared ourselves to be, by our forefathers when they wrote those documents. But somehow, we’ve lost the notion, the really important notion, that what we’re really based on is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And that is quintessential to our being, that we have life, and we have liberty, and we pursue happiness and we allow everyone around us to pursue happiness. And sometimes that means that their cultural definitions of what happiness is, is very different from ours, and they have a right to them. And then we have this notion that we can spread all the luxuries that we have around the planet, and thereby better every other society on the planet. Well, yeah, that’s a really cool concept, but you don’t do it by guttering the production process here, taking it to a third world country, not paying those people enough to afford the stuff that they produce, and then exporting it back to us to buy it at 300 times the cost. That’s not anything about what we’re supposed to be doing. Consumer capitalism, I would change that in a heart beat.” Corcoran continues with, “If we did that, then everybody would get what they need, we’d have a glorious world. Everyone would have everything that they need. I saw a guy on ‘American Inventor,’ who has designed these building materials from the grade of plastic that they use in casting molds for metal. So this is plastic that withstands over 3,000 degrees. And he’s fashioned these sort of ‘Lego’ blocks that you can build with, and build indestructible shelters out of these blocks. And he points out how, if we would adopt this process of building homes that were indestructible, generations of your family would never pay a mortgage again. What would happen to wealth then? How much change would that bring? That would change the world. We are capable of changing the world in a lot of ways.”

Global Warming And while Corcoran was discussing her more progressive stances, I asked her what her thoughts on the global warming situation was. “It is the end of the world as we know it, so has it always been,” says Corcoran, with a dash of good-hearted cynicism. “We aren’t getting anywhere if it isn’t the end of the world as we know it. It better be the end of the world as we know it. I have faith that we have, as a species, this incredible capacity to sit on our asses, until the last possible moment, and then pull something out. We’ve done it so many times. Now I know that we’re in trouble, for anybody who doesn’t get that global warming is a big deal, well they just aren’t paying attention. But I also believe completely in our capacity to figure out how to fix this.” Corcoran also has a theory about what may cure the current situation, and how it may be found. “I also have a certain, sort of paranoid, notion because I don’t trust big business,” relates Corcoran, “that the solution is already there, and it’s just being withheld until every last cent is drawn out from us. But if it’s not already solved, I know we can do it. I know we can.”

Spirituality Finally, I asked Corcoran, who has often been known to be critical of organized religions, what her take on spirituality is, and if she believes in any sort of spiritual following. “I did grow up in a Catholic family, but like all good Catholics I’ve lapsed,” Corcoran says with another dash of wry humor. “I don’t think that organized religion is a thinking man’s game, very often. I know that there would be a lot of people that disagree with me. I think I’m quite spiritual. I do think that there is something bigger than who we are, but I think that organized religion is – I believe Karl Marx completely – that religion is the opiate of the people. As long as, you know, religions do a really good job of keeping people down by promising that there’s something better coming in the next life, you know, if you can suffer and suffer well here, the big reward, the golden lottery ticket in the sky, is just out there waiting for you. So I have not a lot of affection for organized religion, at all, but I am a very spiritual person. I think that it’s really important to have quiet conversations on a regular basis, even if in your mind, in your psyche, those are with ‘yourself.’ Because whoever they are with, there’s always an answer to every question that’s asked.

I think answers are implied in questions, so asking those questions spiritually help you get to the next place you need to be on this planet.” Accordingly, Corcoran says, “I’m also a humanist. We’re corporeal, we’re physical. I think that if we keep our focus on what we’re doing here now, the rest will take care of itself.” On the topic of a monotheistic deity, however, Corcoran has this to say: “If God is like, 90 feet tall, and wears a long white robe and has a long white beard, or whatever notion of God you have, if you think what’s bigger than us is ‘godly,’ I think [that God] has an enormous sense of humor, and laughs a lot, at us, for being so bogged down by these questions, by little things like governments claiming moral superiority. You know he thinks that’s a hoot, and he can’t wait to chuck those guys under the chin and say, ‘Ah, come on fella… did you really think…?’ The God that I have faith in will judge, but he’s not going to judge on anything he created; he’ll judge the abomination that we psychologically create.”

Conclusion Currently Roberta Corcoran teaches at Fredonia High School, living with her husband, Joseph Andrasik, in Fredonia. Her first son, Steve, is living with his wife and soon to be born child in Seattle, and her second son, Alex, attends Lycoming College in Pennsylvania. While Corcoran is the teacher with the most seniority in her department, she plans to teach for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, Corcoran remains an outspoken proponent for students’ needs, and the importance of listening to what everyone, especially students, have to say. For future teachers, and those in the field today, Corcoran gives this metaphor in closing: “[Teaching] is theater. There’s this interaction between you as a person who’s conducting this piece of theater, and there’s the impact it’s having on the audience, who’s also participating in the process. And if you are in tuned at all, you can tell right away if the audience participation is a positive or a negative thing and you adjust to what’s going on around you. As part of this theater process, you have to be honest with kids, where you are in your life. If you’re not in tune with your audience, your students, as where you get your feedback from, you should stop teaching.” In the end, Corcoran lives by these words, day in and day out: “I think every human being is a teacher,” noting that regardless of profession or age, we can all learn from, and give aid to, everyone around us.

Roberta Corcoran
English Teacher
Fredonia High School