Editor’s Note: In 1988, a teacher most commonly had 15 years of experience. In recent years, that number is closer to just three years leading a classroom. The “On Teaching” series focuses on the wisdom of veteran teachers.
The first time I watched Pirette McKamey plan an English lesson for her 12th graders, in 2017, the language she used reminded me of a theater director working on a play. Sitting in her office, on the second floor of San Francisco’s Mission High School, she talked about the lesson’s overall story; its emotional impact, rhythm, pacing, and cohesion; and the importance of smooth transitions from one activity to the next.
She explained that the rhythm of the class comes from alternating short lectures, reading, writing, individual practice, and group work. Pacing means not spending too much time or too little on any activity. Both rhythm and pacing would be key to maintaining high engagement with the readings and three writing assignments she had ready for her lesson that day.
McKamey is now a first-year principal at Mission High, but in her 27 years of full-time teaching, she learned a lot about directing an inspiring lesson. In her English classes, students wrote every day. Their final assignment was a 10-page research paper on a topic they chose themselves. The subjects of these papers—ranging from the causes of high suicide rates among South Korean students to intergenerational trauma in Black communities—reflected the full diversity of the school. Mission has about a thousand students, holding 47 different passports. Close to 40 percent are learning English.