Local teacher-turned-author shares his approach to education

Douglas Graney, a teacher at Herndon High School, gives a peek inside the classroom and the mind of a teacher through his new book ‘American Teacher.’

Photo courtesy of Mascot Books

Douglas Graney has been honored with numerous awards and in his 30-plus-year career continues his teaching style as one that is interesting, funny, relevant and controversial.

During a free period he spoke with us about his career, his book and his advice for young teachers and parents.

Why come out with a book?

I thought I had an unusual career. I’m in my 33rd year now, the last 26 or 27 in Fairfax County. I’ve had over 100 field trips, 50-plus guest speakers. I’ve created the largest intern-placement program on Capitol Hill, and these were high school students. I ran that program from 1994-2012. There were some years where I was placing 50 to 60 students in the spring semesters. It was like a small business.

You’re teaching philosophy coincides with learning by doing.

I call it experimental learning. Classroom learning is great, but when you can get kids out into the community and confronting public officials that’s a great part of the First Amendment. We’ve had a lot of kids airing their grievances with various members of the House and Senate. Being able to say I asked that and this is what they said, and having people come into the classroom, it makes for a new experience. It is different and makes for heightened awareness and more learning takes place. This is what kids remember.

How do you prep the students for the visits and speakers?

If we are going to see a member of Congress, to prep them I’ll teach the issue of the bills the person has voted on and have the kids debate the bill in class. They then vote and I’ll reveal how Congress voted and how [the politician we are going to see] voted. So they have this evolving opinion of what they think of [the politician] based on how [he/she] voted on the issue they voted on too. We’ll all create questions but they are cleared through me. If it is an embassy, I’ll teach the recent history of that country, it’s relationship with it’s neighbors and it’s relationship with the United States. I often try to choose a country that maybe has a shaky relationship with the United States.

How do you get kids interested in something they may not feel is relevant to them now?

Even with the recent field trip about the Civil War, I gave them an article about J.E.B. Stuart changing the school name. We debated and we talked about the different names people wanted [to change the school name to] and they can make that connection. If you can help kids make that connection of what is going on today to what [happened] in the past, that is another way to enrich their learning and it makes it more interesting for them because it does matter and it is happening right here and now and they make the connection to the curriculum too.

What advice do you have for new teachers?

A teacher can have a great career but they have to be true to themselves. There are those [involved in the system] that want you to teach how they want you to teach, and I’ve always had a revulsion to trying to teach other peoples’ lessons. I’m creating my own art, my own performance when I teach and these lessons are mine, and I know the best way for me to deliver this material. If [teachers] can develop their own craft they will see what they are creating is worthwhile and meaningful and getting good results. There will be a lot of trial and error, and a lot of frustrations, but if you stick with it, it can be an extremely rewarding career.

(December 2017)