Writer Mike Copperman ('02) on the Long-Term Effects of Teaching
Mike Copperman ('02) teaches low-income, first-generation college students at the University of Oregon. Last fall, his first book, Teacher, was published. The memoir explores his two years teaching in the Mississippi Delta, and how it has impacted his life since.
Did you know when you came to Mississippi that you wanted to write?
I’ve always known that I wanted to be a writer; I think I declared it when I was five. But when I came to Mississippi, I wasn’t really sure what that consisted of. And, very, very quickly, I was overwhelmed by the task of teaching. There was no space to try to be writing.
I did write these long letters out of Mississippi, which went out via email to friends and family. When I say long, I mean 30 or 40 double-spaced pages. Those three documents proved immensely useful to me when I went to write my memoir. Even though I didn’t have a full understanding of a prose style or my aesthetic, or the clarifying lens of retrospection and time, the details and the ways I’d tried to frame—I found that so useful down the line.
How did your time in Mississippi inform your work?
The two years in Mississippi enlarged my perspective and my empathy in ways that have been really central to every project that I’ve taken on. Seeing the circumstances of my students’ daily lives—that changed the ways that I see the world. It clarified my own personal values—my sense of justice, even my “calling.” I was made into an educator by Mississippi and those kids. Those two years were the crucible that made me into an educator.
And Mississippi keeps informing my work. Recently [while promoting Teacher] I was back in the state, and met with a number of my students. That refigured my understanding of what those years in the classroom meant. Going back to see the children that I taught—I wouldn’t be the teacher I am now without that.
It sounds like your sense of those years has changed even since you wrote the book. How so?
I realized that perhaps I was too hard on the naïve but well-meaning young man that I was. I’ve frequently been filed with a combination of guilt and deep concern for the kids themselves—in terms of what became of them, and in terms of all I tried to do and didn’t do, what I didn’t do quote-unquote “right.”
Many of my students told me that any mistakes I made they forgave long ago, or even as they happened. The simple fact that I cared mattered a great deal more than I thought—the things they could tell I truly believed about how they could succeed, or get to college. Several of the students from the book have graduated from or are about to graduate from four-year institutions. The young lady who appears in the first chapter wants to go to graduate school in social work—she currently holds something near a 4.0 GPA, and wants to help other young, black women. She remembered every detail of my year in the classroom with her. It wasn’t the excellence of the pedagogy or curriculum, or of my classroom management (or lack there of)—but there was some kind of connection. It occurs to me now that the impacts of being an educator are much further down the line than we realize.
How does your current work still reflect the values that led you to join TFA?
This is my 14th or 15th year as an educator, and my 11th year teaching low-income, first-generation college students of diverse backgrounds—and it’s become something I do well. I never would have become an educator if it hadn’t been for those two years. Much of my other work, whether it’s writing, or political advocacy, or activism, is geared towards supporting educational justice and meaningful social change by helping young adults find their voices.
What are you working on right now?
Lately I’ve been writing about the students I teach today—in light of how many of their futures and families are threatened by what is happening politically: the rise of Mr. Trump, racism, and nationalism.