Bossy Child Becomes Teacher: Beth Shaum Interview

It seems wholly appropriate in this month of love to have back-to-back interviews with teachers who radiate their love of literacy, teaching and books.

Today’s guest is Beth Shaum, sixth-grade English teacher at St. Paul Catholic School in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan.

I feel like I’ve known Beth, in a cyber-way, for a long time, and was surprised to remember that our introduction occurred because of her connection to a certain buffalo who didn’t even exist until 2010.

Sometimes a reader just CONNECTS with a book. I don’t know how I first found out that you had a reaction like that to IS YOUR BUFFALO READY FOR KINDERGARTEN?, but I do remember that I especially loved that you were a middle-school teacher, because that was so unexpected. Can you explain how that book came on your radar? And how it led to classroom Skype visits from illustrator Daniel Jennewein and me? 

I have followed Lenore Appelhans’ book review blog for a few years now. I initially started reading her blog because I knew she lived in Germany. I lived there for two years so it’s always a pleasure for me to connect with people who are from Germany or living there. She talked on her blog about her husband, Daniel Jennewein, being a newly-minted children’s book illustrator. One day I was at the library and happened to come upon IS YOUR BUFFALO READY FOR KINDERGARTEN?. When I saw the book I remembered that her husband illustrated it, so I checked it out.

When I got home and started reading it I couldn’t stop laughing. It was so funny and biting, yet endearing at the same time. Despite the fact that its primary audience is kindergartners, it had a sassiness about it that I thought was perfect for middle schoolers. So the next day I brought it into school and read it to my class. They erupted with laughter throughout the entire read-aloud. In fact, as I was passing by their science class on my prep period that day, they stopped me and asked me if I would read it to them again – while they were in another teacher’s class!

in Germany with Lenore and Daniel

Over the summer, my husband returned to Germany on a month-long business trip and I happily accompanied him for a week so we could spend some vacation time there. Since I knew Lenore and Daniel lived in Frankfurt, I asked if they’d want to meet up the night before I flew home. While the four of us spent the evening together, I happily gushed to Daniel about how much I loved his illustrations. He even drew in my copies of both Buffalo books and created an illustration of my dogs.

I shared the Buffalo books again with my class this year and told them that I was lucky enough to meet the illustrator over the summer. Many of them commented on what a great artist they thought Daniel was so I asked him on Facebook one day if he’d be willing to Skype with my class.  He agreed.

A few months later, while I was gone for three days at the NCTE convention in November, I left plans for my sub to have my class create their own picture books using some books we read together as mentor texts. Some of my students chose to write books inspired by the Buffalo books with titles such as “Is Your Monkey Ready for Spanish Class?” “Teach Your Pig to Fly” and “Is Your Giraffe Ready to Drive?” Upon my return from NCTE, I began reading through their creations and was amazed at their humor and creativity. It was by far the most enjoyable writing assignment I’ve ever graded. I was so impressed with their efforts, I wanted to share these creations with you so I sent you copies of a few of them. It was then that I bit the bullet and asked if you’d be willing to Skype with us.

(It must be said: Beth’s students’ books were fantastic and laugh-out-loud funny.)

Beth is not pictured here. It is merely an awesome photograph.

What originally drew you to teaching? Is your teaching reality what you expected it to be?

I was a very bossy child. One of the things I used to love to do was play school. Most of the time I played by myself to an imaginary class but if I had a group of friends, I would force them to be the students and I ALWAYS had to be the teacher.

In college I initially thought I would go into psychology but something compelled me to change my major to music. I had played the piano for 13 years and thought that was enough to be a successful music teacher. It wasn’t. The competitiveness and “every man for himself” attitude of the students and professors in the music program at my university made me realize music as a career wasn’t for me and I decided to be an English teacher instead. Despite realizing right away that English education was the perfect fit for me, I regret that making music my major, however brief it was, caused me to lose my passion for it in the process. I will always love music, but it’s still a little bit painful for me to sit down at the piano.

I don’t think anyone’s teaching reality is what they expect. I didn’t imagine it would to be a cakewalk, but at the same time, this job is MUCH HARDER than anyone could ever understand unless they are a teacher themselves. I have, in a sense, become embittered by how politicians and the media have boondoggled society into believing that teachers are greedy and lazy. It gets really old having to set people straight about how hard teachers work. Yes, we have summers off. But our weekends, evenings, and breaks are spent working. I mean, I had quizzes to grade over Christmas break. I had lessons to plan. I have a huge stack of papers sitting in my bag right now waiting for me to grade. I have parent emails to respond to and meetings to attend before and after school. Our day does not end at 3:00 and I really wish more people understood that. Hearing pundits on the 24-hour news networks declare that teachers don’t deserve to be well compensated because we only work part-time really gets my blood boiling. Spend an entire day with me. I’ll show you how part-time my job really is.

At the same time, I love my job. It truly is a vocation. I don’t just pester people with my biting commentary about how hard teachers work, but also stories about my students that made me laugh or smile. Watching kids make strides in their learning right before my eyes is the biggest reward of this profession.

Did you have a special connection to any books when you were a young reader? What were your favorite books?

The first book I remember reading on my own was CHARLOTTE’S WEB. My uncle used to read it to me whenever I would visit with him and I eventually started to read it on my own. It’s one of the few books in my life that I’ve read more than once.

When I was in elementary and middle school I devoured Nancy Drew novels. From a young age I was quite a fluent reader but my comprehension wasn’t the greatest so I sought out novels that weren’t very challenging. Nancy Drew and R.L. Stine’s Fear Street series filled my reading needs for a quite a few years.

But then I lost my love of reading in high school and college. Reading nothing but classics and being forced to dissect and interpret books that were way above my ability made me stop reading for pleasure. I didn’t start reading for pleasure again until a few years ago when I realized that I needed to read voluminously in order to help my students become lifelong readers. From that moment on I realized I will never again be a teacher who thinks that one single book can fill the reading needs of an entire class of students. It certainly didn’t work for me when I was in school.

What children’s book character would you have liked to move next door to young Beth? 

Well, even though she’s from a young adult novel and it only came out a few years ago, I would have to say Mia Hall from the book IF I STAY by Gayle Forman. I remember reading that book and thinking how much I would’ve loved to have a family like Mia’s – all musically inclined, free spirited, intelligent, and very close. As a child of a rather messy divorce, that kind of love, stability, and celebration of individuality really stayed with me.

Thank you so much, Beth!

You can learn more about Beth by visiting her blog.

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About Audrey Vernick

Audrey Vernick writes books for young readers.
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