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This Is Where it Gets Good December 11, 2010

Posted by monty in education.
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2 comments

I tell all my methods students that teaching isn’t about instant gratification. I tell them that if they want a job where they’re immediately going to see the effects of their work, teaching isn’t it.  You plan, you instruct, you cajole, you cheerlead, you give endless feedback and encouragement, and you do it all with the blind faith that what you’re doing is going to pay off in the end.  If you need to see immediate dividends, find something that involves applause.

I tell them that what passes for instant gratification are the little victories: seeing students get interested in a book, noticing progress in their writing, listening for moments of insight during class discussion.  You become highly attuned to those triumphs, and you modulate your definition of what constitutes success.  You know you won’t often be thanked for what you do, but in some ways that’s okay, because teachers – the real ones who’ve gotten into the profession for the right reasons – know it’s a calling, and that they do this because they couldn’t picture themselves doing anything else.

But the funny thing is, sometimes gratification does happen.  Often it’s delayed, but that doesn’t make it any less sweet.  Case in point: the photo above.  This was taken a few weeks ago at the annual National Council of Teachers of English conference in Orlando.  While there I presented a session with three of my former student teachers (pictured above), who are all teaching in their own classrooms now.  It was great to reconnect with them, but it was also inspiring to see that they’ve turned into the kind of teachers I knew they would – teachers who are intelligent, compassionate, and thoughtful, and who are truly making a difference in the lives of their students.  And to hear all of them say they benefited from the class in which I taught them was just icing on the cake.

And in extremely rare instances, there is instant gratification.  My semester ended last week, and I input final grades yesterday afternoon.  Last evening, I received this email from one of my students:

I just wanted to thank you for being such an inspiring professor. You went beyond just teaching us the material. I feel like you did everything you could to help us become good teachers. You made yourself available for us, and I could tell that you were really sincere in wanting to help us. You offered honest advice, like telling us how to make up stories if a smelly kid stands in front of the air conditioner. 🙂 Seriously, your stories about your experiences with teaching, and your advice about teaching in general, gave me a well-rounded perspective about what teaching is like.

I actually didn’t want to be a teacher anymore going into this class at the beginning of the semester, and now I’ve regained my desire to teach. You definitely played a role in my change of heart towards teaching, along with the experience that I had in the Internship.

I just wanted to let you know that you impacted my life in a good way, and I really appreciate it. You also modeled the type of teacher that I want to be. I’ve had great teachers before, but I’ve never had one that’s made me think ‘I hope I can be as good of a teacher as they are one day’. I know that sounds kind of mushy, but it’s true. You are personable, but not overly friendly. You are knowledgeable, but not preachy. You are experienced, but you acknowledge that your experiences aren’t the only relevant ones. Overall you exemplify the balance that teachers should have.

I could go on but this is getting a little lengthy so I’ll bring it to a close. Pretty much: thanks for being an amazing professor. Your efforts did not go unnoticed.

I shouldn’t have to point out why this is such an extraordinary message to receive.  As teachers, it’s always nice to receive validation that what we do seems to be working, but beyond that, you can’t underestimate the rejuvenating power of a little gratitude.  The next time I grow whiny and neurotic and self-defeating on here about my choice of profession, someone remind me of this post, and the photo and message that accompany it.  This is why I do what I do, and, as always, the students make it all worthwhile.

*****

Current listening:

Beulah – The Coast Is Never Clear (2001)

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Roll Away Your Stone December 2, 2009

Posted by monty in education, teaching.
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1 comment so far

Thus far, I’ve purposely avoided writing about my current teaching experience.  I don’t think it’s entirely appropriate (or professional) to mix that experience with some of the mindless nattering I regularly do on here.  But for my current class on the principles of writing instruction, their final assignment was to write a letter to the class describing what they’re taking from it, what they enjoyed, whose writing stood out to them, etc.  The main tenet of the class is that teachers of writing are writers themselves, and to that end, the class wrote a lot, and they shared all (or almost all) of it in writing groups and with the entire class.  It was an invigorating experience, and I thought I’d share the letter I wrote the class, just to give a little snapshot of what I’ve been up to in the classroom, and to let those of you who actually know me to see what I look like as an honest-to-goodness professor.

*****

Dear  students,

The learning curve for me in this class was fast and steep.  As I prepared to teach my first class in my first semester, I was plagued with the usual insecurities I always feel when I’m getting ready to teach a class for the first time.  These anxious, imaginary situations invariably ended with an armed student rebellion, and me being drawn and quartered in the parking lot outside the English Building.  I’m thankful that didn’t come to pass, although I realize the semester isn’t yet over, so anything’s possible.

What I didn’t anticipate is the level of care and commitment all of you would bring to your writing in this course.  On the first day of class I established what I hoped would be our guiding principle: Teachers of writing are writers themselves.  It’s one thing to say that, and another to see it in practice.  And I saw it consistently for 16 weeks.  All of you, whether you believe it or not, are writers, and that vital characteristic is going to enable you to become excellent teachers of writing, who engage and challenge his or her students to become more competent, confident, and sophisticated in both their writing and their thinking.

As I’ve listened in on your writing groups – and especially as I’ve had the pleasure of hearing your Shared Public Writings – I’ve been entertained, educated, moved, and inspired.  There has been great humor and creativity in these writings, but also extraordinary acts of bravery.  You’ve taken many of these writings to places I never envisioned them, tackling moments of personal anguish, insecurity, and sadness, but never doing so in a way that seems self-centered or whiny.  You’ve written with passion, as Tom Romano advises us to do, and you’ve embraced Natalie Goldberg’s wild mind (even if you’ve fortunately not started hallucinating small furry animals at your side).

Despite the fast pace of the class and the extraordinary amount of work I’ve asked you to do (and believe me when I say I appreciate every ounce of effort you put into what we did here), I hope you’ve taken something away from this class – no matter how small – that you can use in your future teaching.  For me, one of the things I hope you’ve seen is that confidence in writing often comes with understanding the nature of the process.  Writing well isn’t easy.  It isn’t a static, one-shot deal.  A piece of writing evolves over time, and that evolution is sometimes painful and uncomfortable.  But that isn’t something of which to be frightened.  It’s an exciting challenge that indicates real learning and development.  I saw you take up that challenge this semester, and I hope it’s something you’ll remember as you prepare to take over your own classrooms in the next few years.

In closing, it has been a true honor and a real pleasure to have you as my inaugural class.  I realize I came dangerously close to the armed rebellion scenario when I assigned the portfolio, but I thank you for hanging in there, and I hope you see (either now or later) that there was a method to this class’ madness.  I’ve had a terrific time this semester, and I wholeheartedly enjoyed seeing you begin to make the transition from being my students to being my colleagues.

Cheers,

*****

Current listening:

The Velvet Teen – Out of the Fierce Parade (2002)

An All-American National Sport November 21, 2009

Posted by monty in teaching.
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4 comments

It’s sort of funny to realize the thing you thought were good at is probably something you’re not cut out for, after all.  Not ha-ha funny, but morbidly funny, like noticing the corpse at a wake has on too much makeup.  Such has been my weekend at the annual National Council of Teachers of English conference in Philadelphia.  As is my goal for this blog, I don’t want this to be all about mopey ol’ me … but it is.

Figuring out what you’re meant to do with your life – or, if you’re not into language that evokes fate and destiny, figuring out what career will bring you both satisfaction and stimulating challenge until you’re ready to retire – is no easy task, to be sure.  Satisfaction is certainly important.  You want to do something for which you feel passion, and which meets some compulsion in your character – to help others, to problem solve, to work with technology, whatever.  And I enjoy teaching.  I do.  When it’s going well it’s uniquely satisfying, and it makes me feel like I’m maybe doing a little something to help people better their lives.

At the same time, however, I think the question of challenge is just as, if not more, crucial.  Feeling challenged means you don’t become complacent – you don’t have it all figured out, so you’re constantly working, striving, reaching, to become better equipped to do what you do.  The key, though, is that you occasionally have to feel capable of meeting and exceeding the challenges established by your job.  For me, the moments where I feel like things are going well are invariably accidental.  If something works, it’s not by design.  It’s like the monkey in the room that finally writes Hamlet. It had to happen sometime.  That’s the way I feel about my teaching.  The law of averages says I’ll do something right sometime, so when something goes right, it’s due to happenstance and not to any innate ability I possess.  More to the point, there hasn’t been a moment in the last four months when I haven’t felt like a bumbling incompetent.  My office should be treated like a zoo exhibit.  Curiosity-seekers can file slowly past and throw peanuts at the bald little homunculus busy revising an article that will surely go unpublished, or working on a lesson plan that will be met with stony silence by his students.  I’m not sure how I made it this far thinking I was actually good at this teaching gig.  I’ll be waiting for the results of my first set of student evaluations with the same kind of anticipation I imagine I’d feel waiting for the results of biopsy.

And then, oh yes, the NCTE conference where the following things happened: 1) I ran into one of my former professors, who, when I said hello, stared at me like I was some odd species of insect shipped in from an Amazonian rainforest, and then asked if I knew where he could get a bite to eat; 2) At my presentation this afternoon, I could count the number of attendees on exactly zero fingers; picture a donut hole – that’s the number of people in attendance for the session I spent hours preparing; 3) at a dinner thing this evening, I got blown off by a few people I was looking forward to seeing – and who had expressly encouraged me to attend – and ended up sitting at a table with total strangers; and 4) someone I worked with for a couple years in California didn’t even remember my name.  When you’re already feeling clueless and useless, the final insult doesn’t have to be a major slight – sometimes it’s just the tiniest nudge of a table leg that sends the whole mess toppling on its side.  For me, this weekend was that nudge.

So, not even one semester into my professorial career, and I’m left with the feeling that I wasted the last three years earning a Ph.D.  I’m not talented enough to teach at this level; my writing isn’t strong enough to meet the publication requirements I’ll inevitably have to meet; and, in the end, I’m not memorable enough (and neither is my work) to make much of a difference to people one way or the other.

Maybe the morning will bring a fresh, optimistic perspective, but it’s a bleak night in Philly.

*****

Current listening:

Beth Orton – Daybreaker