Monday, May 12, 2008

On Teaching

Reflections on the end of two semesters of teaching freshman composition:

First of all, "teaching" is a misnomer. It implies that I can make students learn, that teaching is a process of transmitting my knowledge directly into my students' minds." I wish that were the case, but you can't make people do anything, learning included. I define teaching as "influencing students to learn on their own." My job as a teacher is to influence, and it's not easy considering how much competition I have for students' attention. I'm competing for their attention with other professors, families, friends, jobs, cell phones, video games, etc., but to be a good teacher I must wield that tiny sliver of influence I have in the most effective way possible to get students to take responsibility for their own learning.

It surprised me over and over how inefficient the process of teaching is. How, of the many things I would say in front of the class, I would guess-timate that students remember about 10% of it. The "good" students would remember a little more, the "bad" students would remember less. I'm sure someone has done a real study on this, but my estimate comes from realizing that if you want students to remember something, you'd better say it ten times. And then have them practice it ten times. Then they'll remember it. Maybe.

As a teacher, I got used to disappointment. I would grade quizzes only to discover that only one person read the assignment. Editing student drafts, I would find out that my lesson on commas taught them absolutely nothing. The girl who sits in the back is absent again? I sighed whenever second drafts of essays were identical to the first ones. In those moments I felt like a failure. You put a lot of effort into teaching and it feels like you have made no difference. You want to give up. But you just have to forgive yourself for not being Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers. Some students you will never reach. And you just have to accept it. Like I said before, your influence as a teacher only goes so far.

But then, just when you want to give up, something amazing happens. You're reading a student's essay, and it's so much better than the first draft. He read my comments! You read on--wow, this kid's got good ideas! He cited his sources correctly. Some of the comma errors are still there, but they're not too bad. This kid, the kid who sits in the back texting while you're lecturing, the kid who you thought never paid attention, this kid can write a college paper! *Choirs of angels sing hallelujah* It worked! I "taught" them something! As a teacher you live for those moments. As satisfying moments go, those rank right up there.

In a way, this job has made me understand a little better what it must be like to be a parent, another job where you influence rather than control. Now I understand how frustrating it must be when your child doesn't listen to you and makes a wrong decision. Why don't they get it? You want to tear out your hair. But then there's the other side of the coin, the good side that almost makes up for the frustration: when your child does something well and your heart overflows with pride and you want to brag to everyone who will listen that you had something to do with it.

I did grow attached to my students in a way I would describe as maternal. Not a day of teaching would go by when these (mostly) sweet and goofy and interesting people wouldn't surprise me. I'd laugh at the things they'd say and sometimes think all day about things they said during class. I found it odd and flattering how they put me on a pedestal. The teacher-student relationship is pretty interesting: it's strange and amazing how each of my students has a little of my knowledge (along with my sparkling personality) resonating inside their minds, and vice versa.

Overall, I would say this was a rewarding learning experience, but somehow I don't think this is the career for me. The frustrations are too high. Teaching is part popularity contest, and I don't have the charisma that makes for a teacher that students love. And to be completely honest, there are things I want to figure out besides how to make that 10% number go up. As a teacher, I think that's your constant goal. How can you extend your influence? It's an uphill battle.

Still, I'll never forget this. It has really changed my view of myself knowing that I can stand up in front of room of people and command some of their attention for an hour. I still think if you showed me a videotape of myself teaching, I wouldn't believe it was me. I never though of myself as a leader, but being a teacher has shown me that I can be bossy and authoritative and make some tiny bit of difference in these students' lives. Of course, there were things I could have done better, but I gave it my best and I think I influenced some students to learn how to write better, and for that I'm really, really happy.

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