Lessons from the First Decade

The Friday before last, I celebrated the tenth anniversary of the first class I ever taught. Well, to be perfectly honest, I thought about celebrating – in between answering email, grading essays, and scrambling to finish three separate projects by their deadlines – and wished I had time to blog in honor of the occasion.

People seem to have a widespread misconception that, unlike in every other profession, good teachers spring into shape like instant Ramen rather than going through a period of training, learning, and sometimes-painful introspection. As a mentor and superb teacher who had been in the classroom more than twenty years told me, “My first year, I thought I did pretty well. Then after a few more years passed, I thought, ‘Well, the students learned in spite of me.’” Even though multiple colleagues told me I was “a natural,” I still had a huge amount to learn. I assume that once I’ve taught two decades I will look ruefully back on how little I knew after my first one, precisely because experience matters. Here are some of the (hard) lessons I’ve learned so far.

10. Don’t put policies in your syllabus that you don’t have the heart to enforce. During my first year teaching, I tried to strike a balance between the faculty who wanted me to impose military-style discipline (there were a lot of veterans at my first job) and those who told me, “But your emotions are part of your pedagogy!” Classroom management is like training a cat: either be consistent, or just let the cat take charge.

9.  It’s best to be gullible. I am an English professor, not an FBI agent. I prefer to believe what my students say, even if it is likely that they are not telling me the truth. And, if I can’t prove that a statement is untrue, it’s best to pretend to believe it. The most outrageous example occurred when a student known to be a compulsive liar claimed to have a brain tumor. When he showed up at class, seemingly unable to walk without assistance from other students, I took his word for it. One of my colleagues, on the other hand, required medical documentation. By the next class, he was fully recovered. However, I would not have wanted to be the one to say “I don’t believe you” to someone with a serious illness.

8. Most plagiarism is accidental. When I learned to cite sources, there were more or less only three kinds we were allowed to use in essays: books, magazines, and newspapers. Today’s students are exposed to literally hundreds of different genres, some of which themselves contain plagiarism, sampling, and remixing. The idea that ideas as well as words can be plagiarized comes as a particular shock when I cover academic integrity. While some students flagrantly copy whole papers and hope to get away with it, most are genuinely confused.

7. There is no such thing as review. You are either teaching – as if students have either never learned or have forgotten what you’re talking about – or reinventing. One of my worst-ever teaching mistakes (Fall 2004, my first time teaching developmental English, is burned in my memory) involved rushing through material I thought students would know if they had met the course prerequisites. It took us about a month to recover, but I never made that mistake again.

6. Less is more. One of my favorite student comments of all time (I think it was Winter 2004) came during the class before an essay was due. I knew some students had been confused by the assignment, but I had explained it multiple times and thought they now understood. About a third of the way through class, though, one of my most conscientious students asked, “I know you have said we need to include X and Y. But what are we supposed to do in this paper?” Oops.

5. Don’t work harder for your students to pass than they do themselves. As I have mentioned, I teach at a community college, and many students face serious obstacles to completing an education. There’s a fine line between reaching out to a struggling student and, well, overreaching. Films about teachers often focus on recalcitrant students who respond to a teacher’s caring and mentorship (Good Will Hunting, with multiple people chasing after the troubled-genius janitor played by Matt Damon stands out especially), but in real life, I have found that if I put more effort into the student’s passing than the student herself, outcomes are almost always bad no matter how noble my intentions. Consequently, I have learned to let passing be the student’s accomplishment, not mine.

4. Teaching is the fun part of your job. Committee work is the price of admission to a classroom, and there is no better antidote to frustrating college politics (or, for that matter, exhaustion, aggravating personal situations, etc.) than an hour spent teaching students.

3. Dress for the mess. I truly admire my colleagues who can wear white to work and not stain it with coffee, dry-erase markers, ink, copier toner, or any of life’s other little accidents. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I actually have colleagues who wear white to work. Public speaking may be the most common phobia, but even faculty who get up in front of people every day don’t want to feel like the spotlight is on…spots. Prints and layers are good. Black is usually good unless you are teaching with old-fashioned chalk, in which case you’ll look like you’ve been in a paintball fight by the end of class.

2. Leap. Even a well-planned class can sometimes go awry, and at such times, you are lucky to be in a profession where you can change direction without warning or approval.

1. Don’t let what you’ve learned override your passion. When I was a new teacher, I had love for my subject, but no experience. Once I had some experience, I became obsessive about getting class right – being structured, sequential, and clear – and not leaning on spontaneity when I should have good planning. While these goals were all worthwhile, I realized last summer that, somewhere along the line, my perfectionism had led me to leave my passion at the door when I stepped inside a classroom. This year, I realized I’d come full circle: my magic ingredient was the one I’d had with me all along.

I feel like I could easily come up with several dozen more lessons. So, colleagues, what bits of hard-won knowledge would you include on your list?

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