Monday, March 5, 2012

On Teaching

I know I usually start the month off with the latest book I read, and we'll get to it, I promise, but I wanted to reflect a little bit on life as a teacher.

My mom is a teacher, she has her PhD. in education and teaches people how to teach. Her career in teaching and higher ed. administration at Texas State University has lasted my entire life, so I grew up surrounded by my mother, the teacher, and her teacher friends. When I was young, my favorite game to play was school. I would line up stuffed animals, give them workbooks my mom had bought on clearance at the local teacher store, and flip them all to the same page. I would teach lessons in my room using a dry erase board and even grade the students' "work." It's a game most children play at some point, and I had no idea then that I would eventually take to teaching, but it is a funny example of life's foreshadowing.

I always liked my teachers. Especially, Mrs. Reyes, my fourth grade teacher. She was the teacher that finally helped reading "click" for me, and it opened up a whole new world. I didn't feel behind my classmates anymore, and suddenly, I found myself devouring books. My friend to this day, Bailey, and I would sit in the coat closet and read everything we could get our hands on. What did I read? Boxcar Children, Babysitter's Club, Nancy Drew, Anne of Green Gables, The Giver, C.S. Lewis, Goosebumps, mysteries and horror stories (Stephen Kings that were way too, um, graphic for me), Little Women, Secret Garden, The Little Princess, Peter Pan, Sweet Valley High, The Last of the Really Great Wangdoodles, A Wrinkle in Time: basically, everything I could find. It was with the help of this teacher that the world unfolded for my 9 year-old self.

The years before fourth grade instilled in me a great sense of empathy for others. All teachers need empathy; we must recognize what it is to struggle. Once, Dr. Porter, in graduate school, made all writing tutors learn to play basketball for a day. The lesson was clear: what is easy for you, is someone else's challenge. I still talk about that with students today, as I remind them of my own limitations. It is important for students to have an understanding of their teachers as human beings. Plus, it will help them understand when I write "literally" on the board but mean "literary."

By middle school, I was in honors' classes, where I loved science with Ms. Green and theater with Ms. Ferguson. AP classes at McCallum High school in Austin, TX brought me the joys of working with an amazing group of English teachers: Ms. Lardon, Ms. Morgan, and Ms. Troy. These amazing women exposed me to literature and poetry, taught me how literary devices worked, helped me explicate poems and write literary analysis and research papers that gave me an equal foundation to my NYU peers from fancy east coast private schools. I remember their reading lists quite fondly, and I am so thankful to have been exposed early to such wonderful works. Professors Mirabella, Zoref, and Pies were all female professors in college that further shaped my world and my writing (though male professors contributed greatly too).

When I finished college, I found myself unsure of what was next. I applied to 12 graduate schools for M.F.As, and had offers from 3. I choose McNeese because I felt it would be the best program, and I also loved the idea of gaining teaching experience while in school. I thought teaching might be for me, and graduate school would be a good way to find out.

In hindsight, I lucked out. It was here that I met several strong women and mentors. Rita Costello, who taught me how to teach, and Amy Fleury, who helped me navigate the waters of the academic job search. I found women who had a passion not only for what they taught, but for the act of teaching as well. When I came out of graduate school, I knew there was only one job for me: teaching.

I read a poem recently about how teachers shape us. Maybe this won't translate, but the poem was about an art student remembering a teacher's hands helping her sculpt a dog out of clay. The figure was ruined in the kiln, but what the speaker remembered was only the teacher's hands guiding her. I found the metaphor to be really apt. Teaching isn't about creating perfection and students won't retain everything they learn. Teaching is about the act of shaping. You don't merely teach a subject: you teach your students how to be students, writers, thinkers, and explorers.

It is the thinking that is the most important. Teachers help students build inner lives and grow into more aware and able people. On the worst days, teaching is frustrating, but on the best days, it brings me a joy that nothing else quite compares to. Today was one of those days. I learned so much from my students today: a student does not just overcome a fragment habit, he now has the skills to communicate with others in writing. Another student figures out the difference between summary and analysis, but he also figured out how to express his own unique insights and ideas. Another student built confidence and realized she had all of the capabilities she needed all along, but now, she trusts those capabilities. On a good day, you watch the world unfold for the people you teach. On a good day, you hold your breath a lot. You realize that the measurements of what students are learning means so much to you. You watch them tackle a new project, and you breathe, finally, when you realize they could do it, even when you stepped back.

I am a combination of every teacher I ever met. Mrs. Reyes' gentle nature, Ms. Green's frankness, Ms. Ferguson's ability to care for each student as an individual, Ms. Morgan's tough love, Ms. Troy's calm focus, and Ms. Larden's whimsical sense of humor. I have Professor Pie's patience, Professor Mirabella's high expectations, and Professor Zoref's keen sense of grammatical and careful attention to every sentence word. I hope I have Amy Fleury's passion for literature and Rita Costello's ability to get students engaged with literature. I still have days where I want to call Rita and tell her what wacky thing just happened in the classroom. A mentor is an important thing. I suppose sometimes I just want to call and say "Did I do it right?"

As a teacher, I have made mistakes. I have second guessed my answers to questions, or wondered if I was clear enough, patient enough, gave everyone enough attention. Sometimes, my own reactions surprise me. Like any human, a teacher cannot be everything to everyone, but each day, I get smiles and some laughs at my lame jokes, compliments on my shoes, and enough nods from my students that I believe most of them are with me. I believe they like me as a person, and my philosophy is, likability is the start. After all, we are all people coming together for some common purpose. This may be my job, but they make the job feel comfortable and rewarding. Without students, teachers have nothing. I get nostalgic for every class I've ever taught (or, okay, most of them). The faces become more than just familiar to you: their triumphs become your happiness, their shortcomings become your problem, but succeed or fail, you are all in that class together.

I'm a real teacher: my hand hurts a lot from grading, and I still mark too much on the papers. I eat lunch over the computer while answering emails. I have my own grading shorthand that I've given my students a decoding sheet to understand, and frankly, no one would understand what my grade book means except for me. But this whole teaching thing is a journey, and I'm still near the beginning. I'm happy about that though. It feels like there are many places to go. It's tiring, overwhelming, and sometimes, it feels impossible, but...

On a good day, the students want to do the work, and everyone who was out last class brings a doctor's note.

On a good day, you come home tired, but you can't stop talking about class or how this student or that student is doing.

On a good day, you learn more than they do.

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