Saturday, November 20, 2010

Teach Me

A friend of mine asked me if I thought he'd be a good teacher. He wanted to know my thoughts on the difference between a good and a great teacher. He said he didn't care about poverty. That's a good start, because if you want to teach on the college level, you'll at least need a master's degree and possibly a doctorate. Right now in Oklahoma, community college teachers start out at around $35-40k per year so not only will you be in student loan debt, but you'll be in debt for a long time. I'm going to tackle this and I'm going to forget something and later, I'm going to have to revise. Feel free to email me with suggestions.

I guess you'd want to start with knowledge of your subject as well as a healthy dose of love and respect for what you're doing without being a jerk about it. I like English. I speak English pretty well. I write in the language and I teach others to write in varying styles. We like to read and explore and discuss and pick apart literature and put it back together and discuss thoroughly all sides of the issues raised. And we (my classes and I) don't mind so much writing about that stuff. I don't grade on every aspect of grammar, punctuation and whathaveyous on every draft. First, I don't have the fucking time. Second, I don't really care about grammar. Third, my students read what I write on their papers and ignore the grammar crap so I'd be wasting my time anyway. I pick my battles. One some drafts, I look at grammar and address that with the individual students, face-to-face. It takes time and I have to remember who does what. Since I'm an English teacher I get asked all the time if I edit people's email or text messages. I don't do that either. But some of you, and you know who you are, need to check on the difference between "your" and "you're". If my whole class misses this, I will point it out but let's not throw my inner grammar nazi around. I make mistakes too and wouldn't want it thrown at me. I get the message across. My students tend to improve over time from exposure to good literature and practice writing, not from me farting a worksheet in their direction and saying that it will help. It won't help. So yeah, know your stuff. Be ready for questions because if you're passionate about your topic, it will become infectious and the questions will come.

By the way, you have about three weeks to learn everyone's name. Everyone's name. No exceptions. And get to know them. You'll do this because you care and because they will know things about you. It's common courtesy. I have 125 students and I know all of their names so the sheer number of students also isn't an excuse. Don't be lazy. Not to be overly dramatic, but sometimes your smile, interest or reassuring words are what pulls someone back from the edge. The only way it wouldn't be feasible is if you have over 150 in a class.

One thing I would seriously recommend is to check your ego at the door. Just because you have content area knowledge doesn't mean your students are beneath you. Your attitude will show. Nobody ever walked into my classroom knowing nothing. I don't care if you're teaching in a prison or in a university setting. My inmates had such practical knowledge and wisdom for life in the institution. My community college students were the most diverse, loving, compassionate, tough and hilarious group of people I have ever had the honor to come into contact with. My sheltered kids who spent their first day in a college classroom with me had special problems of their own to deal with and were just as loved or neglected as the children of middle-class people. If they were over-indulged it often taught them manipulation and appeasement. However, even the brattiest of spoiled children have something to contribute and something great to learn. Often, these students are the least aware of their own privilege and racism. I get along best with people between the ages of 18-70 who grew up or live in poverty. We just have a lot in common. I also enjoy teaching middle class students of all ages and dislike affluent or very rich younger students. But I can and will find common ground and will teach anyone I'm asked to teach (or paid enough to teach anyway). I do have to find common ground too, because people know when you're being fake. There is something really vulnerable about teaching; you cannot hide who you are. If you do not want to (at least in some ways) expose yourself to others, this is not the profession for you. On the other hand, don't go over-sharing. For instance, my students know that I taught in a prison; I tell stories to demonstrate themes for essays. They know I adore my grandparents- it's part of storytelling for the first personal essay. They do not know my marital status, my relationship status or my sexual preference or how much of how often I drink alcohol. In fact, I rather cultivate the idea that on the weekends, my nerdy friends and I use dry-erase markers to diagram sentences on the sliding glass door of my house for entertainment.

If you realize that teaching is the best opportunity in the world to remain a student for your whole life then this is the job for you. It's ok to not know some things and say "Hey, why don't we look it up? I love Google!" My students have taught me about the most surprising and unexpected topics in the world. All I have to do is show up, love what I do, and let go of the tight control-freak grip on the reigns once in awhile. You know, other people know how to ride a horse just as well if not better than I do. I walk down the hall every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to my 2 p.m. class and see my colleague. I just say one word: Rodeo. That's what it's like. You just leather up and try to hold on for 8 seconds. Some days you win, some days the bull bucks you off and some days you get the horns. None of those are bad days. The take-home lesson is that you aren't going to pour the wisdom of the ages into empty heads. You will be challenged and judged, like it or not. At the end of the day ask yourself if you learned anything and if you taught anything worth knowing.

Speaking of things worth knowing, I went completely off of my lesson plan on Friday with one of my classes. We were discussing the Westboro Baptist Church and their recent foray and protest of a soldier's funeral in nearby McAlester. Six protesters from Westboro- a known hate group- squared off against over 1,000 counter-protesters from Oklahoma. Wrong place for them to come calling I guess. Someone flattened two of their tires and nobody in town would welcome the group to fix the flats. They had to call AAA to take them to Walmart. I argued that it was wrong to poke holes in someone's tires. It diminishes us as humans and is also against the alw of the land- laws that we all vote on. The group also had a couple of young children with them, too young to know even what was going on. Three of my students went to counter-protest. My class was supposed to follow the plan of the other four classes, discussing our topics for the final essay and writing out the problem statement to prepare them for the next class. Nope. Such was our debate that we ended up constructing a definition argument on American Values or some such thing and talking about ethics. We missed out on some valuable topical discussion but I figured at that moment it was more important to teach what I could using an emotionally charged topic. It's just where the energy was. Doesn't happen all the time but I trust my students and they said this is what they wanted more than anything that day.

Now, speaking of lesson plans, you should always have one, even if you end up throwing it out. My plans are always hammered out from a larger plan that my students don't always see. I do my planning in units; four per semester that culminate in essays. The first one is pretty well stock until I can figure out who my students are and what they need. Then after that I just tailor everything to student likes and dislikes and what sort of writers they are. It's a neat part of teaching. I feel like I sneak behind enemy lines, learn about them and then blow up their defenses so I can push through a love of writing, learning, self-efficacy, critical thinking skills and a sense of agency as a human being. Yeah, I'm sneaky that way. It keeps my mind nimble so it's also a self-serving proposition.

The other thing is that there are two types of curriculum- the one from the syllabus and the hidden curriculum, or the one which is not visible or printed somewhere. The hidden curriculum includes the types of examples I use, whether or not I treat people fairly, whether or not I am consciously or unconsciously racist or if I favor one group over another, if I am sexist or religiously intolerant and if I push my political agenda and silence dissent amongst students who disagree with me. My avoidance of those things, those pitfalls of vice and vanity, will greatly improve my student's chance for success if they feel they can disagree with me, even vehemently so, and not be penalized for it. I foster an environment of trust from the moment they meet me and we decide on the class environment rules. I ask for votes on important issues like grading rubrics. I ask them to come up with their own writing topics. When things just aren't working, I ask to change it. Sometimes we do off the wall shit. Sometimes I lie to my students and sometimes I expose their narrow views and ask for change or at least a reconsideration. Sometimes you just need to do that and you can get away with it if you're working from a strong foundation.

Speaking of foundations, if you work in higher ed, you'll need to learn how to work with administration-types of people. If you work in secondary schools, you'll need to really learn how to deal with administration and also with parents. Generally, though, as long as you can do paperwork and plan well and do what needs to be taken care of, higher ed is a lot easier to deal with because your students are not minors unless they are concurrently enrolled. Occasionally I'll get a high school student taking my class for credit, but they know when they come in the door that I won't give special treatment beyond cleaning up my foul mouth. Often though, these are the most prepared students in the sense that they will usually have their homework done and can be relied upon to answer questions. They have often had year of AP courses and are ready for college.

Here is the one secret I've kept from my fellow doctoral and master's students: I reserve one day per week to do ONLY non-school stuff. I'm a grad student and also a teacher. I drive 144 miles a day for my job. I work on Sunday. So Saturday is the day that I take for me, unless it's absolutely necessary to devote my precious day off to some project. And you know, I have only done that once and it was the recent time-crunch involving my general exams. I have to grocery shop, clean house, do laundry, cook (a little anyway), and otherwise reset my brains somehow. I decided in 2008 that I would do this whole grad school thing right and that involves having balance. Balance means I walk away sometimes and I've jealously guarded my one day off rule.

In the end analysis, I'd say that you can do this job if you have the heart for it. You must teach who you truly are without trying to make little copies of yourself. People will follow you or not; give up the idea of control and just be the best example you can be. Those students are sometimes inanely stupid, unprepared, frustrating/frustrated, excuse-ridden with three dead grandma's every semester and sometimes they think they can get away with cheating. I have news for you too: sometimes they DO get away with it. Other times they are insightful, diligent, caring, compassionate, thoughtful and smart people ever. Not only do you need heart and a sense of humility, but also a bit of arrogance that what you do is important and that you're the best person to walk through that door put on your hat and gloves and hold on for the duration of the ride.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Apologies, but today this is more of a diary entry than social commentary. I just need to catch my breath.

My life is a series of matrix scheduling nightmares. Right now I've got three overlays going on. The first is my work schedule, then my school schedule and finally, my general exam schedule. Make that four overlays. I need recreation and food and sometimes, sleep. Let me break it down for you. And yes, I still maintain that I am the busiest lazy person in the world.

Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning, without fail, I get up between 5:00 and 5:15 in the morning. I refer to this ungodly and heinous time of day as "Oh-Dark-Thirty". I am not pretty and I am not good smelling and I am not in a good fucking mood. Just your basic monster. Pretty sure I'm the conception of what your kid thinks is hiding under their bed. I could bite the head off of a bat. If I managed to shower the night before I can get up at 5:30. I leave my house at 6:30 and pick up my commuter at 6:35. He is usually late. I have left him twice. If I don't get on the road by 6:45, I will be late and I just can't do it. We grunt good morning and he promptly falls asleep on the drive. I put in my iPod and motate down I35 at lightning speed, then turn on 59 and head East. It's a back country road, no doubt. But there just isn't a main thoroughfare to Ada, Oklahoma so it's the backroads. I blow through Wayne, OK with no problem. Around Rosedale I usually hit a bit of traffic- a farmer out to check on cows. Either I pass and we wave or I just wait and know he'll be turning to the side of the road and into a field.

It's Byars that's a problem. There's a bar-cum-breakfast restaurant where all seven of the locals hang out. I like them. None are younger than 75 and they wave as I go through. It's called Gigi's. I'd like to stop in for some breakfast if I get up early enough. I go the posted 35 through here, not because I've ever seen a cop, but because there are lots of loose dogs around. Some sleep in the street. Others meander aimlessly. I don't want to get an alignment.

There is also an assortment of other four-legged critters in this town which seemingly eschews the whole idea of barbed-wire fence. Twice now, I've seen a mule hanging out, walking towards Gigi's for some biscuits and gravy. It's more common to see the cows outside the suggestion of a fence. Several homes on Main street sport horse pastures and one had a deer strung up on the front porch. I assume he was part of the winter menu. I'm all for that. You could sell him to a local organic shop for lots of money as organic and free range. Hormone free. But I bet the family would rather eat him and I don't blame them a bit. Deer meat is one of the only meats that this vegetarian will completely devour. Anyway, that's Byars. I zooooom on through 59 and eventually make my way to 3E which takes me the final 13 miles into Ada.

In all, I've driven 72 miles before 8 a.m. when I teach my first class. My first class is at 8 a.m. It's a Comp 1 class, just like my 9 a.m., my 10 a.m., my 11 a.m. and my 1 p.m. class. I have an hour break for lunch but rarely take it since students continually need help or want to come by and talk. Hey, I dig it. I like students who come by to shoot the breeze. My 8 and 9 o'clock classes, I'm not sure if I'm teaching or not. I make coffee when I walk in the door at 7:45 and drink it through the first two classes. Usually by the end of class everyone has shown up. I wake up and the sun comes up and lately I've been thrilled to death, seriously relieved, that the time changed happened and I get an extra hour of sleep at night. I sleep better and am not exhausted in the mornings. Anyway, my 10 a.m. class always makes me laugh and I feel perky. At 11 o'clock my students and I go skipping into the class and everyone is raucous. They talk over each other and over me and I talk over them and we take the noise levels down and up and sometimes lose focus but bring it back to center again. And the students range from 18 to 40 so there's lots of rich discussions from multiple perspectives.

So there is noon, and I have lunch. I usually bring ramen soup and heat it up. Sometimes it's just a protein bar and once in awhile, I'll walk over to the Student Center and buy lunch. Meet a friend, talk to my kids and go outside for the first time that day. More often than not, I don't see the outside until after my 2 p.m. class. I've got 2 women in that class that regularly show up and 14 men. It's what my colleagues who have observed (there have been five observations- a story for another day) a "sausage fest". Testosterone poisoning for sure. I was walking in today and caught the tail end of a conversation about how I might be older but I'm still hot. I wear loud shoes for a purpose. Figure it out. I tangle with overgrown boys for a bit and pack up to leave at 2. All of my classes are very funny and sometimes thoughtful and sometimes insightful as heck. One of my students felt excited at the prospect of doing primary research so he packed up his country self and went to Oklahoma City to interview two homeless people- a male prostitute and a woman who had lived on the streets for over 20 years. I didn't know he was doing any of this. He left his id and money behind and slept in a park that night. He said it totally changed his perspective. Right on, brother!! Three others recently attended a counter-protest against the Hillsboro Baptist Church. Even though the protest, six WBC members and over 1,000 counter-protesters ended in two slashed tires, none of my students reported knowledge of that event.

We are to leave promptly at 2. My commuter never shows up until 2:05 and sometimes 2:10 and once at 2:45 but I yelled at him. I almost apologized after that but I was very grumpy. I should've apologized. It's not too late. I might. But by then the coffee has worn off. I am tired and stick my iPod back in and sleep on the way home. The best thing about a commuter is that he's willing to drive home. We always take my car but at least I get a nap. I think this is the reason I am still human. It's another 72 miles home and we arrive at 3:20ish.

That's my work day for Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Tuesday and Thursday, we head out at 8:05 (8:10 due to lateness) and I keep office hours from 9:30 until 2. Then it's out again. I use the time to plan, grade papers and take care of the administrative crap that comes up. This Friday, for example, is East Central's Inauguration for the new president. This event, which I am required to attend, also requires me to order and pay for regalia to wear. Thanks. Regalia never, ever looks sexy, in case you wondered.

I love my job and what I'm doing. I'm lucky with administration and coworkers and students and the latitude to do what I need to in the classroom. It's overall pretty wonderful. I could only wish for two things: A window and some way to control the temperature. It's an office without any a/c or heating at all. Oh, and a pay raise. I'd like to be able to live on what I earn.

So that's work. I also take two classes the University of Oklahoma. They are my final two classes, ever. Strange to say but it's true. I've taken everything available in English Education and most other departments too. I love being a student and hope that this never ends, even as I finish a terminal degree. But on Wednesday nights, I get home from class, check the dog and cat and eat something, then go to class from 4:30 until 7. It's a teaching language class and I like it. I began my doctoral studies with Dr. Angelotti and he is my dissertation chair and closest adviser. I've written poems about his nose and shared with the class. It sort of goes on forever and at the end, hooks a little to the right in order to catch his reading glasses. He calls me a loose cannon but he's smiling when he says it and if I had an Italian dad, it would be him. He's in his 70's and thinking of retirement. Nobody will fill those shoes though. Not in my mind.

My second class is a curriculum theory course taught by the toughest professor in the College of Education. She got to where she is now, which is a very respectable place, by clawing her way through the patriarchy in a time when it was unpopular to do so. I like and respect her and always work hard. It doesn't take much to earn her respect either- just do what the fuck you're supposed to in the class and it will all be ok. woe to the unprepared doctoral student. I've seen her reduce grown women to a simpering mess. I make people laugh in the class and add some levity. Somehow she permits that and I enjoy being a nerdy clown. I think, in the process, I also help others to understand what she's saying. Critical pedagogy, after all, is a passion of mine. That class runs on Thursday from 7 until 10 p.m. and I turn around and get up at 5 the next morning for work. Friday is a sleepy day for this little muffin.

Then there is the debacle of my general exams. Did I mention that I adore my chair? Yes, well, he's also forgetful. There are new rules in the last year about when you can take your general exam and how long you have with your three questions. It used to be a semester and indeed, others in the College get longer. Then it was cut to three months, then four weeks. Your three questions are created by your committee and are to be answered in your finest academic prose with lots of "Probst argues...Freire comments that..Postman postulates..." and so on until you've effectively written only about 50% of your own thoughts. Pretty dry, but you can get through it. Like anything, academic writing is a tool that works better with practice. Lots of students were procrastinating and then putting off the exam until the next semester so they would have longer to work on it. Our department decided that students would get only four weeks with their questions, two weeks for revisions and then would orally defend to a committee.

My adviser forgot about my general exams.

Forgot. For two weeks despite my best reminders.

And I had half of the severely abbreviated time to do this. Clearly, though, it was communicated that the 50-60 page requirement would still be expected. You know, because I have nothing better to do.

Oh my freaking God. I did it. I wrote it. I texted my best friend constantly and probably annoyingly and had my battle buddy, Kim, work with me. She was in the exact same boat since we have gone through the program together every step of the way. That's her, to the right. We met at the library each weekend and on Fridays. We commiserated and wrote and whined and got kicked out of a room by the security guard wanna-be. I wrote at home and got up in the middle of the night and my house started to look like it threw up on itself. I sent my dog to my friend's house so he'd get fed regularly. One of my committee members hated my dissertation topic (one of the questions) but I sent it to my chair and he approved of it. So I only used very recent materials in the discussion. In all, I put in about 50 hours over two weeks, in addition to the stuff I normally do, just to get this in on time. I drank ginormous amounts of caffeine. I don't worry about my house because the neighbors next door with all the crap in their yard are awesome and keep an eye on the house for me.

And I did get the work done. I turned in about 50 pages, an hour and a half before the deadline. Now to wait for revisions. And don't worry, I'm setting automatic timers to call my chair to let him know when stuff is due.

Despite the rodeo that is my life, I do still have a lot of fun. I get time to write, which must be true since you are sitting there reading and I am here writing and together we make a transaction between writer and text and reader and meaning-maker. So I get to write. And I have friends. Really damn good friends who have been patient with my schedule this semester. I remember vaguely that I went to a Halloween party and that once I stayed over at Val's house when her husband was out of town. I run too. If I can't run or do something active at least 3-5 times a week, then I feel all out of sorts and bloaty and cranky and life just has no meaning. So I have been running. Not more than 3-4 miles but enough so that I feel like I've worked out. And there's yoga in the morning and a class on Monday nights. Amazing stuff, by the way. My yoga teacher uses a mixture of yoga, Chi gong and muscle activation techniques. We do some things that make the giant lump that used to be my rhomboid relax. Check out Thomas if you get a chance. And go to his classes. He's great.

Eleanor is hanging in there. She's a champ. At 14, she's now more literate than any other cat I've ever met and has more reading strategies than most people. Here's proof:
Big, the dog, lived through the experience. He escaped from my friend's house and ran home, across town, to our house.
Once I finished most of the work, I brought him home with profuse thanks for keeping him alive and walked. I love having him home. I get up in the morning and give Eleanor her tummy medicine- which she gets three times a day plus a pill for arthritis- and say good morning, rub his tummy and smooch his fuzzy doggie face. We went for a walk first thing when he got home. He goes off leash and we go around a huge field. It's a mile in circumference and by the end he and I are both content. But that night, he found an adorable kitty to play with. One with a big white stripe down its back. The rest is history.

So that's the story of my life lately. I'm tired from writing, though it's worth it, this effort. In a few weeks, class will end and the world will shift a little and I will change with it. Especially since I'm trying to rent out my house to move to Ada so I won't have to commute. That AND I won't have to teach until 11 on any given day. Whew! But then I'm writing a dissertation and doing research and getting settled and applying for jobs and so on and so forth. Life will slow down. Later.

Much later.

Good night, Moon.