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.

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