Sunday, June 6, 2010

On Why I Teach

"If you see a whole thing - it always seems beautiful. Planets, lives...but up close a world's all dirt and rocks. Day to day, life's a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern."
-Ursula K. Le Guin

I spend a lot of my time thinking about the patterns of life - the bits of experience that, when strung together, give some semblance of a whole, of a graspable center. I spend time reading student writing, reading student emails, reading student body language, looking for what they are trying to tell me, and maybe most importantly, what they don't realize they're saying to me. I look for ways they connect, for what resides below the surface; I look for patterns of a person behind the ubiquitous title of student. It is, without a doubt, the hardest job I have ever had. It is also, without a doubt, the most rewarding.

This quarter of teaching was my hardest yet - a group of students that brought themselves full force into the classroom without apology - big, fat personalities overlapping and intersecting, confounding and supporting one another, challenging my way of being in the classroom, and asking more of me than I thought I could or wanted to give. They bonded with each other and their voices grew louder each day, taking classwork and lifework and meshing them into what often felt like an intense technological chatter that I could not define. I whimpered from the start of it - they took my comfort zone of fun, feisty classrooms, and pushed my boundaries. They asked me to teach them, not the class I'd hoped they be. I felt, for the first few weeks, completely incapable of making sense of their behavior.

But, and this "but" feels wildly weighted, they showed up; they showed up every day. They came, all twenty of them, to almost every class, they did their work, the discussed the readings I assigned, they completed the papers, they came to office hours (many, many office hours), they attended individual conferences, they emailed me (many, many emails), they formed revision groups, and showed up to my office with revised papers that showed very little recognition of the original type. And after time, I stopped noticing the classroom chatter that took the class concept and almost seamlessly tailored it into a metaphor for their current personal lives, when they braided each other's hair, simultaneously played games on their iPhones while raising their hands, laughed and talked at a decibel that gave passersby the impression that I taught Introduction to Drama. After a time, I stopped trying so hard to teach the class I wanted and I decided to teach the class I got.

Sometimes, I think it's important to pay attention to the dirt and rocks of life. I think that the pattern that allows us to conceive of a whole is nothing without the lumps and bumps, but I am grateful too that we can, stepping back, see that beautiful whole. I am thankful for the combinations that arise when we allow ourselves to encompass the mess of ourselves, and I am thankful for the classroom that can do the same.

I spend a lot of time fretting over student commentary that feels unflattering or critical, words that are most often spoken in haste and carry much less original weight than I give them in my mind. I worry about not noticing what and who needs me, of not offering students something valuable in our time together, and so I focus mountains worth of attention on the "dirt" of it all. Yesterday as I was grading papers, I came to one of my current student's reflective commentary letters, a space in which the students are asked to reflect on their writing process, what they've learned, and the revisions they've made. At the end of the letter she said something that changed my life a little, that shook away some of my tendency to see so much that doesn't work. I hesitated sharing this feedback with worries that it might come across as a selfish assertion of accomplishment, but I realized, as I reread it, that it is so much more. It says so much about how many of the amazing teachers around me teach, about what we do beyond our subject matter, of what the relationship between a teacher and a student really means - a relationship that cannot be calculated by simplistic letter grades and scantron evaluations. She wrote:

"She inspired me to better my writing skills, sit in the front of the class for once, and most importantly communicate and believe in my complex ideas. Someone who can inspire a group of college freshman to write, and to write well, is someone who deserves more than a teaching degree, but a degree that should say: ability to teach people how to have a life and share it."

So, at the end of two years of graduate school, one year of teaching, numerous hours of laughing, crying, worrying, yelling, reading, writing, and learning, I am left with a gratefulness to my students, yes, for pushing me, but also to my peers, to the teachers that taught me how to have a life and share it.


Chelsea said...

Your posts about teaching are the most beautiful things. I hope you are still going to be around Bellingham this July/August so I can see you in person again!

Zach said...

It may be that I am tired, but your beautiful post totally made me tear up. Thank you so much for teaching me every day, B.

Caitlin said...

Yeah, that makes me teary. I love this job so much sometimes.

Chas Hoppe said...

I also teared up, and I am an iron curtain of emotion.

shari said...

a beautiful post.

K A R I™ said...

Can't even read the other comments because my eyes have teared up so much.

Ashley said...

yeah, it's totally not about being tired. it's about all of us being gentle english teaching types that love our students and what we do. absolutely beautiful.

Meghan said...

Well done, lovely lady. Well done, indeed.