I'll be honest with you. There are times when teaching can seem like an utterly thankless task.
I teach English at a well-respected local college. I love and care deeply about what I teach: primarily literature, composition, and critical thinking. It is precisely because I care so deeply about it that I often don't love the teaching process itself.
There are several reasons for this. Firstly, today's bubble wrapped generation of kids has been weaned on an educational system that tends to foster self-esteem over achievement, and emotional comfort over intellectual rigor. In other words, praise and grade inflation are common; being required to work hard and pay attention to details often are not.
Some of my students are shocked to find that they actually have to work hard to pass, let alone do well in college courses. Some are perhaps even more shocked to find that they have to attend class regularly, do their work on time, meet assignment guidelines... all without their instructors chasing them down for their work, cutting them unwarranted slack (warranted slack is another matter), or otherwise holding their hands throughout the process. In other words, they are appalled that they are expected to have self-discipline and behave in an adult manner.
I am not the only teacher to feel this way by any means. If you doubt me, take a listen above to Branford Marsalis talking about his own experience as a teacher.
Add to all this the fact that admissions standards in colleges and universities have been lowered, and I find that I frequently teach students who aren't at all well-equipped to succeed in a post-secondary setting.
For example, at first, I was shocked to find that I had to teach basic grammar to students, starting with parts of speech -- nouns, adjectives, adverbs, etc. -- and moving on to the correct use of commas, apostrophes, quotation marks, and capitalization. Now, I'm just used to it. But I'm not happy about it. My field is literature and the history of the English language. Grammar is, or should be, the purview of elementary and secondary school.
Finally, a university degree has now become what a high school diploma once was: necessary for any white-collar job. Therefore, many... okay, most of my students are not getting a post-secondary education for the love of learning, or even to fulfill any specific dream or ambition. They are there to Get A Good Job in a Good Company, any job, any company.
Money and ease are the goals, not learning.
|I was trying to show off my eye makeup in this photo, since I so rarely wear makeup, but you can't really see it.|
This can all be pretty damned demoralizing for someone like me who is passionate about the joys of life-long learning, the importance of critical thinking skills, the beauty of language, and the nourishing potential of literature.
|Look how proud he is! I love that he's so proud.|
Yet I have never once taught a class where there wasn't at least one student in it that I really enjoyed teaching.
This is not always because they are the smartest, or even the easiest students. Sometimes, a student is just really engaged with the material, even if she is not doing well in the class. Other times, a student challenges my teaching in an informed manner, proving to me that he has not only read the material (in itself a wonder of wonders) but has grown interested in it and formed opinions about it. Other times, a student is just refreshingly respectful and attentive. Sometimes, a student comes from a really rough background and finds, in me, an understanding rarely found in the sometimes rarefied and privileged academic environment.
|Dress: Reitman's; Shoes: Ecco; Dress clips and bracelet: vintage; Cane: Sunburst; William's suit: hand-tailored in Shanghai; William's shoes: Deer Stag|
But yes, there are also the students whom I love teaching because they are simply ridiculously smart. These are very often the same ones who challenge me the most. None of these categories is mutually exclusive.
William was one of these students.
William was, in fact, a student who thought English classes were a waste of time, a pointy-headed, intellectual game of spouting "deep thoughts" of no real value. I'm happy to say that I changed his mind.
Then William put up his hand with a confused look on his face that clearly read, "Why are people finding this so difficult?"
Calling on him, I said something like, "Go ahead, state the obvious," and he proceeded to give me a perfect, succinct synopsis of the paragraph. What a joy!
What a relief.
Shortly thereafter, William came to my office to speak to me. I'd been having a very difficult semester with "problem" students and I had not yet received tenure, so I was worried about what was to ensue. Was this student angry with me? Was he about to go over my head and complain about me for some imagined slight?
No, nothing of the sort.
William had discovered in my class that he liked school. My class, he said, made him feel "like an intellectual," and he really enjoyed that. He was starting to rethink his plans to become a high school teacher and was thinking about going all the way to a PhD.
What, he asked, was my advice about what English courses to take next and what major to pursue? We discussed his interests and I gave him advice from there, thinking either a degree in History or English would suit him well and telling him that the two disciplines dove-tail nicely. I advised him to take English survey courses to give him a foundation in literary history.
The rest is a bit of a legend. William proceeded to become the darling of every instructor who taught him. We all gave him good references, and worked hard to help him find work that would look good on his resume.
We all expected him to be our colleague sooner or later.
He kept in touch with many of us, often asking for our advice. When my back went out and I was bed-ridden, it hurt too much to respond to his questions by email, so I asked him to phone me instead. He and I ended up becoming friends. He was at my tenure party. He's helped me take a sick cat to the vet on more than one occasion.
He was my first friend ever who is younger than I am.
|Cape: a gift from Sal's step-mother|
I was touched and honoured that he asked.
I also knew it was going to be painful for me to drive all that way and then sit for that long, but it was important to me to attend. Worse, in addition to my back injury, I also have endometriosis and it was flaring badly that day; a lower back injury and endo are a pretty deadly combination.
I brought my cane and I was glad I did.
I didn't just lean on my cane. I leaned an anyone and anything else I could, as you can see here as I use William as a second cane.
|Ring on left hand: Birks; Ring on right-hand: heirloom|
I wanted to wear shoes more in keeping with the 40s vibe but I knew my back wouldn't hold up to that.
William and I both put a lot of thought into what we wore. He asked my advice: a Western suit or a Mao suit? He began to describe a Mao suit to me and I stopped him, saying, "Um, William, you're talking to me. Of course I know what a Mao suit is!"
The choice was obvious, was it not?
In keeping with our chosen fields, we were both a little retro.
|Beau's glasses: Geek Eyewear; Pants and shirt: thrift. I bought the shirt for him and I think it looks pretty good. Oh, and that ring you can just see on his hand? That's an upcoming story.|
I found this a little sad.
So here's to William's continued academic success... and here's to his learning to stop and smell the roses on the way. He deserves it
And here's to William thanking me for teaching, when teaching sometimes seems like a thankless task.
(I'm posting this over at Not Dead Yet for Visible Mondays because I think a story like William's should indeed be visible to all!)