Saturday, June 15, 2013

Why I Teach: a student helps me remember

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.

He was very quiet in my class for the first few weeks, until the day I asked students to verbally paraphrase a passage from Donald Hall's "Four Kinds of Reading." As was always the case when I taught this essay, most students froze in terrified and/or bewildered silence. The few who did try blundered badly. Then: more silence

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
So when William, who did not have familial support through his degree, asked me and his former History instructor to attend his convocation, I was more than happy to say yes. He'd done well, all on his own, with top grades in his honours degree in History and a minor in English. I had attended my own undergraduate convocation without any family too and I knew that having someone there in his corner would mean a lot to him.

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.  

But, of course, a little bling helps. On this day, I finally found a good excuse to wear my dress clips, all three of them, as they would have been worn in the 30s and 40s. The faux wrap dress had a bit of a 40s vibe to it so the clips and all the sparkle went well with it.




Ring on left hand: Birks; Ring on right-hand: heirloom
If you can't bling at a convocation, where can you bling? 

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.
Though I'm not really fond of this photo of me, I just had to show you this splendid view from the rose garden at William's university. When we all went there to take photos, William confessed that he'd never been to the garden and had never spent time gazing at this view through the whole course of his degree. After all, he told us, he was there to learn, study, and work, not to enjoy flowers and views.

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!)



  1. What a beautiful post. These are the students who really make it all worthwhile.

  2. What a wonderful story, and how great that you are a part of it. Thank you for sharing with Visible Monday, you made my day.

  3. I'm distressed at your evaluation of the generally lowered standards across our educational system, but I'm not surprised by it. In the two decades we've operated our pub/restaurant we've watched a nearby and very tiny, expensive private college upgraded its standing to become the tiniest and least effective university I know of. Local high school graduates are often functionally illiterate, and those that go on to any higher education at any level are often so intimidated by mimimum expectations that they quit. As you say, it's dismal. And I'm old enough to see these changes for the worst play out in all aspects of public and private life.
    So glad you persevere.
    You must have been really uncomfortable at the ceremony, but you looked lovely. So glad you were there for your wonderful student, and that he has been there for you in such kind and thoughtful ways. His story and yours encourage me.
    I'll thank you for teaching as well. Let's hope the rest of us do what we can in terms of financial support for educators and education generally. We need people like you to hang in there!

    1. Thanks for the thanks! I was nervous about posting this one as I'm pretty blunt about my feelings about the current state of education. My general feeling is that most post-secondary educators still care a great deal and are just as dismayed as I am by what's going on. Perhaps the problem is with administrations, or with "helicopter parenting," or... Who knows, really? It's a complex thing.

      And yes, I was more than uncomfortable. I was in a lot of pain, as I often am. As a result, I can only teach half-time now, so money's tight too. How can I keep myself supplied with bling like this? : )