Friday, September 16, 2011

The other side of the desk

The true teacher defends his pupils against his own personal influence. He inspires self-distrust. He guides their eyes from himself to the spirit that quickens him. He will have no disciple. - Amos Bronson Alcott


As leaves fall outside the window and a cold breeze comes in through the open doors, as I realize I'm 31 and a college graduate and all grown up and married, as I start to see gray hairs and just begin to notice the hint of wrinkles at the corners of my eyes, I still have trouble believing I'm finally a teacher. My lesson plans are right here in front of me. Yesterday was spent grading papers and quizzes. I've gotta teach on Monday. So it must be true. I must have finally gotten where I was going, at least in one sense.

I've wanted to teach since early on. My first grade teacher had one of those red smiley face stamps, which I assumed required a teaching license to purchase, for all the power that little grin had. If you didn't make any mistakes, she'd stamp the top corner of your quiz or test or homework. My habit back then was to place smiley faced papers at the edge of my desk where everyone passing by could see. I'd like to think I was just looking for recognition or congratulations, but it's more likely that I wanted one and all to be jealous of me and my success, to know who was master of the multiplication tables and queen of the vocabulary list, to bow to me and my map of the state capitals with its blood red, slightly smeared on one side (I hated when that happened), smile of approval.

It was then that I decided I'd someday sit in the seat of judgment. I'd have my very own red stamp. The fate of so many would be in my hands. And that day has finally come! But it turns out, I teach adults, use a regular old black pen, and feel pretty bad when a student doesn't earn the college equivalent of a smiley stamp. I am, to the disappointment of my old self, quite a merciful leader.

My first class was such a strange thing. I wasn't exactly nervous (I wanted to succeed too much to let nerves win out over adrenaline), but I was certainly new. Things went okay. Not awful, not amazing. We all survived, and most of them have stuck with me. There were moments when they got what I was saying and moments when their blank expressions told me I'd lost them. But overall, we made progress.

The worst part is knowing it'll take time to learn what works and what doesn't. I'd prefer not to make mistakes. I'd like to know the perfect way to reach every student and how to explain grammar effectively and how to best deal with different learning styles and levels, and I'd like to know it all right now. But I just don't. It's got to be earned, apparently. Like battle scars. You can only learn so much from the old pros. The real lessons come when you're out there on your own.

But there's a best part too, and that is that teaching is sure to be the hardest class I'll ever take. I kind of mourned my college days ending. I loved taking classes and having assignments and academic challenges. But this...this is something totally different. You have to know what you're talking about. If you don't, they'll know you don't know, and you'll lose them.

With all I don't know, there are a couple of things I've picked up on quickly. It seems, at least from this very green teacher who's looking for something constant to hang on to, that there are two critical things I must do, and one thing they must do. I must understand and effectively (passionately on a good day) communicate the material, and I must sincerely want the students to succeed. They must try as hard as necessary to meet the goals satisfactorily. (Yes, satisfactorily. Not all students are in love with words. I can't blame them--I'm not in love with numbers.)

It's a real shame I didn't teach first grade. Actually, no. They'd have hated me. Most first graders can't handle large doses of sarcasm and cynicism. The shame is that I'll never get to use the red smiley. My students already look at me funny when, instead of reading Jack London's perfectly good example of a descriptive essay in the textbook, we read Jacqueline Woodson's picture book Show Way and discuss ancestry for half an hour. They put up with my children's literature, but the smiley would never go over. (Secret goal: convince them children's lit is as good as (most of the time better than) adult lit. What good is it to wield the (regular old black) pen of power if you don't abuse it once in a while?) And anyway, what is an essay without a topic the student is passionate about? Why even bother? It's just homework then. Something to get through and get over with. If you make me write an essay about how to make a sandwich, I'm gonna fail. But an essay about the night I saw Santa kneeling by the Christmas tree? Now that's something with feeling behind it. (Really, I did.)

Ah, well. Just rambling now. Just trying to make connections. Just hoping I'm not the only teacher out there thinking, what the hell am I doing behind the desk? Don't they know I'm six years old? Don't they know I can't--

But I can. That's the funniest part of the whole thing. I really actually seriously probably almost-certainly surely can. And I must. They're counting on me now. And when they're not, I'll at least be counting on myself.