Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Second Chance

A number of years ago (like, maybe a decade now?) I was offered the opportunity to teach writing and literature in the adult studies program of a university. I was coming fresh out of graduate school, and I had a lot of leeway in designing and shaping the curriculum I taught. For the most part, I had good students who wanted to work and learn and came to class ready to discuss. There were a few bad apples, but overall, it was a great and positive experience.

I employed a fair bit of creativity in my classes, and my mantra to the students was that you'll never learn how to write unless you learn how to read--and read a lot. So, I assigned loads of extra reading, and I had students asking me to make up reading lists for them; one who wrote on my evaluation how much he enjoyed the close because he had "never read a hole [sic] book before;" another who wrote me a lovely recommendation and said that because of my class, he was going to start reading a book a month.

Eventually I stopped teaching because I was also working full-time in publishing and I had Lucy, but I was flushed with my success and had a good opinion of my own teaching skills. I knew how to teach, I knew how to write curriculum, students were successful...it was all just so awesome.

Oh Proverbs, why was I not reading you on a daily basis? Say it with me now, "Pride goes before a fall," or I absolutely love how the Message says it: "First, pride--then the crash."

In 2009, I decided that with the girls a little bit older, I was ready to get back into teaching again. I applied at our local community college, and they were happy to give me a class: Composition 101. I'd taught Comp 101 AND designed it, even though they hired me on Friday and the class started on Monday, why, what a walk in the park! Bring it! I could do this in my sleep!

As Louis the Alligator says succinctly in "The Princess and the Frog,": It didn't go well.

And for those of you who like visuals, here's basically what it looked like:

Do you need another one?
All of my creative ideas did not work. None of them. Not one. The students looked at me with blank faces. I couldn't figure them out--what made them tick, how to help them learn. I could tell from their papers that I wasn't doing an effective job. I had two learning disabled students in class, and I was not equipped to handle the one in particular. Not only was she learning disabled, she was socially disabled and she disrupted the class every single session (oh, and she never missed class either). I didn't know how to handle her outbursts and her needs vis a vis the rest of the class.

I remember trying to get the class to read a story, a funny story written on a 9th-grade level, out loud. It was so awful, I can't even begin to tell you how awful it was. It was one of those moments where you sit there, feeling the muscles in your neck tighten, the blood rush to your face, and your whole body become rigid with shame. And disgrace. The kind where you just imagine yourself as being anywhere but where you are right now: Hawaii. Bed, Bath, & Beyond. Whatever, as long as you're not here. Seriously. So. Bad.

After the seemingly never-ending semester was finally over, I vowed I would never do that again. I was resentful of the students and the school and teaching and everything about it. No way.

But now, here I am, a year and a half later, and circumstances have brought me both to a new university and...back to the community college, the scene of my epic fail.

At Thanksgiving, Darren and Joseph and I went to the movies, and here's a sampling of our dialog during the previews. A commercial came on for the DVD of that Julia Roberts' movie "Eat, Pray, Love." The voiceover said something like, "Do you have the courage to look in the mirror and face some hard truths about yourself?"

Joseph said, "I am so glad I escaped ever having to see this movie."

I said, "Why in the world would I want to do that? Isn't that what marriage is for--having someone else always pointing out hard truths about yourself? When's Harry Potter coming on anyway?"

Even though I didn't bother to rent that movie, it is time to look in the mirror and face some hard truths about myself. I've got so much to learn. I was way too confident in my abilities. I don't know even a tiny fraction of everything. I need to start from scratch and work from the ground up.

So for the past month or so, I've been working hard on two different curricula I'll be teaching--one starting in January, one in June. I looked at everything that went wrong before and designed things differently. Nothing fancy--just solid, basic elements they can hopefully use and remember. I talked to the director of the program at the community college so I could find out about the students there. She told me that they're coming from our pretty much awful public school system where they aren't even allowed to take their books home from school. They don't know how to write.

I attended a workshop on Saturday to learn how to be a writing coach in the writing center. There were a number of people a lot younger than I am with maybe fewer years of teaching, but I presented myself as a novice and asked for their help. They kindly gave it, and I got a lot of great tips--things I can use to actually help people. I've had to learn two new online systems, too.

I know things this second time around won't be perfect, but it has all been a great lesson in humility for me. I hope I'm becoming a better listener. I hope I'm becoming a better learner.

A good teacher should be a good student, too, I guess. And hopefully this time, instead of a Proverbs "first, pride--then the crash," experience, it will be a more James 4 experience: "God sets Himself against the proud, but He gives grace to the humble."

I need it!

1 comment:

Katie said...

Friend, maybe you should have titled this one "A NEW chance". Thanks for your humility in sharing this. I so appreciate your thoughtful approach to life and what God is teaching you. PS - I still always dread writing to you - my skills are lacking!