Something happened to me recently. A change crossed the seasons of my mind. It was cold and windy, conditions I happen to like, and I was hiking along a desolate ridge buffeting back and forth with the stunted pines and the browned summer grasses clumped along the trail.
A flurry of snowbirds, mostly Dark-eyed Juncos, picked across the hillside. Wave after wave of them cycled into the slot canyon, escaping the wind, probably in search of shelter but not really in any perceivable hurry. At times they paused and bounded from limb to limb in a short tree. They grabbed hold during particularly gusty moments. They always let go to float in the wind, before dropping out of sight with a flash of white tail feather into the dense cover of winter grass.
The birds were playing. They enjoyed the bluster. Every time I thought the flock ran its course, another surge of birds blew through the bramble of hillside. It went on like this until I left. It wasn’t dozens of birds. Hundreds and hundreds filtered into the slot canyon to hunker down or hang out or do whatever it is that winter birds do.
Earlier I graded a mix of essay assignments for college writing and personal narrative exercises for creative writing. The grading went on and on, page after page, and I found myself, instead of hurrying for some arbitrary finish line, slowing down and hunkering into the brambles of the morning. It was as if I enjoyed the small successes I discovered on every new page, as if I enjoyed being a teacher. A thought planted itself at that moment, but it wasn’t until later in the day, all bundled up and leaning into the wind, that I allowed that thought to really take hold.
Those birds reminded me of teaching. Year to year, semester to semester, class to class, assignment to assignment teaching incorporates the embrace of repetition. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed teaching a 4/4 load. It’s easy to complain about how difficult it is to balance scholarship, teaching, and homelife. Teaching blogs, and social media accounts, and hushed conversations with colleagues often turn negative about all the difficult aspects of modern teaching. To be clear, this job is difficult when done correctly. It really isn’t any easier when it’s rushed or procrastinated, but spending the time to grade, to really hear what a student is trying to say is not only important to the student’s progress, but it’s vital to the teacher’s enthusiasm.
Those birds in that canyon reminded me of all the students I’ve taught and all the students I’ll teach. They reminded me of all my classes, and all my assignments, and all my afternoons spent grading. And they reminded me that being buffeted around in a cold wind might not be for everybody, but it’s okay to like it. It’s okay to play around in it. It’s okay. There will still be days where I struggle to not procrastinate, where I struggle to find energy – because this job is difficult, but even those many waves of birds had to end sometime and even after playing in the wind they did drop down to take cover for a little while, so maybe I’m a winter bird. Maybe that’s the magic that I tap into. And maybe it’s okay to like the difficult things in life.
There are many clichés around the idea of what it means for a job to be well done. I’ll not linger in that space. I’ll just end by saying I’m a flock of winter birds floating and fighting and playing in the wind for as long as I can stand, before I give up for a little while and hide away. Here’s the thing. Those snowbirds can’t have stayed grounded forever. They entered back into the fray at some point. I just didn’t see them take flight, but I know they did it. They’re bound to take flight over and over again regardless of the conditions or how they feel about the wind or whatever issues they’re having that day.
I wonder where we as a society steer people wrong a lot—where we as teachers could do more to serve our students. What are the unintended consequences of good intentions? The news these last many months is more an indictment of our society in totality than it is of a specific political trend or system. Kids are growing up on reality TV where stars are made for just being lucky enough to be born in the right town, at the right time, to the right people. Education and hard work are so easily trumped by the allure of fame and fortune—even when for everyone I know it’s just an allure. Many of my friends still dream about that big break.
How do we go about fixing the fractured sense of personhood or the recent decline of out-in-the-open civility when our sights are set on just making it through another meeting-filled day so we can work toward paying next month’s credit card bill? My friends and family and coworkers all seem tired. We are pushed to do more with less, but I wonder when the cost of trimming fat becomes unhealthy and I wonder when we will realize a need to reprioritize our basic needs.
That little social preamble leads me to this observation. Not too long ago I overheard an interaction with a little boy and his young mother. The boy’s shaggy hair covered his eyebrows and he blew at it to keep it out of his eyes. He grinned when he talked. That grin opened into a bright smile when he skipped up to his mother. He, unlike me, was not burdened with supreme court hearings or tribal politics or the tears of students’ anxiety and distress that spill into my office on a weekly basis.
“You’re not a girl,” his mama said.
“That’s for girls.”
“But it’s pretty.”
“I’m not buying that hat,” she said, “Do you hear me?”
“Girls get to have more fun than boys,” the little boy said without the irony of today’s #metoo framework rattling around in his head. His immediate interest was simple. He liked, for whatever reason, this all too innocuous, even if it was pink, cowboy hat.
His mother snatched the hat from his hand. She leaned down and hissed, “Shut your mouth, son.”
“Shut up. We’re done talking about that hat,” she said. She tossed the hat to the top of a clothes rack and grabbed her son by the upper arm, dragging him from the dressing room.
Girls need all the mobility of today’s social focus. It’s time I stop hearing my students discuss where they keep their pepper sprays and what time of night it’s still safe to go shopping on their own. It is way time for that nonsense to be shelved in a history book. Here’s a thing though. Maybe it’s time we be gentle with our boys too. Our social norms are arbitrary, but we all desire something greater than our own experiences. Let boys be boys and girls be girls in whatever ways they deem okay. Let experience be okay. Even in the classroom, experience might be what a student needs over whatever lesson I deem so important that week.
Let your boys, if they want to crown their shaggy bowl cuts with pink cowboy hats for whatever mysterious reasons, let your boys walk out of a clothing store proudly wearing whatever color of cowboy hat they choose. Let’s not minimize those choices. What could it hurt if we focus on good experience rather than forced expectations? It’s a thought I’m tinkering with that maybe college for some is about repairing hurts and pains from childhood—and maybe that experience is worth having even if it misses the point of earning whatever grade on whatever day.
Let your students be students. They are working on some really tough stuff, the stuff of life. It doesn’t mean just granting everyone a passing grade, but maybe it means realizing when a student just needs someone to support a crazy dream or a silly idea or a pink cowboy hat.
Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else — Gloria Steinem
I love that quote. I never put my feelings into words this way, but it is so appropriate. It is how I always feel when I allow myself to write.
The last few weeks I realized again that daily writing is necessary. Why do I need to re-realize this notion? No idea. I’m dense? Forgetful? Easily distracted? Not only do I allow my subconscious to release its dirty little secrets when I write, which is so very cathartic, but the narrative stays fresh, within reach, and I am excited to see what new characteristics arise, what new plot twist is about to happen every day, what new unknown becomes known.
The problem is the same problem though. Writing is difficult. There are so many nagging excuses. There are so many reasons why I should procrastinate for the day. Once upon a time I wrote from midnight onwards – like a good little night owl.
My new schedule: Wake up. Write.
That’s it. After I can internet, or video game, or god forbid, grade portfolios because if I’m honest with myself, and honestly, I’m way too honest, the writing is my work. It is the work I would always rather do. There is no financial gain now, at this stage, (or probably ever at any stage) but after hours of plotting and keeping up with my wordcount, I feel the sense of accomplishment as if I have put in a good day’s hard labor.
So, write like it’s work. Forget inspiration. If you want to write, write. If you have that great American novel in your head, it doesn’t amount to anything until you get it down on paper, and sadly unless you are Ray Bradbury or Mary Shelley it just doesn’t happen over a long weekend. It happens over the course of many weeks, months, and often years of daily attention.
Now, take this device from me while I go putter in the yard for no good reason at all and stare at the leaves that are describing more perfectly than I could ever put into words what the color green is all about.
The place where one lives permanently especially as a member of a family or household is the definition of home according to uncle google. I think home has been found. My partner and I are pushing two decades together. We moved into and out of many apartments and houses across the years. We embraced this strangely peripatetic lifestyle, moving every year or two, for school then work then school again. Through the moves we found local watering holes and friendships and the quirky inner workings of a city that make so many places special, but we never really settled. From one state to another our moves pushed westward, like so many explorers and travelers before us.
This last August, after driving through the night and humidity of the central mid-west, day broke on a barren landscape. Hues and shades of gray and blue surrounded our U-Haul. The sun didn’t crack through the distant clouds, but the colors of a foreign land bloomed in the early light. The orange of the truck’s paint and the yellow stripes on the road complimented the blue-indigo of our first, western Nebraska sky.
The next few days, weeks, and months filled in quickly. Orientations and classes and students and grading and yet another round of friendship-making swirled into the shape of a fall semester. Winter break blinked away and now another semester is almost at its end. It is the way of things when you move to a new place. Time tends to accelerate. Every day has new experiences and sights and sounds and for some reason time speeds up as we catch up to speed in a new place.
Why does my experience of place matter? It matters because as teachers we are connected to our students and our colleagues for an intense stretch of months at a time. Then, after a break, we do it all over again. And again. And again. Place is more than the backdrop of a town or a region. Place includes the people, so the dictionary’s definition of home seems to balance all the things just right; home is a place where one lives permanently especially as a member of a family. There is no mention of a structure, per se. Home is a place for family.
Higher learning institutions are home to many young people for the first few years of their adult lives, and this home is vibrant and creative. It is combatant and restrictive. It is loving and difficult. It is all these things combined because we humans are emotional beings, and we seek out comfort and place and belonging.
Every time my partner and I move to a new town or state, a part of me misses my students the most. Although we are not quite one year here in Chadron, I feel something new teasing its way into my thoughts.
We’re home, I think.
How unpredictable. How improbable. This frontier and remote place may not be for everyone. The rugged pine ridge and the long flats of grassland reflect temperamental patterns, just like the many members of a family, in a beautiful display of solitude mixed with weather, but it is the people more than the landscape that have got me thinking about being settled, about being home, for the first time in my adult life.
It wasn’t always like this, I tell my students. They know nothing else. Born after 9/11 and during a stretch of unbroken war, my students are inured to school shootings. Like any teacher, I feel a deep connection to my classes. Each student has bright potential and I am privileged to be in the classroom with them. When we talk about gun violence, my voice cracks. It’s hard seeing these sweet faces looking up at me, these young people who impress me every day with their ability and their resilience. We bond in a classroom. We lean on shared experience. Here we are learning from each other, and I am heartbroken.
I have a heartbreak I can’t shake that has been with me since Valentine’s. I can’t shake anymore how normalized these so very not normal events are. I lay awake at night, planning. I plan all sorts of things. I plan what to do with the desks and chairs. I plan which wall I should herd the class onto. I even plan listening for a break in the terror. I plan considering waiting for a reload as a chance to stop bullets from shattering more walls and dreams. Early on as a teacher, I experienced sleepless nights while I planned. I planned free writes. I planned connections to readings, with the hope that even the one student in the far corner would perk up and pay attention. I planned alternative plans for the classroom, just in case I wasn’t speaking the right language at the right time. Now I plan for things I can’t imagine. I plan for events for which I have zero training, for which I want zero training. I would be naïve to ignore these thoughts, but I also don’t want them.
In higher education faculty are, to an extent, replaceable. There are always qualified teachers coming down the pike. As higher education shoulders increasing costs, tough decisions have to be made, and I fear for the future of it all. I fear for our students, for our teachers, and for our institutions. If we live in a time where money can be found to train and arm teachers instead of recruiting and keeping teachers, then we will lose something dear that we may never get back. When I look around my classroom after these events, I know why my voice cracks and why my tears refuse to be suppressed. It’s not the trauma I fear as much as a changing system that continues to miss the point.
Who knows how any of this nonsense ends. I will be two things at once though. I will stay heartbroken for a while, but I will also be resilient because I am surrounded by some of the best examples of toughness. I am speaking about my students, of course. Maybe I am reminding myself that things can be different when I say to them, it wasn’t always like this.
There are two ways to do things, my father always said, the right way and the wrong way. He would then mutter, but there’s only one way to do something right. This muttering usually followed some boneheaded decision of mine. Maybe I painted the south side of the barn in the heat of the day, or I didn’t replace fencing when I knew the old locust post was rotted through and through. Maybe I simply left the lid off the mayonnaise jar, although I placed it back on its shelf in the fridge. There’s only one way to do something right is a mantra that hounded me for years.
I disagree with my father’s assessment. I disagree with all of it. I disagree with the binary first approach. I disagree with the singular obsession that there is only one way to do something. I disagree that doing something “right” is really all that necessary. I mean, yes those locust posts were rotted and the cattle could nudge them sideways in search of greener grasses. Yes, that barn had to be repainted the very next summer. Yes, an unlidded jar of mayonnaise clarifies into some new (and somehow grosser) substance. In the process of realizing why these chores mattered is where I learned something invaluable. Just doing something right for the sake of doing it right left me bored and disinterested and unchanged, but the process to troubleshoot carried over to any problem in my day to day. I’m not a washing machine repairman, but when push comes to shove, I find myself acting like one. I am not a computer programmer, but when my router lights are bright enough to steer an airplane through the dark, I figure out how to write a script that shuts them off.
Here’s the thing. Focusing on writing the right way is an exercise in missing the point. My colleagues across campus sometimes ask, what are you guys teaching over there in the English department? Let me translate that. You should teach more grammar, because our students aren’t writing at the level of our expectations. This sentiment is persistent. It has followed me across five states and four institutions. Here is the thing: 2 + 2 never equals 5. It always equals 4. That logic means the noun sidewalk can never be the verb sidewalked. Fragments never acceptable. Sometimes a fragment is acceptable.
There’s only one way to do something right. Right? Well, it depends.
This week students are conferencing with me. This week they are bringing in rough drafts of their final essay for the semester. This week students are talking to me with a shared vocabulary and a strong sense of where their writing is successful and where it still needs improvement. This week students have more command over the elements and organization of their essays, because fifteen weeks of writing and writing and writing have pushed them to the point where they now are.
This week my students still struggle with all of it. There is room for improvement. The topic sentences can be refined to let the reader have a glimpse of what’s to come. The examples can be unpacked a little more to shed more light on the argument which is so clear in a student’s head, but it is such an unwieldly thing when it’s typed onto a screen.
There isn’t one correct route to success when it comes to writing. Both writing and teaching writing are messy endeavors, because every person carries a different bag of tricks. What’s right for some students is not necessarily what’s right for others. Writing is a thing to be practiced, like a craft. Like pulling a paintbrush across a barn or twisting wire around a cow fence, writing gets better with practice. The mistakes you make along the way are part of the learning process. The mistakes are as important to figuring out how to say something as they are in helping a writer avoid them again in the future.
If I may, I’d like to change my father’s mantra for the students in my writing classroom. I’d like to share it with all those past colleagues who voiced frustrations when all I could think to do was shrug. I’d like to share it with all my students. I’d like to remember it myself. It saved me from all that painting.
There’s only one way to do something: write.
The modular teaching I try and facilitate asks students for constant reflection and the dreaded criticism that accompanies such reflection. If I am honest it asks reflection of me as the teacher as well.
There is a similar aspect to writing. When I finish a project, I regularly experience a feeling of euphoria. I’m a genius! The next morning, after a cursory read to solidify my newfound intellectual status, the feelings of euphoria are beaten back. And quickly. A despair sets camp in my heart, and in my brain, and I realize how worthless I am, and I should stop writing immediately to save everyone the embarrassment of having covered for me all these years.
Reflection points to failure often. It is the truth behind criticism. Without an honest and a critical eye towards improvement, it is difficult to improve. I can’t just pat myself on the back and say, good enough is good enough. I need to prove myself to my colleagues, to my students, to myself.
So goes teaching reflection. Wow, today was a great class! I nailed it. I am getting better at explaining concepts while being that dancing bear in the front of the classroom who keeps students entertained enough to follow the concepts I am breaking down. Then I get back quizzes or essays and I realize what an utter failure I am. Entire elements and whole chapters stay forgotten, and that thing I explained so precisely, while spinning plates in the air standing on one foot, was never mentioned.
The thing is that in both examples there is little failure. Both writing and teaching engage in a process. Learning is a process. Both failure and success exist within the boundaries of process, but we tend to fixate on failure.
Students often fixate on grades. It’s the process that matters though. The problems with the above examples aren’t the self-critical realizations of failure. That’s part of the process. The problems are the pronouns. The pronoun I wormed its way into the first two paragraphs more than twenty times. It’s fine. We can use that pronoun again, even in academic writing, you may be saying to yourself. You bet, but that’s not the problem. Teaching isn’t about what we need from students. Teaching isn’t about how we feel. Teaching is about facilitating the process of learning in a class room setting. The Socratic seminar is a template for teaching that’s been around since, well, Socrates at least. Guiding discussion so that critical self-discovery happens with our students is certainly a process, and it is difficult, but it is not a reflection of us as much as it is our students. We should accept that they, our students, are on a path of discovery, that they are in the middle of process, and that they deserve the time it takes to reach potential. In the very same way we teachers adjust and readjust our expectations, our students exist in this exploratory space where the idea of failure really shouldn’t be the point. The grade isn’t the point. The process of learning, and the fact that we all continue to do it no matter what the activity, should be our focus in education.
Edit: It is the next morning now, and I am a day late already for the submission deadline of this post. This piece of brilliant, late-night writing is terrible. I have failed myself, my colleagues, and my students. What am I trying to say? Why can’t I be more succinct? Why do I, after all these years, complicate such simple ideas and mash them together all the while expecting my students to engage in organized and controlled writing. Writing is messy. If we are honest with ourselves teaching is always messy – this truth may showcase success instead of failure. If we facilitate a focus of process over product then we all succeed because of . . . pronouns? I’ve lost the thread here. I am such a failure, and it feels great! I, just as you, as does everybody (that’s an all-inclusive indefinite pronoun) exist and thrive in the middle of process!
Grading. Grading. Grading.
The greatest frustration I have with teaching isn’t time management, or student interaction, or meetings, meetings, meetings. My greatest frustration is grading. I value giving feedback to every student on every assignment. I think the student feels more empowered to submit assignments when they realize these assignments don’t disappear into a digital void, but this drive to respond—to read and synthesize and respond—to every assignment makes me a little crazy in my brain sometimes. I find myself doing quick math, and I’m an English teacher. I am not a math teacher. It was a calculated decision to veer away from proofs and theorems. My equation goes a little like this every time:
So and so class has 20 students X the 2 assignments I haven’t graded yet X 5-10 minutes per assignment = my escaping sanity.
As much as I adjust my feedback and response style, I always return to this same obsessive feedback loop:
So and so many students X so and so many assignments X so and so many minutes = all the time I do not have.