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.