10 Lessons I Learned from Teaching

English: Sahab Library

English: Sahab Library (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s five days until Christmas, and while most people are thinking of presents and family, I’m rejoicing that my finals grades are in!

This semester was both the hardest and most rewarding for me. I taught five classes at two different colleges. It was a juggling act, and the past four months have felt like a crash course in time management and interpersonal relations. Now that I can look back in retrospect, it was totally worth it (in fact, I’m teaching five courses again next semester).

As with all experiences, I’ve learned a lot this semester, which marks my year and a half of teaching.  Here are the top points:

1. Be specific – Students forget things. Students can be dense. And you have to remember that this is, most likely, not a student’s only class.  There’s a lot to keep track of for both you and your lovely horde of 18 year olds, so make it easier on yourself and be specific. Let them know exactly what’s expected. If they break the rules, most will be good at admitting it. And be prepared to repeat yourself…a lot.

2. Know your students and yourself – One of my main goals at the beginning of the semester is to get every one of my student’s names down.  Knowing them makes students feel like you care (and makes it easier to call them out when they’re being silly 😉 ). As the semester goes on, you also get to know your students, their limits, and your limits. You’ll know which students try to get away with murder and which are just having a bad week. And you know when you just can’t accept another late paper because if you have to grade one more grammar-mistake-riddled assignment, you might just run screaming from the building.

3. It’s not you, it’s…no, it’s you – Some students (no matter how hard you try) just won’t give a shit.  Don’t take it personally. Pour your heart and resources into those who do care and who will listen to you.

4. Sometimes, you just have to commiserate – This might sound callous, but after a hard day of not one student listening/understanding you or a lesson plan flopping or a hard night of grading, you just need to sit in the teacher’s lounge and blow off some steam with colleagues. Sometimes, those you teach with turn out to be the best therapists and problem solvers.

5. Most likely, you study harder than quite a few of your students – I know I do. And it gets frustrating. “You mean I spent three hours prepping for this lesson with an additional three hours to catch up on grading, and you didn’t even take fifteen minutes to read the three-page essay for today?” Yeah, it happens. But you keep on trying your best. (See point 3).

English: The main reading romm of Graz Univers...

6. No one told me there’d be a paper party – I knew there’d be lesson planning and grading, but paperwork? I find myself constantly putting reams of forms in the “interoffice mail” bin. Am I exaggerating? Perhaps. Will my description feel spot on if you are a teacher? Yes.

7. No one gets into teaching for the grading – I love being in front of the classroom. I love hearing what my students have to say. I even (usually) love reading what they have to say. But evaluating it all? Not so much. Though I do have to say that www.engrade.com makes my life infinitely easier by calculating all my grades. It’s a wonderful free resource (Hint for all my fellow teachers!). Hey, I’m an English professor. You do the math 😉

8. Teaching is like a zombie (it wants your brains) – Hours of lesson planning and grading can be all consuming. You will emerge from a long night of this and only be able to communicate using unintelligible grunts. Which brings me to number 9…

9. Be kind to yourself – Not all classes will be winners (i’m speaking of lesson plans here, not students). Some days, it will feel like all the work you are putting in is futile. Don’t beat yourself up, and, most importantly, take “you” time (because you will get burnt out). Take a weeknight or a weekend for yourself. Put the folder of papers and stacks of books away, get a bowl of ice cream, and marathon your favorite show (if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, go outside, see the sun, and, perhaps, even have a drink or two). Students can wait another few days to get a paper back. They really won’t mind, and they’ll appreciate having a well-rested, good-humored professor to show for it.

10. You get around to some students, even if it takes a while – I know I’ve griped quite a bit about students not listening or turning in assignments late. Every job has it’s rough moments. I got into teaching because I love it. I love diving into literature texts and discussing the serial comma. I love having discussions and answering students’ questions.

I love it even more when students answer each other’s questions, showing me that they “get” it. I love it even more when a student who only wrote in sentence fragments at the beginning of the semester can now making a cohesive argument. I love it even more when I get an e-mail from a student telling me that I made English bearable and even a little fun. That is why I do what I do—for even, just a moment, to show them the power of the written word. It sounds like some idealistic notion out of a work of fiction, but it does happen…and, for me, it makes the journey worth it.

If you teach, what wisdom do you have to share?  If you are (or have been) a student, what do you wish teachers knew?

Poetry Monday – Taylor Mali

Thanks for joining me once again for Poetry Monday!  This week I submit final grades for my five courses.  So in the spirit of learning and lauding teachers for their hard work, I’m reading Taylor Mali’s “What Teachers Make” from his book “What Learning Leaves.”  Enjoy!

What I Learned at the Dodge Festival

courtesy of newsworks.org

Exactly two weeks ago, I attended the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, NJ. For those of you who may not be familiar with the festival, it is a four-day extravaganza for lovers of poetry complete with readings and panels led by some of today’s most outstanding poets.  For the past two festivals (it is held biannually), it has been held in the NJPAC center (and surrounding buildings) in Newark.

A few days after the festival, my friend, Lynne, posted a lovely article about what she took away from all of the panels and readings she attended.  This inspired me to write a similar post.  There were so many events I wish I could have triplicated (two of me would not have been enough!) myself.  But the events I did attend were stunning. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Jane Hirshfield from her poem “Vinegar and Oil:”  “Wrong solitude vinegars the soul,/ right solitude oils it.”
  • Taylor Mali from his poem “Undivided Attention:”  “Let me teach like the first snow, falling.”
  • Dan Bellm, speaking of reading poetry aloud: “[The poem is] not done, in a way, before it’s spoken, given away.”
  • Thomas Lux, speaking of those who write hard to understand poems on purpose: “[Writing obscure poems on purpose] is a kind of pre-suicide, a kind of not wanting to be.”
  • Phil Levine on permission to write about any subject you want: “You don’t need permission to write about life on Mars. You can do whatever the hell your imagination is gifted with.”
  • Eavan Boland: “The art of self-expression is not hard…There is no art without self expression.”
  • Dorianne Laux: “This form, this genre, was made for working people.”

Lots of little gems here!  I hope you find some inspiration among them.

What about you? Are there any quotes from authors you admire that have stuck with you?