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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

This is why I teach

So, forget all my whining and complaining yesterday. Today, I got the perfect, beautiful example of why I teach: why I love it, why it's worth it.

A student in the SF class has been trying to meet with me for a while: she'd received an "early warning" because in the first few weeks, she wasn't turning in work. She e-mailed me a day on Monday, I think, saying that she'd been in Advisement, that they'd mentioned I also worked in Advisement, she didn't know whether she should meet with me there or here in my office... I told her that it wouldn't be appropriate for me to take time in Advisement to talk with her about the specifics of her concerns in my class but that I'd be glad to meet with her if we could find a time. We were both free today at 2, so that's what we set up.

When I was in Advisement, the new head of the division asked me about this student and said that she'd been crying about the class, very upset--which worried me, as since the early warning, I thought the student was doing OK.

In any event, we met in my office. And she did cry--but not just because of my class. She's taking six courses, mostly gut courses, and she needs them all because she needs to graduate in December so she can get a scholarship at the school she is transferring to in the spring: without the AA degree, she doesn't get the money. And she works. And she's always been a slow reader: she's an auditory processor, so reading is simply difficult for her--and all her courses require a lot of reading.

We talked and talked and talked. I empathized. I looked for solutions, trying to find ways for her to free up some time so she'd have more room for study. She has been listening to the books on audiotape as she reads, and I'm all for that: it's helping her stay caught up, and that's great. But the thing that really got to me was when we talked about her reading responses. Because she struggles with reading, she also has a very hard time knowing what to mark in the text--and what to say about it if she does mark it. So we looked at her latest response, and we talked about what she could have done to make it better.

Ultimately, I said, "I think what's happening is that you doubt yourself. You've been trained for years that if you take a risk, you'll be punished, so you're afraid to take a risk--and now I'm telling you that you have to take risks." I went on to say that, as we talked about what she could put in her response, she had ideas--and they were her ideas: they were in her head, and she said, "Yeah, but I'm afraid that I'll put something down and it will be wrong." I said, "Exactly: you're afraid you'll be punished for taking the risk. But go ahead and be wrong! I promise you, I will not punish you for taking risks. I will not punish you for being wrong. We have to be wrong in order to learn to be right. You're going to have to start by trusting me, by trusting that I won't punish you for trying--but I hope, by December, that you'll start trusting yourself a little bit."

She hadn't been crying, but she teared up again at that. I don't think anyone has ever offered her the assurance that it's OK to make mistakes in order to learn, but I am offering her a gold-plated guarantee: I will not punish her for trying. I will not give her bad grades for taking those leaps. In fact, I'm standing here, on the other side of a ravine she has to jump across, and I know she can jump it--and I have my arms out to catch her to make sure she does.

I am not, of course, such a starry-eyed optimist that I think she'll turn out to be a stellar student. I don't. She's going to struggle and strain in order to produce work that is OK. But she isn't even sure she can produce work that is OK--and that much, I know she can do. She has to make the effort, and the one piece of all this that's still an open question is whether she will, in fact, trust me--and herself--enough to make the necessary leap. If she doesn't, she won't make it, and there won't be a damned thing I can do to help. But if she does make the leap, she'll be fine.

I don't want to sound ridiculous here, but I truly do feel an enormous sense of power, as if I had miraculous abilities. And all I'm doing is being a teacher. That's it. But that ain't nothing, y'all. That's pretty fucking awesome, when it works.

I was prepared for today's 101 to be a debacle, but we ended up in a pretty intense conversation about the connection between food production and the environment and our health, and I loved that we could just bat ideas around, talk, think, share ideas. We don't do enough of that. It's good to do.

And at the end of class, as I collected their preliminary versions of their next papers, I handed back their final versions of the first one--and one student was furious with himself for having forgotten the upload to Turnitin.com. One young woman got a note from me that--since I never got a hard copy of the paper from her--her grade for the assignment was a zero. She's now in a hole I don't think she can get out of. But we'll see how things turn out. Mostly it feels good to have a much smaller, more manageable stack of stuff in my hands from that class.

I also managed to mark all the homework for the lit electives that I've been collecting--several classes worth for M&D in particular--and I've given it to the subs to return to students tomorrow. Of course, that still leaves the big papers to grade. There are a shit-load of them, and I do need to get them back to the students ASAP so there's time for revisions before the next paper is due. I keep going back and forth on what to do, but I'm going to pull the trigger here and say, OK, yes: I've decided to take about five papers from each class with me when I leave tonight, along with the rubric sheets and all the info about various penalties. I will carry all that with me on my trip. If I'm smart--and disciplined and all those things that the judgmental voice in my head tells me I'm not--I'll get them marked while I'm away so I have fewer staring me in the face when I get back. If I don't do them, well, I'll just have one hell of a rough week ahead of me next week, and will have to adjust due dates as necessary. There are always ways to sorta-kinda make things work. Or work well enough.

Now, however, I do need to get home and get ready to go. Part of me still very much wants to cancel the whole thing, but no: I'll go. And I'll do my best to enjoy being away and not to feel as if having some work with me is any sort of taint on the experience of looking out over a lake while I do ... whatever.

No blog posts in the meanwhile, however, so signing off until Tuesday, I remain, yours etc.

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