Sunday, January 23, 2011

Teaching teaches me...

I am fortunate, in that I get the opportunity (when I'm not recovering from surgery) to stand in front of college students and share what I know.  I teach at an Art College and so all of my students are "creative" types in one way or another.  My job is to develop the other part of their brains--the analytical part.  Typically, I teach a class (mostly of newer students--ages ranging from 18-68) called Information Literacy.  It is about 20% basic competence in Microsoft Word programs, 40% Research and Presentation skills and 40% Critical Thinking skills.  I also teach one Bachelor's level class every term, typically Political Science or Ethics.

When I was first approached about teaching the Info Lit classes, I was resistant because I am not really that much into computers.  However, once I saw the structure, textbook and possibilities--my hesitation melted away and it has become one of my most treasured times in the classroom.  The students come...minds exploding with dreams of success, of originality, of their own ability to pursue something typically discouraged. 

The first day of class I explain there are different types of thinking and my job is to sharpen their other skills...teach them how to build an argument, sell an idea, become better humans in the process.  I suppose I see it as a grand opportunity to reach in when they are eager and grab hold of the enthusiasm and direct it toward purpose.  This is also when I start using the Law and Order sound to illustrate how critical thinking, basic competence in computer skills & research is all used in the show to catch the bad guy. 

There are always students who don't think they need the class, those who are there (in school) for reasons other than for their own, those for whom attendance and attention are always optional.  Many teachers write these students off by the end of the 2nd week.  My feeling is that each class is a ship and I am the captain.  Each failure is my responsibility (as well as the responsibility of the student) and my job is to get everyone back to shore safely and better equipped to deal with future adventures.  I don't ignore these half-students, I zero in on them.  I learn their names and "stalk" them to get back to my class and do their best.

There are students who are internally motivated.  They require very little from me personally--they just expect to get what they are paying for and not be bored to tears.  I think I can say from reading reviews for years that the one thing I am not is boring.  However, there is a tendency to favor them (as they are always the ones participating with hands in the air.)  I know all teachers struggle with this.

Then there is the vast middle--those unsure of themselves and why they are sitting in front of you.  They don't feel completely confident in their academic abilities and sometimes they are so overwhelmed with the pressures on their lives that they can't quite jump in with both feet.  These students are the ones I've learned need the most attention.

I make a covenant with them to learn all their names by week 2.  I teach over a hundred students a week, so this is no small task.  I speak to them when I see them and use their names every time I can to help myself.  I also make sure they know who I am, where I come from and why I deserve to be their teacher.  I let them know that if they act like adults, I treat them as adults.  I am tough, but fair.  My number one lesson is that they must treat college (particularly a college that is focused on an accelerated program toward a career) as a job they want to keep.  If they communicate with me--I will bend like a pretzel to work with them--no matter what obstacles come up during the class.  If they don't communicate...I will still "stalk" them, but I will not just pass them through.  The skills I am teaching are absolutely necessary to success in each class ahead of them, their future careers and to become better citizens, parents and/or people in their personal life.

My favorite part of the class is introducing the concept of fallacies to them.  I use boxing metaphors and talk about hitting below the belt.  We look at media, advertising, politics, etc to find an endless stream of deceptions--some intentional, some unintentional.  We talk about fallacies that we ourselves are comfortable using in our personal lives...I often use myself as an example of certain behaviors that are meant to shield me and deflect blame.  Every single time I admit these character flaws (or whatever you prefer to call them) I call them to my own attention and thus bind myself further to their elimination or at least their lessening.  We talk about red flags and learning how to prove your case.   It is the closest place I'll ever get to fulfilling my childhood dream of being a lawyer. 

What the students teach me is that my first impressions of them are often wrong.  They teach me that they are capable of turning around a precarious situation (like failing) into a class that does become foundational to them.  They teach me that the basics are beyond necessary, they are critical for further development.  Learning how to analyze, eliminate things that don't belong or don't have sufficient evidence, elevating their radar to become aware of how deception works and how honest people go forth in the world--and WHY IT MATTERS is so satisfying to me. 

I am a bit of a manic teacher.  I move around the room a lot.  Sometimes I use crazy voices or dance or sing.  I am quick to make them laugh and try to use new media to meet them where they are....(lessons I learned being a Social Worker).  I am not the most organized and this is something that they teach me I need to keep working on...

They also teach me that my teaching style doesn't appeal to everyone and that is ok.  I don't make things too easy for them and every single term I learn from one students how to better adjust to where they are and reach them there.  I learn that not everyone of them will pass and some will see me again in the same class the next term.  There is no need to take it personally and so I try to make it a point to not be upset with them that they fell overboard the last time out--in fact I speak with them individually to make sure they know my intention to make sure they make it through this time out. 

They teach me that sometimes I think I'm communicating well, but I'm not clear enough--and lots of times I talk too fast.  I encourage them to complain to me (whether it is about me, the class or whatever) so that their experience doesn't just become fodder for the smoking area outside the school.  In my world, a complain is a gift--an opportunity to improve what I do.

It teaches me patience (which is something I definitely don't have an abundance of), humility and reminds me that I (as are they) am still a work in progress.  There is no point where you stop and are done.  Learning is and has been the salvation of my life and I hope the students feel that passion from me every day. 

I never took one class on how to be an educator.  It was never on my radar. I came to teaching by a series of random events.  I was doing a poetry reading at Malaprop's in Asheville, NC for my self-published book called Testament and there just happened to be someone from the local community college in the audience.  She came to me afterwards and asked if I'd ever taught a class before...I told her I'd been a mental health counselor for twelve years and had taught alcohol and drug education, sex ed to teens & classes on re-entering the world to felons about to get out of prison.  Her name was Brenda and she offered me a job teaching Creative Writing to continuing ed students (adults) on the spot.  After the first time I taught a class, I was up half the night on the rush.  It was the culmination of everything that I love and had been doing for pay and not for pay for a decade.  It was a stage, it was a challenge, it was the opportunity to push the edges and entertain people while they learn.  Plus, it didn't require me to spend thirty minutes going through steel doors to get to my office deep inside a prison (BONUS!!!)

I tell my students this story the first day for a few remind them that every encounter they have can have a major impact on how their lives develop--so they always need to be ready to impress.  They need to know that life doesn't work like a to-do list--no matter how well you construct goals, life takes turns you cannot see and you must always follow (whether is always pays or not) their passions because everything they do to build themselves will eventually find an outlet.  I tell them because I want them to know that even though I have two Bachelor's degrees (Human Services and Political Science, with a minor in English) and a Master's degree in Theology--I am doing now what I feel I was always meant to do.  I couldn't have predicted how I ended up in the right place.  I just always did what I felt pulled to do.

They remind me that I'm not done and that sometimes I'm wrong.  This is the greatest gift of all.

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