The last time I posted something it was early morning Christmas Eve, and now, it’s almost a month later and the semester is about to start. The last several semesters I have said something like, “I have never begun a semester less prepared,” and that may well be true again. What I have learned in over 40 years of teaching is that all one needs is to be one class ahead of one’s students. This doesn’t mean that I am frivolous about teaching; far from it, I take teaching very seriously, but I do believe that what happens in the classroom is often far more important than what is on the syllabus or on the class schedule. I do not believe, contrary to many who are not educators, that education is a lock-step of learning skills and moving on to the next set.
Education is a messy process. It should be a process of making connections between one’s own life and the world, between one’s own life and the subject matter at hand and connections with teachers and fellow classmates.
When I think of the critical “educational” moments in my life, only a few of them were actually in a classroom. I had kind of drifted through school, hating high school for being boring and unchallenging and wanting and not wanting to leave home. At one point in that process, when I was a senior in high school and desperately afraid that I was too stupid to get into college, I said something to a slightly older girl who was living with my family at that time about how I could just choose not to go to college. She answered me by saying , “but what would you do instead? Would you get a job?” This was a profound realization for me. The idea that I would have to have an alternative plan was shocking. I have no idea why I had kind of assumed I could go on living with my family and not do anything else, but clearly I had made that assumption. Her question brought me up short and made me think about what I actually would do. I chose to go to college.
Another critical moment in my education occurred when I had to make a decision about what to major in at the end of my sophomore year in college. I thought I wanted to be a dance major, but I really, in my heart of hearts, knew I was not a good enough dancer to be accepted into the dance department as a major. I had a long conversation with the head of dance department in which I spelled out my plan to study dance for a year in New York City and then return to college as a dance major. He told me it was a good plan and then said, very sweetly, “ but it is Ok to change your mind.” He went on to talk about someone who had wanted to be a dance major but had gone off to study in New York and had come back to college as an English major. While I scoffed at his advice at the time, it was one of the most valuable pieces of advice I have ever gotten. “It is Ok to change your mind.” I did change my mind.
One more critical moment occurred after I had returned to college. (Not the same school where I wanted to be a dance major, but several years later, after I was married and returning as a twenty-two –year –old undergrad.) I got my grades in the mail for the first quarter in this new school and I had an A for a course. I had never had an A for a college course before. I looked at the grade and then I thought about what I had done. I had gone to class every day. I had not missed one class. I had done all the work and had been engaged in the material. A light bulb went on in my head, and I realized that doing well only took a few things; going to class and doing the work and being engaged in the subject matter. After that I got a lot of A’s in my last two years of college.
So, as a teacher, I am prepared enough. I know my material. I know how to present literature to a group of undergrads, but I also know that what I do on any given day in the classroom will be less important than those conversations they will have in my office, or with their fellow classmates. It is not a lock-step, “learn the right answer” process, it is a messy, often murky affair that will take trial and error and steps forward and back for our students. I will possibly help some students flick the necessary switches and I may see the lights come on for some, but I also know that I will not be the right person at the right time for others. I plan on having some very interesting classroom discussions this semester, but I do not assume that those discussions will necessarily make a huge difference in any one student’s life. Teaching can be humbling that way.