Classrooms are organic entities. Each class session contributes in some small way to negative or positive momentum.
This fall my first year writing seminar titled “Teaching’s Challenges and Rewards” began positively and then got better and better. It was a great group of young adults who got to know one another during orientation. From the beginning they decided to give my more student-centered course design and informality the benefit of the doubt.
I lead discussions one and two, and then they paired up and took turns co-leading discussions three through ten. The first pair did a great job preparing their guide, facilitating the discussion, and setting the bar high. Afterwards, I detailed exactly what they had done so well thus nudging the bar even higher. And during that first discussion I purposely sat on the floor, out of sight of most of them, to ensure it would truly be their discussion.
Did their writing improve? For the most part yes as they’re in the process of detailing in their final papers.
One of the students was a Portland hipster who was committed to becoming a nurse. I liked her a lot. Mid-semester she confided in us that she spent a lot of her senior year in high school hiking in and around Portland. She was personable, a thinker, and always had nice insights.
A few weeks ago, after class, she asked if she could talk to me. Turns out she was troubled because the course content had gotten under skin. Now she explained, “I think I want to teach secondary science more than I want to become a nurse.” I told her she had time to learn more about both and that it was a win-win situation, she’d be a great nurse or teacher, both important, selfless professions. Complicating her future was rewarding.
The students’ final papers are trickling into my inbox. Several have added notes like this most recent one, “Thank you for teaching such a wonderful class in my first semester at college! I really enjoyed my time, and I look forward to the next three and a half years I get to spend at this university. This was a very interesting intro class and you were a very good professor to have! I appreciate all of your hard work!”
That’s not meant to be self-congratulatory. I share it knowing I can’t take much credit for the course’s success. It was a great course mostly because they always came prepared, they interacted thoughtfully with one another, and they worked hard on all of their papers. There wouldn’t have been a whole lot I could have done if they came unprepared, refused to engage one another, and threw their papers together at the last minute. If this sample of young people is any indication, I’m happy to report the world is not going to hell in a handbasket.
I also share it to highlight how much easier it is to teach adults. It’s rare for elementary, middle, and high school students to write or tell their teachers how much they appreciate them. That’s why K-12 teachers deserve much, much more of the public’s respect. Instead of scapegoating them for a litany of social and economic problems over which they have little to no control, we should compensate for their students’ who too often take them for granted by acknowledging the importance of their work, tangibly honoring it, and making sure they know they’re appreciated.