Teaching: An Open Forum

11th August 2010

For those of you who don’t know, I quit a decent-paying but utterly soul-draining job a year ago to teach full time at the local university. I had taught night classes for years and finally took the plunge to work as an adjunct instructor. Next week begins the mad dash to the starting lineup that is the fall semester. I’ve been knee-deep, no, nearly waist-deep in educational and quasi-educational tasks this week. Course list? Check. Textbooks? Check. Paper cuts? Check. School supplies? Check. Next week will be worse. My reading time slows to nil right before the semester starts. Actually, let me amend that – my free reading time slows. My academic reading/re-reading/prep reading kicks into full gear.

As an adjunct, I face a number of difficulties: Will my schedule change again? Will any more of my classes get handed to full-time folks? Can I make it between two campuses roughly 35 minutes apart? When will I eat? How will I pay bills if they cut any more classes? Dang, do I really have to pay $56 for a desk copy? And most importantly, where can I find a school bag, not a backpack, that isn’t hideous and with enough pockets for my anal-retentive tendencies? I know, I know. Please don’t virtually slap me.

Well, ok, those are my worries, i.e. concerning me. There are others as well: How can I best interact with these students? Do I use tech? If so, to what extent? Do I create online discussion forums for them? Do I then need to police them? How should I best set the tone of the course? What should I change to reach more students? Should I stand on my head in order to make them notice that hey – I’m up here doing my darndest to get your attention?

Let’s not mince words. I teach freshman and sophomore English classes. Entry-level composition. Students don’t like it. I hope I’ve made it a less painful process for many of them, but that’s only part of my job. I aim to make it applicable, engaging, and enticing as much as possible. There’s still a heck of a lot of stuff to toss at them. Giving each semester an overall arc seems to help; if there is a main focus to the course, it helps me and them. And I do my work – don’t doubt it. My current reading material is Background Readings for Teachers of American Literature by Venetria K. Patton. While I love history, this is not exactly bedtime reading. However, I’ve also got Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates playing in the car. She’s the only person I’ve ever found who can make the Puritans and Pilgrims sound like MTV’s The Real World (the only reality TV show I’ve ever watched). I’ve taught American Literature twice before, but you’d be amazed how quickly the mind forgets. Apparently, my note-taking skills aren’t quite up to par. Notes such as “went from a society based on class to a society based on survival and dependence on one another” are all fine and good but aren’t really what I need. Note to self: enough with the shorthand!

Teaching has changed a lot, and teaching hasn’t changed a lot. An #engchat Twitter conversation yesterday was pretty indicative of that. Some people push teaching composition in modes (argumentation, compare/contrast, cause/effect); others prefer to teach genre and explain modes through that. One particular tweeter/twit/bird (?) kept harping on “community, community” but never really explained what the community was supposed to do. Some require class blogs; others use wikis. There is so much out there, and I feel if I don’t utilize it, I’m cheating my students. Then I tell myself that when I was in school, we didn’t have all that, and I still turned out ok. A good educator is a good educator.

My English teachers in high school were unbelievable, but my all-time favorite was Mrs. Richter. Her class wasn’t simple – far from it. She challenged all of us, but she also treated us as individuals, not just silly 17-year-olds, which we were. I remember I thought one of the coolest things about her was that she played soft music during tests. I hate silence, and that bit of noise was much appreciated. More than that, though, she wasn’t afraid to venture outside her discipline. If she thought a work of art or a piece of music could get the job done, she used it. She is one of the reasons I teach today, and she is the reason I try, always, to test the waters with something new.

My question to you, then, is this: What were your most memorable courses/teachers? What made them/he/she memorable? What approaches in the classroom had an effect on you? Be specific. I want to know. Don’t worry, your answers won’t be graded.

  • I currently have a life force sucking job in corporate America and am unhappy with each day — I might throw caution to the wind and try something new, which is desperately needed. Don’t get me wrong — I love my job to a certain extent, and I love the way the large company I work for feels like they can depend on me, but it is seriously sucking the life force out of me as well and has been for quite a while — needless to say, my husband is looking for a new job that strikes my fancy just as much as I am! I’m not even sure how I ended up in corporate business and meeting rooms, etc., when my degree was in English and Creative Writing, but I digress…

    Granted this was *years* ago, but my most interesting teachers in college (who taught smaller classes, not the lecture halls filled with 300 students) were ones who literally set up the classroom differently versus the traditional desks in a row format — who would have thought putting our desks in a circle or even traipsing outside and sitting on the lawns of the university would have been so much more interesting and kept us all awake when discussing the most boooooring of subjects. One teacher would always play classical music (very softly, of course) during any of our quizzes or exams, which was a relief for several of us who got nervous with intense silence. Who would have thought something as simple as that would have made us less inclined to skip the class.

    I’d also add that it was really more personality of the teacher than the actual subject that made a class interesting – I remember one class in which the professor was so dang cool and was so easy to understand his explanations that reading 16th century poetry suddenly just made sense for all of us. He was down to earth and explained it in common sense, laughing along with us and getting really into the subject — that was a phenomenal class.

    • Yeah – mine had no redeeming qualities other than the paycheck… Corporate America was not for me.

      You know – classroom setup is a big thing for me, too. Unfortunately, a lot of my classrooms have tables bolted to the floors. But I noticed one of my classrooms was intimate (my classes are usually 25-30), and the way the room was set up seemed to have a huge effect on the students. It was great. And yeah, personality is big, but there’s got to be something more.

      That is a great feeling, though, when it’s something you’re not that into and the teach manages to pull you in anyway. Thanks for sharing, Natalie.

  • My favorite teachers have been those who can make material interesting or applicable to my life. One of my favorite profs had a pop culture reference for EVERYTHING: philosophy and lit crit included. She really motivated me and interested me, and really mystified me. I try to emulate her methods to attract my own students, and I throw in a good bit of technology and hands-on exercises, too.

    I’ll be teaching 6+ classes: 5 in person and several online courses.

    • Yeah – I like trying to find off-the-wall connections to help me teach. What sorts of tech do you use? I’m curious.

  • my favorite English teacher, hands down, was in 7th grade. he had us read The Last of the Mohicans, which i would probably struggle through even now, but he made it interesting and exciting, and we didn’t have to watch the movie to get there.

    he just had a way of encouraging us to think critically, of getting us to talk about it, without minimizing the literary aspect of the text. and without making us feel stupid. he knew it would be tough for us and it was, but he kept at it WITH us. i never got the feeling that he taught us, but more that he encouraged us, that we already had it in us to be these high intellectuals. it was just a great feeling to have at 11 years old, or whatever we were then.

    • Wow, lisa, love that. I watched a documentary a few months ago about this teacher who beings Shakespeare and other tough texts into elementary, and the students love it. It’s a great film. Think I blogged about it – I’ll look for the title.

      Definitely have to expect a lot, from myself and my students. I like it when it feels like a peer discussion group as opposed to lecture/discussion.

      Sent from my iPhone

  • My favorite instructor was my journalism teacher, Mr. Newberry, who was funny and laid back. He’d give us an assignment then say we had the rest of the class to work on it: “You can use this time to ask me questions, do research, nap or chat with your friends–I don’t care. Only thing I care about is that on the day it’s due, you all turn in brilliant articles.”

    Being a little nerd, I always took the time to work on my assignment but many of my classmates would sleep or talk. Come due date, some wouldn’t have their articles ready and others would turn in badly researched ones. Mr. Newberry would only say, “I’m disappointed by this article and won’t be running it in the school paper.” He never raised his voice.

    As the semester went on, I noticed fewer people goofing off during class time because they didn’t want to keep disappointing Mr. Newberry. We wanted to please him as if he were a parent. By end of year, everyone was turning in strong pieces, making Mr. Newberry proud and us happy. He was so much more effective than the scary teachers who thought discipline = yelling or threats. I don’t remember having another teacher who inspired such devotion in his students.

    • That’s awesome, Elyse. I had a pretty great (but slightly nutty) journalism instructor. Oh, I wanted to be a journalist badly in those days.

      Wish you lived closer. We could be total nerds together. I’ve been geeking out all day because my diaper-bag-cum-bookbag is here, and I love it! All those organizational pockets. Gah!

      Back to more serious stuff, I do find that my high expectations for my students make them want to jump a little higher (with the exception of those students who are so doped up or cracked out or whatever). Plus, it feels really good to see that investment of my time return in some way. I love teaching so much – I just don’t ever want to get to the point that I’m complacent about it.

      • Oh, you have a new book bag with lots of pockets? I would spend the whole day trying to figure out exactly what to put in it!

        I was a journalist for a brief time right after graduation and it didn’t turn out to be as fulfilling a career as I expected. I was too idealistic, inspired by tales of Woodward & Bernstein, but quickly found that was a bygone era. The place where I worked was more concerned with profits than investigative journalism.

        Passionate teachers like you are the most inspiring. I’ve always had great respect for teachers (there are 3 in my family) but I’ve met ones who are bitter from being underpaid, having obnoxious students, not having enough resources at their schools, etc. These are legit reasons to be bitter but I wondered about their effectiveness if they go to work every day with that attitude.

        • I love All the President’s Men. And the changes were why I eventually changed majors. Everyone was broadcast. Print was already becoming this nebulous idea.

          There are, as I’ve been told by my boss, teachers and educators. Educators don’t do it for the money (though they may complain) and they don’t do it for what it can get them (not a lot). They do it because they literally don’t know what else they’d do. I fought against it and swore I’d never become a teacher (didn’t want to be strapped like the parents and overworked, etc). But when I found it, I found it. No looking back. I know some bitter ones. They think they’re smarter than everyone. They lord it over their students. They treat their students poorly. I always wonder why they are there.

          And last but not least, I do have a new bag. I’ve already stocked it. I’ve already looked at the multiplicity of ways I can pack it for school days. I LOVE IT!

  • Jo

    If you’re still looking for a school bag (and we all KNOW how impossible it is to find one that will actually hold up under all the strain of the massive textbooks and pile of papers), you might want to check out the Pocket Rocket. My roommate got me one for my birthday, and I love it!

    Here’s the link on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Scout-Pocket-Rocket-Outline-Floral/dp/B00385WW8W

    • Jo: Oh my goodness, what a fantastic bag.Thank you so much for sending this. I am holding on to the link. I ended up finding one (I’ll post some pics tomorrow), and it’s a diaper bag. I love it, but whew, it was difficult to find something to work. I mean, do ALL teachers carry a plain canvas bookbag with no pockets? I can’t imagine this is true. We should go into business!

    • Jo: Did you see the Scout bag in Petallica green? LOVE.

      • Jo

        I didn’t see the green one, but I will have to check it out! Mine is actually the black one in the link, and I LOVE it! I don’t understand how there isn’t a bigger business out there that caters just to teachers’ bag needs! And yes, multiple pockets are a MUST.

        • I really can’t understand it, either. I specifically searched for teacher bags. Nada. At least they make cute diaper bags. I love the black one as well; green is just my favorite color!

  • Erma Richter

    Aaawwwww…thanks! ER

    • No – thank you, sincerely. And I had such a ball the other night catching up. We must do that again soon.