Thursday, February 28, 2013

Back to the Board

It feels so lovely to be back in the classroom! Maybe it's because I'm 34 now with a child of my own, but I feel so much more compassion for my students and all their annoying foibles. The arrogant white douche who thinks all Muslims are terrorists, the primadonna princess who rips up her homework because I won't accept late work: these are the kids who used to drive me crazy, keep me up at night wondering how to reach them.

Now they are opportunities to hone my craft. If I can keep the conservative jock from making an enemy out of me, if I can be kind to the spoiled princesses who expect special treatment, then I've succeeded. It's taken me years to realize that teaching does not mean preaching. Whereas I used to feel it was my job to enlighten all the Kool-Aid drinkers, I now accept that people do not shift their worldviews thanks to one clamoring English teacher. Sometimes a subtle nod is more effective than all the gesticulating in the world. More often than not, other students are able to keep their peers in check, as in last night's class when a certain male suggested that women who dress provocatively might be asking to get assaulted and four female hands promptly shot into the air.

The truth is, I  became a teacher because I love performing. Though I have no desire to be on stage acting or singing (God help us!) or even reading my own essays, I absolutely crave the instructor's spotlight. I love leading discussions about literature or effective thesis statements; I thrill at the sight of several hands waving in the air. From the first class I taught at 25, I was hooked.

But like many enthusiastic teachers, I fell into believing that I was going to change the world through my students. I became over-invested in their successes and failures, got stressed when they missed an assignment or didn't do the reading, took personally their rejection of books ("How dare you not love Steinbeck as much as I do!"), spent hours obsessing over the nuances of every class, chastising myself for my limitless shortcomings. 

I wish I could say I'd gotten beyond all that, but the truth, of course, is that just this week I berated myself for finishing class in a rush (oh the horror). On the other hand, I no longer over-plan class. I let my TA review some of their homework, and am even going to let her run a thesis-writing workshop on Monday. I'm learning how to give myself a break.

I may not convince the cocky white guy that racism does indeed still exist in America today. Maybe he has to learn that elsewhere. Maybe it's enough that another student came up to me after class the other day, thrilled that I'd read his essay introduction to the class. No teacher has ever used my writing as an example of something good before, he said to me. I'm proud of myself. Well, I smiled back at him, you should be.