Big Day

Mom: do you have any of those old first-day-of-school shots? I’d love to post one here!

I think one reason the first day of school has always been a big deal for me is that my mom always had a tradition of taking a picture of the two of us (my sister and me) on that morning. Every year we held up the number of fingers that corresponded to what grade we were about to enter. For example, six fingers = 6th grade. Traditions die so hard that I couldn’t resist asking the guy at the bus stop this morning to take my photo. I don’t have enough fingers to hold up anymore, but I was still as giddy as I was in elementary school. Also, from what I can tell, I’m still doin’ my mama proud.

Nothing to fear but…

“Always in the big woods when you leave familiar ground and step off alone into a new place there will be, along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread. It is the ancient fear of the unknown, and it is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into. What you are doing is exploring. You are undertaking the first experience of our essential loneliness, for nobody can discover the world for anybody else. It is only after we have discovered it for ourselves that it becomes a common ground and a common bond, and we cease to be alone.” -Wendell Berry

I knew, when I first started teaching, that routine was the enemy of the teacher. Once you’ve memorized your curriculum like a script and recite it year after year, you’re toast– or so they say. I always nodded vigorously to whichever veteran teacher was spouting that sentiment, but secretly, I felt differently. A bigger part of me craved the predictability of a well-worn course. Personally, I was so tired of being terrified at the beginning of every semester. Just as anyone who has waited tables gets the occasional nightmare where you have 50 angry patrons waiting to have their order taken and water glasses filled, so do teachers have similar nightmares: class is about to start, and you’ve got nothing planned; or you have a thousand papers to grade, and grades are due in one hour; or you’re standing in front of the classroom naked and your students are all screaming monkeys… or any combination of these. For those of you unfamiliar with Freud’s basic teachings, these kinds of dreams mean something! And for me it’s fear.

The primary fear is that I won’t do a good job, and that my students won’t learn. Secondarily I guess there is also fear that my students will not like me, or respect me, or think that I have any clue about the subject. And fear requires a lot of energy. It is exhausting. After the first few classes I ever taught I went home drenched in sweat, and with pounding headaches that sent me to bed at four in the afternoon. Is it any wonder that I sometimes wish for an easy, predictable class where every lesson is mapped out and the syllabus is error free? Even if it means a drier, less meaningful experience for my students, can you blame me for wishing for some tried-and-true lecture notes that will enable me to just coast through class for once?

The class I’m teaching this fall starts in a week, and as usual, I’m afraid. But I’m trying to keep a couple things in mind.

One: a colleague at Columbia Gorge Community College where I first taught told me that one of the saving graces of teaching is that you get to start over every term. You may feel that your class bombed, or more likely, that certain things about it weren’t so hot. But after three months, it’s all over; you can wipe the slate clean and with any luck, you can smooth out those wrinkles the next term. I have always appreciated Dan’s reminder about the reprieve of the term’s end: it’s easier to take hard work in small chunks.

Two: the other evening my husband Adam and I were sitting out on the grass in front of our apartment building, having beers and cookies with our neighbor, Mark. A longtime patient advocate in the healthcare industry, Mark was telling us about the binary espoused by healthcare professionals, and readily accepted by patients. In healthcare, there are only two options: health or death. The patient is either cured forever, or she dies. It’s a false dichotomy of course, because sometimes a patient’s disease is terminal (well, strictly speaking, we’re ALL terminal). Is fatality the doctor’s fault in that case? Did she fail for not restoring total health?

This got me thinking about education, and the binary implicit in that field: students (and by extension, teachers) achieve either success or failure. An F means failure, an ineffective assignment means failure, dropping out means failure. No wonder students are afraid of school, and teachers are afraid to teach! I would like to start thinking about success and failure more in terms of a continuum. If I teach a boring lesson, I don’t need to give myself 40 lashes. I should probably also offer the same forgiveness to my students if they write an uninspired paper. Isn’t it odd how few chances we give our students?

So: these are the lessons I’m fortifying myself with as I jump into this semester. First, this term is a new start; in three months, I’ll get another chance. Second, if I (or if my students) screw something up, perhaps this is less a failure than an opportunity. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Building castles in the air

“My whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered that my interruptions were my work.” -as told to Henri Nouwen

“The practice of a healer, therapist, teacher or any helping professional should be directed toward his or herself first, because if the helper is unhappy, he or she cannot help many people.” -Thich Nhat Hanh

I’m going to try to do one of the most difficult things writers do: try to communicate something extremely emotional without spiraling into sentimentality. Forgive me if I don’t succeed. Thanks to two “courses” I took this summer, I’ve undergone a professional and personal transformation, and have to tell you about it.

The University of Maryland Writing Project, which I’ve already alluded to and which was the inspiration for this blog, happened first. During this two week course I worked with five other teachers and three instructors to talk about teaching in general, and teaching writing in particular. Though we did share tips and activities in the form of “Teacher Inquiry Presentations” for our respective “teacher tool boxes,” the course served a much broader and more important purpose: it taught us to be reflective practitioners. I can’t overstate the importance of a teacher’s building reflection systematically into his/her daily work. You may know all the hot activities and all the high-tech bells and whistles, but without an open and reflexive mind, those practical tools will do you no good. As one of my colleagues told me, the Writing Project held a mirror up in front of her face; it did not tell her how to teach. It revealed her true teaching self. And how can you change without genuine self-awareness?

What the UMdWP provided for me mentally and intellectually, the Outward Bound trip gave me bodily, emotionally, spiritually. Outward Bound Baltimore/Philadelphia is lucky enough to receive funding that subsidizes week-long canoe trips for educators each summer. If you are an educator of any kind, you can sign up for this trip and pay only a $250 application fee; the rest of the tuition is waived. (Thank you, Maryland State Department of Education, and whichever other funding agencies make this possible!) What you get in return is a week of canoeing down the Potomac River, camping, three meals a day, and more profound lessons about life and education than a person could ever expect. In case you haven’t gathered, I’d recommend this trip to any teacher.

The UMdWP and the OB courses showed me that teaching and learning is personal, visceral, and emotional. We learn by doing. We learn when we are challenged, and when there is risk. We learn when our teachers are whole, self-actualized people. But as one of my OB instructors warned me, “When you’re on the outside looking in, you can’t understand it. When you’re on the inside looking out, you can’t explain it.” It’s true, I can’t explain how huge this has been. I’m sure you’d think it pretty silly if I told you that carrying a canoe up a hill was one of the greatest accomplishments of my life, or if I told you that I had a lightning bolt of a  revelation one morning on the riverbank that the key to education is compassion. You’ll just have to trust me, and if you want to find your way to being a better person and teacher (these things are not so separate, after all), I hope you’ll seek out one of these experiences for yourself.