“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.