For the first few months after I left teaching, my brain was busy trying to make sense out of a 30+ year career that had ended. I wrote about it (big surprise), a small text dump of philosophy and experiences. A blog reader here on WP suggested I post on Medium. I found myself part of a “magazine” — The Synapse — dedicated to teaching.
One of my pieces, “Student Centered vs. Teacher Center Learning” has been read by thousands of people, mostly young teachers. They’re highlighting passages, clapping for the content, following me. It makes me so so happy to have said something useful — after all — and helpful, for the ones just walking into the classroom now as teachers.
Another thing that’s happened related to teaching since I left, the Youtube videos I posted for my students (and never took down) are helping students today. Once in a while I get a comment thanking me. “That was the clearest explanation of the thesis statement ever. Thank you Mrs. Kennedy.”
I don’t think of myself as a teacher any more. I’ve also realized it was a way to make a living and I enjoyed it, mostly. It was NOT the grand “vocation” I often believed it to be back in the day. It seems to have been a long, long time ago that I was teaching, though it was only 3 years. But when I learn that something I’ve written has helped a young teacher or a kid in an English class, I feel warm inside.
Funny, after I saw today’s prompt, the word “educate,” I began to feel kind of sick. I (of course) flashed back to 38 years in the classroom and saw, again, how much I don’t want to go back there.
I read an article today by a woman who is teaching university geology. It ends with the same panacea we have all offered ourselves (usually successfully) “If I reach one student…”
By the time I left teaching, 2014, it was not the same profession I entered in the 70s. Students were different. They expected nothing from school. It was something they had to endure before they could enter “real life” (which they would be great at because their parents had always told them there was nothing they could not do). The teacher had gone from being a person who was there to help them learn to someone (a comparatively stupid someone who could be cowed by helicopter parents) in conspiracy against them. I can only imagine how it is in giant lecture classes where a teacher can’t get the students actively doing something for the 50 minutes or so. But the problems with teaching were not just students who weren’t prepared, not even those who were physically aggressive, or the parents who were demanding and nasty — administration was yet one more egregious layer on what had become a nightmare.
One of the last (good) classes I taught was a writing class. It was semi-remedial at a community college. Students got college credit for it but it was not a transfer-level class. We met twice a week for four hours. Writing is not something you can teach top down; it’s not an information based subject. It’s a subject students have to practice to learn. My many, many, many, many years of teaching writing at this level had shown me that students at that point needed to learn to write in a very basic way; sentence to paragraph, paragraph to essay. Fine. I didn’t mind teaching that. Tangled up with that were words. Good. I like words.
That particular class was a hodgepodge of nationalities, ages, backgrounds. The oldest student was in her mid-fifties; her native language Spanish; she had a Masters Degree from a university in Mexico City — typical community college group. I decided the best way to approach them was to regard the four hours as a writing lab. I introduced, I lectured, they tried, they revised, I helped, they revised, they went home and finished and the next day we met they handed me a finished essay. 98% of the work was done in class. Why?
Anyone who is in that level is afraid to write for one reason or another — they’ve tried and failed. They have a learning disability. English is not their first language. Having the teacher there during MOST of the work was a huge help to them morally and actually. And they read each others work as they went along.
I left them to themselves to sort out their use of the 4 hours. Some had to go pick up a kid or two at day care and take them to grandma’s in the middle. No problem for me. Some were restless thinkers who got up and left and came back. Some needed a cigarette. Some liked to talk things over with a classmate. My rule was no phones — except for the moms. The class worked great, but it looked chaotic.
I was observed by the dean. She said she’d never seen such a poorly managed classroom in her life.
I sat back in my chair and listened to her litany of criticisms. I didn’t even think she was a bitch. I just thought she was clueless.
For some reason I decided to fight back. I asked her, “Have you ever taught writing? Have you ever taught a class that people did not want to take? Have you ever taught a four hour class?” No, no, no. I told the dean the whys and wherefores of the class and why I had managed it as I had. I explained the difference between what she taught — lecture classes in dental hygiene — and what I taught. I told her about the individual students who’d come in with mechanical problems related to their lives (daycare, etc.), those who had learning disabilities, those for whom English was FAR from a first language, the one who had serious PTSD. I said to her, “These are people, individuals, and some how I have to take them from where they entered my classroom in January to a place where they can join more mainstream students and succeed. Learning to write is nothing but a tool for doing that.”
I, on the other hand, had seen incredible progress with those students. They were going into the next class — Freshman Comp — MORE than ready. They could bang out the ever necessary 5 paragraph essay like nobody’s business. They understood the perils of the thesaurus. They eschewed cliches. They knew how to cite sources and integrate quotations. They understood the rhetorical terms like “compare/contrast,” “descriptive,” “first person,” “thesis statement,” “argument,” “persuasion.” And they had learned how to go to college — some of them entering that classroom had NO idea. The chaos the dean observed at the END of the semester was NOTHING compared to the chaos at the beginning.
She ended up giving me a good eval, a fantastic eval, actually.
But…when I was to meet with the dean of the college over my evals, the guy forgot our appointment at 5 pm. I was left in a dark little room waiting for an hour and a half after I’d already taught six classes, beginning at 7 am. The secretary called him and then asked if I’d like him to come down or if I’d like to come back. Since getting there was a 50 mile drive from my house and 30 miles from everywhere else I ever was, I said I’d wait.
I was angry. I held inside more than 30 years of anger at all the bullshit a lecturer must go through to work in higher education. I don’t want to enumerate the bullshit. You can probably extrapolate from these two examples.
So he arrived. He met with me for 10 minutes. Said I was qualified to come back and work for them again (ever mind that I had already worked for that college for 10 years — and had taken a hiatus of five while I taught at geographically more convenient colleges).
So the word “educate” for me, this morning, was like a waving flag in front of the face of a bull. (BTW, it doesn’t have to be red; red just plays better for the crowd.)
Teaching is a joke. Teachers are tools. The pay is awful. The lack of respect is worse. The last 20 years of government interference and the emphasis on testing has caused serious harm. The fact that students believe (and maybe they’re right) they can learn more from Google than from a teacher is awful. I was conned over and over by the “I’ve learned more from you than anyone in my life” “This is the only good class I’ve taken at this college” — if I’d been paying attention I would have thought, “Wait, that’s just ONE kid.”
But the ultimate con, “If you reach one student, you’ve succeeded” is tattooed on the inside of every teachers’ eyelids. Mine too.
I wish I had my life back. I’d have taken that job with Boojum Adventures and led guided horseback tours of Mongolia instead. Yeah. I was offered that back in 1985. 😦
“Well, some animals can’t ‘amble’. A snake, for instance, or an ant. It’s a kind of walking that’s slow and loose and hasn’t got any destination, necessarily. Some animals often amble — like a giraffe, a horse, a cow. A sheep could, but probably doesn’t.”
“Why snake can’t amble?”
“C’mon Rahim, that’s just silly. You can figure that out.”
“Rahim, a snake can’t walk,” whispers helpful Korean girl.
“Oh, right. My bad! But ant can walk. Why can’t ant amble?”
“It’s not their nature. They have these little short legs, they move very fast all the time and they always have a reason to go somewhere.”
I wonder if everyone who retires from a consuming and intense career that they love needs a lot of time, not just to deal with the big change retirement involves, but to fully understand what they did for however long they did it.
I taught words, writing, ultimately, mostly freshman composition, but that isn’t all I taught. My career — once I left grad school — was first as a teacher of English as a second language.
Most teachers who taught ESL back in the beginnings of the profession (where I joined it in the early 1980s) were linguistics majors, very different from what I was, a literature major. My perspective on language was different. Linguists study the language per se, and I had studied how people used the language to express meaning to others.
I still think that’s what language is for.
I did this for almost 15 years, and I taught every language skill — reading, listening, writing, grammar, conversation — to international students from all over the world, but I did not fit in with my colleagues and, ultimately, as the field grew into a “field” and there were advance degrees offered in Teaching English as a Second Language, I was pushed out.
That was fine with me. I was ready to move on, and I did; I made a transition to teaching native speakers. It was a fun transition because, for a while, I had a foot in two worlds. I taught after-work classes in San Ysidro, a town on the border of Mexico, to adults, Mexicans, and I loved it. In the early mornings, I taught freshman comp. During the day I continued to labor at my day job at the international school until I had enough hours at local community colleges to fill the mosaic of financial necessity.
Last night, as I watched the ending of the 2000 film, Longitude, I realized what I did for 35 years.
I taught ONE thing.
I taught Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Often I taught it directly — and other times I taught it indirectly. It was the reason I was in front of the classroom. Last night, watching Longitude, listening to the character of John Harrison make, as an old man, his very impassioned plea to a panel of academics who had no idea what a “simple” mechanic was doing or what it meant, I heard myself. I heard words I never said to the people I worked for. In case you don’t know the story, John Harrison was an 18th century carpenter and clock maker who developed — and built — a clock that would work at sea and establish accurate lontitude.
The question in life that is most important — to me — is “What’s real, anyway?” This is not a literary question. In a sense, it is a science question. It was the question perplexing pre-longitude mariners, phrased as, “Where ARE we REALLY?” John Harrison was involved in a competition with astronomers. His continual fight was between his very practical and universal chronometer that could answer that question vs. what the astronomers BELIEVED to be real (but wasn’t).
That is the question of The Allegory of the Cave. It can take a lifetime even to get a glimmering of reality which is objective, does not depend on personal preference or opinion, but is the truth. I love that question.
I believed that a good teacher was a teacher who loved teaching. I did. I believed (still believe) in the power of inspiration — my inspiration and the power to inspire my students. As a teacher, I questioned the value of discipline when there was no inspiration, no reason behind the practice. (For me, beauty was reason enough, but it is not for everyone.) I believed that in my classroom, my students should be encouraged to seek their own reasons for learning. I believed that anything else is the donkey chasing the carrot.
Last night, watching this film, I thought of all the times I argued with students who worked only for a grade. I thought of the times I drew the donkey on the board and said, “Is this you? If is is, is it all right with you?”
And heard, “You ought to be an artist, professor!”
I thought I was.
I thought of the times I was really teaching The Allegory of the Cave and saw my students become excited by ideas that are thousands of years old. I thought of the kid who carried me out of the classroom while we were dramatizing the dialogue, he was that involved. We were at the part where Socrates said, “They must be carried or dragged out of the cave against their will.” I was playing the part of a prisoner, fastened to a wall, unable to turn my head.
I thought of how the light DOES hurt. I saw the struggles I had with students over the years who were uncomfortable because of where they were going, what they were asking and how it shook their perspective of the world. This happened more and more toward the end of my career when their pre-college/pre-university schooling had not prepared my students to yearn for a challenge. “I don’t know why I should work this hard. I don’t want to risk the carrot. I don’t want to hurt like this. I am afraid.”
(I also thought about how hurt and frightened I was when I thought I might be finished teaching, I thought of how reluctantly I had reached that understanding and how it was not until I had no choice that I saw how great it was to be finished. With or without a broken heart. It was time. )
I thought of the many students who loved The Allegory of the Cave. I recited their names to myself last night and tried to remember their faces. I thought about experiences we had shared, and I felt wonderful.
Then I wondered why I had cared so much about the question. It wasn’t really the easy way to go as a teacher, and I was constantly the rope in a tug-o-war between bosses who thought I was god’s gift to teaching and bosses who thought I was insane. I realized it’s because of what I was teaching and who I am. I was a writer teaching writing, not an academic teaching formulas, systems and rhetoric of how to write.
It’s not the same. I saw that for me writing could never be just just a matter of a five paragraph essay and perfect grammar. It’s sitting down in with one’s own ideas and learning if they are shadows or light. It was — is — running into the cave to get the people out.
As many people know, I was once an English teacher. I taught composition, critical thinking and business communication. Once in a GREAT WHILE (like twice in two decades) I was “allowed” to teach summer literature. I spent 35 years of my life reading student papers. What’s more (and possibly strange) I liked it. I liked teaching post-adolescents and I never got tired of it. Everything I ended up hating about “teaching” really had little to do with teaching or students.
There is a thing about college freshmen and sophomores, it’s a good thing, but it’s also challenging, funny and annoying, they think they’re VERY VERY VERY smart and that they created the world and everything in it when they hit 18. I thought this, too, at that time of my life, so I have and always have had total sympathy with the hubris of youth. Now I know two things about it 1) their frontal lobes are not completely grown, 2) if we didn’t feel that way as young people the world would never change.
They wrote papers and they confused words. They confused words because they wanted to use big words. They had a few things going on in their minds. 1) they wanted to use big words because they were smart people and smart people use big words, 2) they wanted to impress their English teacher and everyone KNOWS English teachers are impressed by big words, and, 3) you get good grades by impressing your teacher. The advent of “spell check” made this problem even more interesting. :p
I think “plethora” is probably the favorite big word of college freshmen to use in their English essays. I’ve read that word almost exclusively on freshman English papers. One student even said, “Did you like how I used ‘plethora’?”
They also liked to get on their soapboxes. In order that they learn to be logical in presenting their arguments, they were required to write a PERSUASIVE PAPER on a controversial topic. I made rules. They could not write about legalizing pot, capital punishment or abortion. “Why, professor?”
“Well, here’s the deal. I don’t want to read a bunch of papers about legalizing pot, capital punishment or abortion. You gotta’ see this from my side. You’re going to write ONE paper. I’m going to take home 30 papers from each of my 3 freshmen comp classes. I don’t want to read 90 papers on abortion, would you?”
“All right then. Come up with something YOU really care about.”
“I care about that.”
“Find something else.” If a student were too invested in one of those three topics I was pretty sure they already had a paper and works cited page, probably from high school. There was also the reality that there are 9 million freshman papers available for sale on those three topics… I hated dealing with plagiarism.
If you have never sat down to a stack of freshman level persuasive papers, you have not lived (huh?). 🙂 Usually they were pretty OK. Occasionally they were abysmal, often they were cliché, sometimes they were inspiring. There was always at least one paper that took it upon itself to defend Freedom and the American Way. Almost always that paper told me that it was my right to peruse happiness.
For half my career I taught Bidness Communication at a very large university. I taught upper and lower division and, for a while, there was talk of me taking a graduate class. But that (naturally) didn’t happen as I do not have a PhD in Bidness. Or an MBA, for that matter.
I’ve been working on a proposal for a small company over the last few days and it brought it all back to me. The main lesson I had to “impart” (fancy word) was “Know your audience. They do NOT live in your head.” This is especially true of written communication. As I communicate with the people I’m writing this for I see that playing out. In my communication with them, I try to make sure I give them the whole story because we’re NOT face-to-face speaking with each other. We don’t even know each other. They, of course, go blindly into every email they send me and it’s my job to decode what they were thinking.
It’s also been interesting working when I do not have to. Yesterday I remembered what it was like to have to give low grades in order to keep my job. I remembered how unhappy I was toward the end with all of it. Teaching had become “bidness.”
I am doing good work on this project, but I know it’s not my project. Nothing hangs on it. Even payment, which, of course, I want, but if I don’t get it, I won’t be “behind.” I won’t be happy, but I won’t be facing foreclosure. That’s really freedom.
Recently, I was looking on the website of the local university for a concert I’d seen advertised. I didn’t find the concert. I found a job. The job was written for me. My “Get classes!!!” mentality went instantly into action. I immediately got my CV. I updated it and refreshed it then set about finding out what else I had to do to get this job. I thought of how nice the money would be for things like repairing the garage and paying my credit card. I thought it would be fun to teach literature online.
Luckily, it was 11 at night and I wasn’t going to stay up and put a job search packet together, so I left everything where I could find it the next morning. I was about to put my computer to sleep when I was hit by a massive satori.
“Let someone else do it. Let some young person with a fresh MA have that job. Let them start their life. It’s their turn. It’s your turn NOT to do it. You have a place to live and an income. You don’t need it.”
“I never feel like I get any closer to you,” she’d say. When the Carpenters came out with their song, “Close to You,” she’d say, “That’s how I think of you. You’re difficult to reach.”
It made me feel guilty, but I didn’t understand what she meant. I was just me. I was just a kid. What were other people like?
“I never feel as if I really know you, or touch you. You’re always somewhere else.” Echoes but this was the great love of my life, not my mom.
What in the world did they want?
Now I believe the “complaints” came from fundamental differences in personality that I didn’t know about until I required hundreds of business majors (my students) over a period of years take the Myers/Briggs Personality Inventory as part of a report project. My goal was to:
1) teach them how to write a business report as a group project,
2) teach them about different kinds and levels of research,
3) expose them to a work problem — there were two; one was using personality tests in hiring which is done fairly often and the other using personality tests for team building, also used fairly often,
4) give those who were unhappy in their major a chance to question their direction if they wanted to.
I learned about me.
Some of my students rejected the tests out-of-hand saying, “It’s like a horoscope” to which I replied, “Sure if you get your ‘sign’ by answering questions about yourself then it is. I agree.”
Most of my students thought the project was kind of fun. One of them said, “Whoa, I’m changing my major to ceramics.” That was the ONE kid out of thousands who had the same MBTI type as I have. INFJ, (Introverted/iNtuitive/Feeling/Judging) statistically the rarest personality type. No, that doesn’t make me think I’m special. It actually makes me special. Sorry. So all the people who have said over the years, “Kennedy, you’re a freak,” knew what they were talking about. 😉
A group of business majors is already a self-selected, elite group of people who are unlikely to be introverts, and very few were. Most were men, my direct opposite ESTP (Extraverted/Sensint/Thinking/Perceiving) and ESTJ with one or two “accountants” ISTJ sprinkled in. Since the class wasn’t required for accounting majors, there were never many of those. Once in a while there was an “N”, an intuitive person, usually a girl, who was tuned in to the feelings of others. All of these types are very common in our world. They are the people that keep the world going every single day.
Their personality types were extremely outgoing. They were not prone to self-reflection, not aware of the feelings of others or overly concerned about them. Extroverted, Sensing and Thinking, they went through life without a lot of interpersonal awareness. This is all a way to say they were not the most sensitive people in the world and were strongly ego driven. I, as an introverted, intuitive am almost always aware of what’s going on with other people and I wear my heart on my sleeve. They could hurt my feelings easily. They would say things to me and get in a physical proximity to me that were very challenging. When I understood who they were, I realized it wouldn’t hurt them at all if I gave them back what they were giving me, and it didn’t. They expected it. They gave it to each other. It was the way things were supposed to be in their worlds, from their perspectives. I stopped defending myself ever.
“Why did you give me a D?”
“I didn’t give you a D. You earned a D. If you don’t like the D, you can talk to me about what you could have done better, otherwise, I don’t have anything to say.”
“OK. What could I have done better.” Challenge, provocation dripping from his/her voice.
“I’ll tell you if you’re really going to listen, but if you’re just angry at me right now make an appointment to come and talk to me next week.”
“OK. Come see me Tuesday before class. I don’t talk to angry students.”
I don’t think those kids ever knew what it took from me to be the classroom teacher whose classes they fought to get into or the teacher in the office who sat with them for hours helping them learn to see their own work, their own selves, take responsibility for their own achievement. They naturally figured I was like them, deriving boundless energy from proximity to other human beings.
Until I had done this project with several classes, I’d been skeptical about the tests. I’d seen it simply as a good project that would interest my students at this moment in their lives — 19 is all about self-discovery. I became a believer when I saw how knowing the overall personalities of a class of business majors could help me teach them.
We are not all the same. That “special little snowflake” thing has more than a germ of truth to it, but we’re stuck with the other people in the world. From this experience, I saw why I’m hard to be close to. I need a lot of psychic and physical privacy. I have a lot going on inside my head. I thought everyone was like this, but my 10,000 business majors taught me that is not the case. They also taught me how to compensate, how to reach others, and that was an enormous gift I wish I’ld learned earlier in my life.
I got an ovation once. It was at the end of a student show at the end of the term at the international school where I was teaching. I was thrilled, surprised, honored by the ovation. Proud of my students and of myself. The group in the auditorium — students — stood up and yelled, “Martha! Martha! Martha!” But now I don’t even remember the amazing thing they did under my Professor Keatingesque tutelage!
For some reason, for years I was kind of a “rock star” to students. My classes were “not like the other teachers’.” I don’t know how they were different, but… For a while when I walked across campus students would cheer. It’s true. It’s weird, but true. I’m a humble person, and I found it kind of embarrassing and still kind of cool.
I wasn’t even completely aware of it as a phenomenon until, one day, one of my former colleagues at the international school asked me, “How’s teaching at the university? Are you still a rock star?”
That’s when I started noticing it. I also began noticing the way my colleagues looked at me.
We all know teaching is a serious business. Teachers aren’t supposed to have fun and students aren’t supposed to have fun. If the teacher and the students ARE having fun, no one’s learning anything. My experience over the years showed me that teachers are often among the most conventional and unimaginative purveyors of social norms. Thinking about that some more, I began to see that’s what’s expected of teaching. A teacher’s job is to keep the values of society intact. A teacher’s job is not to challenge and provoke and inspire. I began to see that clearly in the response of my colleagues to me.
If students do well in your class and get high grades, you’re an easy grader NOT an effective teacher. If students do Hamlet as an extended role play, you’re not teaching Shakespeare. If, in a class that lasts 4 hours, your remedial writing students turn out a complete essay, you have failed to teach them discipline.
I viewed teaching as a dance. The students were my partners and we were trying to get through the song with as much grace and joy as we could. I believed nothing was too hard for them IF they wanted to do it. I believed some things that were difficult were so good and so important that they needed to deal with them — but I’d help them. I believed they were human beings, and, as most were 19, they were human beings in search of self not in search of society’s expectations of them.
I’m glad I was a rock star. It’s kind of hard to imagine at this point, but it really happened. And there are students out there — now in their 30s or 40s — who know that some of our best friends are “dead friends” (exist for us between the covers of books) and that the Crossopterygii was our ancestral hero.
A teacher is the carrier of a baton. Most of the time, we never know who grasps it as we pass by, but once in a while something happens and this morning I woke up to the most amazing thing, messages on Facebook and comments here on WordPress that needed my approval. What?
I got an early Christmas — and the BEST — present today. Fifteen years ago I taught a young man — a kid — he was 17 — in a summer intro to literature class. He had — at that point — never studied literature. He asked me outside the classroom if I thought he could do the class even though he’d just gotten out of high school. He didn’t just do the class. He fell in love with literature and with Goethe and then with German. His dad was German; his mom Mexican. One of HIS students found my blog post in which I had written about him as he was long ago and she wrote me this:
Hello, Ms. Kennedy,
Your former student, Prof. Schorsch Kaffenberger is my world history professor at a college I attend (I found this blog from a year ago by googling his name to find his office). Professor Kaffenberger must have been an extraordinary student for him to be remembered after 15 years. He’s one of my coolest and most supportive professors. 🙂
This student was exceptional in many ways, mostly in his courage and passion for learning, his curiosity and openness to all that was new. In that first class (I taught him in a few classes) he was shy and young, but stepped forward to read lines from Oedipus when no one else would. He took what I had to give and he ran with it. That his student describes him as “cool” and “supportive” means the world to me.
I might have always had other dreams and aspirations, but when I turned that corner in 1976 and became a teacher, all the other dreams and aspirations took second place. In my heart lives the hope that the people who grasped the baton handed me by my teachers carry it into the future with love, faith and passion. There is really no treasure worth more than this.