Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Almost, Not, Sort of a Teacher

I just read an article in Glamour magazine (yes, I am a subscriber) about stress. The article rates stress on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being "late to work" and 10 being "losing a loved one." It was the usual stress-can-kill-you article, with dire warnings about heart attacks and such. And I realize I have spent all of 2008 somehow miraculously managing to function at about 8.5 with periodic peaks at 9.5. Up until September, that is, and the life-saving move to Mayberry, I mean McKinleyville.

If I were to give you a list of all the troubles that befell my family this year, you would think I was making it up. Suffice it to say, the old adage, "when it rains, it pours" no longer sounds like nonsense to me.

In the midst of it all, last semester I jumped through the many hoops to get a teaching job at the university. And I was hired! It should have been cause for celebration, but it just added one more worry to my load. After yet several more troubles came my way, I knew something had to give. The one dispensable thing was my new job. And so I resigned in July before it ever started, determined not to regret the decision.

Things gradually improved, as things do, or maybe my coping skills improved. By the time the new semester started and a lighter teaching opportunity came my way, I was ready. I became not a teacher but a "group leader" for the Book of the Year class, focusing on Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler.

It's a tiny class, just four students and me. Yet it is a perfect microcosm of a typical classroom experience, with all the usual pleasures and pitfalls. And tonight, our last session, I realized the truth of a lesson I learned last spring.

Last semester, I suffered through an unconventional graduate class, whose name "Developing Writing Abilities," seemed to have no relation at all to its content. Our professor made us listen to jazz (I hate jazz) and write about it (how do you write about music?). I ditched the class as often as possible, so I had used up all my absences when our professor had a Dell'Arte acting teacher visit our class for "improv and games." Games? *sigh*

Long story short, I was wrong, about the games, about the professor, about the class, even about the jazz. What I learned, that night especially and from the class overall, is that teaching is improv and that mistakes are often more interesting than when things go smoothly. Here I am with the acting teacher, laughing my head off.
My little Book of the Year class has played out that drama perfectly. I had all this leftover unused teaching energy when starting the class, so I overprepared like crazy for the first session. That was the polar opposite of tonight when I didn't prepare at all. And guess which class was better?

Tonight my students gave their presentations, and I only had the briefest sketch of their general topics beforehand. The discussion grew organically from each of their presentations, animated, interesting, people making connections right and left. The only plan I walked in the room with was to let them leave early after presentations were done. But the time flew in that two-hour class period, and we left at the usual time because no one was ready to stop talking about the book!

I am not advocating scrapping the idea of preparation altogether. But the mistakes really are more interesting! It takes some confidence to play it by ear. But it's much more fun.
View from the classroom. Yes, that is Humboldt Bay off in the distance. Are we not incredibly lucky and is it not a wonder we don't stare out the window all day instead of study?


beachcomber said...

I did a number of years as a Girl Scout leader and would pore through handbooks and manuals and badge requirements to come up with plans and strategies. I would outline my meetings to cause the highest level of joy for my charges.

Other days, I punted and often those meetings were the most fun. Maybe because I was less involved in a checklist of accomplishments. I suspect those meetings will live in the memories of former Girl Scouts longer than my anal-retentive programs.

Indie said...

Yes, exactly! Lesson learned. It was fear and trepidation that had me over-preparing (and I still probably will next fall when it's time to teach freshman comp, at least at first). But, of course, as time went by we all knew one another enough to relax.

I love what you said about outlining your meetings "to cause the highest level of joy" to your troop. :)

Big City Poz said...

You were wise to cut back when stressful events had piled up on you. I'm glad things are better now.

I suspect you really were well prepared for that second session. You were less nervous, more confident and more comfortable. That allowed your passion for the literature to come through, and that passion was contagious.

.......and I'm sorry for the grading fatigue comment I made earlier. I had no idea you were about to begin teaching. Believe me, grading the papers is tons of fun. You won't want to stop!

Indie said...

It's OK, Big City POZ, I interned last semester and already know that pleasure/grind well.

My master's will be in Teaching of Writing, so there is clearly no escape from reading many, many, many essays. Put that together with newspaper editing and it becomes abundantly clear that I am either a masochist or I like reading a zillion words a day that need a little help.

If you read the post I am about to write, maybe you can help me solve an existential dilemma I have regarding teaching. I hope you'll respond.