Wednesday, January 4, 2012

On teaching and bad apples...

I’m a teacher.  I love my job, but this hasn’t always been the case.

I’ve been teaching college composition off and on for the past seventeen years.  You know, the freshman writing class that everyone must take?  The freshman English 101?  Where you write boring research papers?  Yep, that’s the one.  Students hate to take it and teachers hate to teach it, because it’s a challenging, time-consuming, thankless job that pays very little (if you’re an adjunct instructor, which I am), and requires a great amount of work.  I averaged my work hours once and discovered I was making a little over four dollars an hour with the amount of time I was devoting to my teaching.  Yep, four dollars an hour!

However, as everyone will tell you, teachers don’t teach because of the money; they teach because they love it.  Which takes me back to my earlier statement: I love my job, but this hasn’t always been the case.

So, what happened?  I went to Africa.

In 2008, I made a decision: I would try one last time to land a fulltime teaching job and if that didn’t pan out, I would join the Peace Corps.  So, I joined the Peace Corps.

One thing about joining the Peace Corps: they don’t accept just anybody.  The Peace Corps recruits people who demonstrate leadership abilities to abilities to persevere.  I hadn’t realized how well-equipped I am in these departments, and I hadn’t realized how well these qualities serve me in my teaching career.

As my professional background is in education, my assignment in Africa was to teach. I was assigned two teaching posts in a rural village in the Republic of South Africa: a technical college and a primary school.  For both schools, I was assigned to teach English.

And in Africa, I learned what a great teacher I am.  And this is what I discovered: I’m a great teacher because I care about my students.  I’m a great teacher because I spend hours on weekends to grade papers; I’m a great teacher because I devote hours to creating lesson plans and developing curriculum so my students will succeed; I’m a great teacher because I study up on current and online teaching methods; I’m a great teacher because I participate (and encourage my students to participate) in on-campus and off-campus extra-curricular activities; I’m a great teacher because I’m flexible and fair; but ultimately, I’m a great teacher because I care.  I care that my students understand and grasp the concepts of the subject and I care that they learn to apply them.  If my class as a whole is demonstrating a poor performance, I see it as my fault and my responsibility to correct.  The other thing I learned is that a teaching career is front-end loaded, in that a great deal of time is invested in on-the-job-training, which takes a great deal of time and energy, especially if you’re developing your own curriculum.  What I hadn’t realized, is, that once you’ve taught a couple of years, your hard work finally pays off and the teaching, because you’ve learned a great deal about what works and what doesn’t in the classroom, becomes easier.  Not only does the teaching become easier, it becomes, well, fun.  Or it can be fun.  (So new teachers, take heart!)

I also realized, in my time in Africa, that I have gifts and talents to share as a teacher and that I  am, well, very good.

In Africa, too, I realized what a great gig I have as a college composition instructor in the US: My American students are invested in their work (or at least invested in their stubborn attempts to earn an “A”), they come to class, and, well, they speak English.  I realized too, how amazingly wonderful it is to teach on a stellar campus with wonderful resources: having a brand-new, state-of-the-art library; is always on top of cutting-edge advances with computer technology and  provides up-to-date and high quality computer equipment to all members of the college community; is staffed with top-notch, friendly, knowledgeable, and efficient people with impressive skill sets and are willing to help at the drop-of-a-hat; is surrounded by beautiful, wooded grounds and lovely landscaping; has a self-contained and impressive entertainment venue because of  its Arts Department: concerts,  theater, and performing and visual arts; and, most importantly, the people I work with, as a rule, care about what they are doing--professionally. I learned how important it is to me to work with people who care about their work.  (In the people of my African community, a job was just a job and people, as a rule, weren’t invested in their professional careers; they were much more invested in relationships and family and put their time and energy there.  I find this cultural difference a very beautiful thing and wish I shared it; however, as an American, who gains a great deal of her identity in work, found this cultural characteristic more than a bit frustrating.)

What I had forgotten about teaching in America, that I hadn’t really encountered (yet) while teaching in Africa, is, that while 98% of my students make my teaching job worthwhile—more than worthwhile—the 2% of underperforming students make my job difficult and challenging and seem to suck all the enthusiasm I have for teaching out of me—so much so, that I begin to doubt my choice of profession.

I often feel guilty that my performing students require very little of my time, other than, of course, the time I invest in developing the course and the assignments, which is considerable, while my underperforming ones require a great deal of it.  It seems grossly unfair to spend so much more of my time on the underperforming students than the performing or even excelling ones.

For example, I had three “bad apples” this semester that required a great deal of my time.  All three of these were quite capable of doing the work; in fact, they were more than capable: they were English majors!  Of my time they required, it all consisted of arguing about why they were underperforming: they all consistently couldn’t (or wouldn’t) follow instructions and therefore submitted work that was below standard or unacceptable.

One student was especially troublesome.  For the sake of anonymity, I’ll refer to him as Beelzebub.  Beelzebub added the course late (this is never a good sign), and not only missed the first class of the semester, a day when the expectations of the course are outlined in full, he decided not to show up until day six of the course.  Now, normally, this would be the equivalent of missing three full weeks of the course.  However, since this was a class that met only weekly, he missed a full six weeks of the course.  Furthermore, this student didn’t bother to purchase the required textbook.  Now, I assume that because he was an English major, he felt he was perfectly capable of finally showing up to class when it was convenient to him, take a shot of producing an advanced-level research  paper, with all of the necessary pre-writing components (research proposal and annotated bibliography and all following MLA conventions), of which everyone else in the class had spent six full weeks on, and was upset when I returned his work ungraded and asked him to try again.  We spent several in-depth conversations about why the work was unacceptable and what needed to happen to bring the work up to passing standards.  A long story greatly shortened: this is how we related to each other for all of the semester.  Again, my performing students were engaged in their research, engaged in their writing, applying the concepts and mastering important skill sets, all with little coaching from me: they were doing the work and they were benefitting—the  98% of my class.

Beelzebub and his cohorts (I had three this semester) sapped all of my time and energy with the constant arguing, the need for explicit (even more explicit) written directions and instructions that no one else in the class needed, and the constant evaluation of work submitted late and sub-standard when the majority of the class had moved on weeks ago.  Again,  my stellar students required very little of my time and energy while the Beelzebubs were sucking me dry. There is little satisfaction in this teaching dynamic, because, as hard as I try to focus on my “stars,” they rarely acknowledge how they have benefited from the class (and their hard work) and somewhat disappear from my life relatively unnoticed.  Now, the Beelzebubs?  I remember them painfully and not fondly… and forever! 

So, after a very long, first semester back in the States, I was somewhat impressed when Beelzebub brought his failing grade (he had been failing all semester) up to a “D” at the very end.  It was somewhat amazing—but sadly not surprising—how he was able to finally come on board with the course, the work, and his understanding of the assignments during the last three weeks of the course.  Now granted, a “D” is not great, but it is better than an “F.”  In the end, I was pleased; he was not.  He was so unpleased, that on the week of Christmas Eve, the day that final grades were posted, I received a 9-page email from Beelzebub challenging me on his grade and demanding reconsideration.  Eish!

So, my underperforming student, who required so much of my time and energy, while my super-stars progressed relatively unaided, required even more of my time and energy at the very end of the semester:  I composed an 11-page justification of his grade including documentation of his absences, his refusal to purchase the required textbook, and all written responses to his submitted work, and then copied my response to my bosses, and collapsed on Christmas Eve in exhaustion and frustration.

The good news is, that since I’ve spent time in Africa, teaching in a different part of the world, I have discovered that I am an excellent teacher, and I now have great confidence in my teaching abilities and feel my students are in very good hands.  I  take pride in my teaching now, a quality I lacked before teaching in Africa.  Also, this incident has helped my bosses see what a good teacher I really am.  It was also a good exercise for me to see (and justify) that my teaching practices are sound, valid, and relevant.

So, yes, the bad apples brought me down a bit this semester and brought me back to the reality of teaching in the States.  (In other words, teaching is  not all good in the USA.)  However, I’m heartened to know that my other 98% will go on to write excellent papers in their ongoing college classes—and have an easier time of it—having had taken my class.  Very many of my students go on to publish their writing and win contests, and succeed in other writerly pursuits.  And more than one student has told me that their writing for my class has prompted them to think about changing their major courses of study.  And, as a writer, I can spot the gleam in their eyes and the blushes on the faces of the students when they have their “Ah, ha!” moment, when they realize that they are writing to learn or when they have mastered concepts that make their writing easier.  I can see when they really “get it.”  It is these moments, really, that make my heart fill with joy and make my work worth every second of the bad.

And another great thing about teaching college composition in the USA? The classes, and therefore the whole of my student population, changes completely every six months.  Yay!  I’m going into the spring semester with brand new students and fresh enthusiasm!

Yes, I do love my job!  This hasn’t always been the case—but it is now!

Am so glad to be home,

Kids at my primary school in Africa loved me no matter what!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Visiting ancestors...

 After residing in the Republic of South Africa for two years while working with Peace Corps, one of the first things I did to ready myself for “reentry” in June of 2011,  was to sign up for a meditation class.  I  knew I would be disoriented with my homecoming and wanted a strategy in place to root myself spiritually while the new pieces of my life fell together around me.  It was a good move—to sign up for the class.  After ten weekly sessions to establish a daily practice in the technique of insight meditation, I do indeed, find myself rooted and centered in my new life.  While I was excited about the class and looked forward to the weekly meetings, what has mattered most, not surprisingly, was--and is-- the daily practice that I’ve learned and established.
I just finished the last session of my meditation class and am surprised at my new designation: “experienced meditator.”  Although I have meditated, in one form or another, for a great deal of my adult life, I’ve never before considered myself an “experienced meditator.”  I’ve signed up for the next  in the series of the meditation class and am more than a bit relieved to see it titled, “Continuing Meditation: Insight  Meditation for Experienced Students.”  Whew!  I thought I might be considered advanced or something!  In any case, I’m grateful I had the urge to put this important piece in my life when I came home; I’m grateful to have taken the class  and feel my life transforming.

One unexpected perk of my weekly class is an extended stroll through a cemetery.  Although I originally passed through the cemetery on my way to meditation class as a shortcut, I quickly realized that the shortcut had actually extended my meditation sessions considerably: walking amidst my ancestors is a meditation all in its own!

I’ve always been drawn to cemeteries as walking among bones of previous generations offers a perspective on life as nothing else can.  To do so certainly brings me face to face with my mortality.  I also feel comforted by the quiet of the silence found in cemeteries and the beauty of walking among the trees and green grass.  I often marvel at the beauty of cemeteries and am happy that these places of honor feel like a park or a walk in the woods. 

What I find most poignant, however, when visiting cemeteries, is realizing, as I’m walking among them, that generations of families are often buried together.  I find this profoundly moving: to see marks on a stone noting the timeline of the lives of a husband and wife sharing their lives together.  Very often, their children and their children’s children are buried nearby and the family dots are easily connected.  I can’t help but imagine their lives and how they must have been:  all the meals prepared and shared; all the mornings of getting ready for school; all of the lawn work and household chores; all of the birthdays and holiday celebrations…  I love how these families have remained together in life, and now, even in death.

I imagine lives too, of generations of  families that have lived a long time ago: of people who died in the early nineteenth century.  Their lives were certainly different from mine: Did they cook their meals and warm their homes with wood or coal fires?  Did the women wear the long dresses and bonnets and fancy, button-up shoes?  Were their children rosy and robust from living lives with plenty of time outside and in fresh air?  And their funerals and burials?  How were these different or the same from ours?

I  am often moved when I come  across a family actually making a gravesite visit. On particular instance stands out: a young family of a wife, a husband, and a few small children dumped out of a car with balloons and flowers.  It was obvious this visitation was a familiar habit of the family as the kids dashed off and left their parents strolling along behind in their wake. I was struck by the calmness of the scene, of the feeling of togetherness and of gratitude.  Of course I am speculating and projecting my hopes and values onto that family who may have been experiencing something completely different.  But seeing them together that day, united as a family to honor members of their deceased family, filled my heart with warmth.

For some reason, what I find most moving, however, is finding evidence of a recent visit by family members. Family members often leave behind objects at the gravesite, seemingly as “gifts” to the deceased ancestor.  These types of leavings are often some type of floral arrangement, either  a living plant, cut flowers,  or artificial arrangements.  However, evidence of family visits can take other forms.  For example, I passed through one morning, the first Wednesday after the Thanksgiving holiday.  My eyes filled with tears at seeing the cornucopias, the pumpkins and gourds, orange and brown and other autumn-colored ribbons, and Mylar balloons with cheery, smiling Thanksgiving turkeys waving on them.  One family had even left a scarecrow!  These family members left gifts and tributes for passed relatives during holiday times.  In this way, the family had “given thanks” by honoring their family ancestors.

The other day I noticed a sign that caught my eye: the special marking was something about “the innocents.”  While  walking among the monuments, it didn’t take long to realize that I was moving through a special section reserved for infants and very young children.  Many of the markers had references of lambs. It was poignant to see how small the grave spaces were; these small grave spaces gave me a picture of the tiny little bodies buried below.  My heart felt a bit more tender walking along here and imagined the pain parents must feel at losing such a  young life.

A burial ground in my village in South Africa.

All this to say, is that I’m profoundly moved by visits to cemeteries.  In a way, I find nothing more loving about the family unit than seeing evidence of lives lived together and lives being honored by the next generations.

While serving Peace Corps, I was visiting a cemetery in my rural village in South Africa when I had my “Ah, ha!” moment of, “It’s time to go home.”  I was having the hardest time trying to make up my mind about extending my tour of duty with Peace Corps: Did I want to return to my home and family in the USA and build a new life?  Or did I want to stay in South Africa with Peace Corps another year, and perhaps find other life-experience opportunities living abroad?

Most of you who know me understand that I had a challenging time while living in Africa.  I particular suffered with feelings of homesickness and longing for my family.  Although I was making ties with my “new family” in Africa, I never felt like I truly fit in with the culture of my people. 

One hot clear day, near the end of my service commitment, I had taken a walk with my African dog to a village cemetery.  Because the people of my village usually buried their dead on Saturday mornings, the cemeteries, at other times, were often empty and deserted. I would often retreat to these holy grounds for quiet time and reflection.  This day was no exception: I was alone with the sky and my dog and was strolling along the graves and contemplating the lives of the people underground.  I could see evidence of generations of families: living together, going to school together, going to church together, finding jobs and working together, getting married together, having babies together, and raising children together.  I could clearly see how the cycles of generations spiraled on and on, cycling through with the same blood and the same strains of DNA.  And then, as clear as a bell, on this day,  I had a very loud and crystal-clear thought: Karen, these are not your people.  This is not your land.  You are a stranger here.  You need to go  home.”  At that moment, I knew I would be returning to my home,  my family, and my life  in the States instead of extending my stay in Africa.

I do seek out these places of solitude and feel grateful to feel connected to my ancestors.  Perhaps some of  my greatest moments of meditation have come from my time strolling in cemeteries.  I love the solitude and the reverence of such holy ground and love feeling close to people who have gone before me. I feel comfort too, at knowing that at some point for me too, the roots of trees will be growing through me, and perhaps my body will nourish some kind of growing thing.  Too, perhaps someone  walking above me might stroll along, look down upon my monument, and wonder about my life.

Am so glad to be home,