Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Portrait of the Teacher as a Student

Until this past year, I always introduced myself to my students the same way. I told them that I'd been an adjunct English instructor for (1-6) years. I told them that I was a huge nerd and that I'd started writing stories when I was seven. But - I added - I didn't expect them to be nerds for English. I expected many of them to feel about English the way I felt about Math - absolute hatred and disgust.

It was bullshit. I took for granted that it had been ten years since I had to take Math. And while I knew that bringing their interests into the classroom would invest my students in their work, I did not yet understand what it meant to be a good teacher. I did not know how to help them do well.

I had to take Math again first.

Let me explain my life. As well as an adjunct, I'm a writer, MFA grad, who returned to school for certification upon realizing I prefer the classroom to the writing desk. Pretty early in my first semester, I got the bad news - I needed three more credits in Math.

"Math?" said my mother. "But you're an English teacher!"

I just nodded, well trained in jumping the flaming hoops of academia.

The first day of Math class, I was late. I was late to the second class too. And the third. And the fourth. Back in the day - I wouldn't have dared be late to any class. But now, my life was too full. I had stacks of papers to grade. I had yoga. I couldn't go to Math class with my chakras out of whack and my third eye off center, now could I?

Every morning, I trudged in, head hanging, feeling like a jackass. The students - all ten years younger than me - looked at me like I was a jackass. I waited to hear my teacher, Prof. Nitica, reprimand me. But every morning, he said nothing.

Within a few weeks, I realized that was Prof. Nitica. He never gave anyone a hard time. Not the obnoxious music major rockstars-in-training that talked all during class. Not the dim-witted sports who gazed out the window instead of paying attention.

He was easy.

The material was not. It was all logic, truth tables, and these geometric anomalies called Euler paths - stuff I couldn't explain to you now if I tried. But I could do it. Because Prof. Nitica organized the material so efficiently that everyone did well.

We worked like dogs for the first few weeks. Then just before midterm, the homework and tests stopped. We completed small in-class assignments until midterm ended. One day in class, it dawned on me what he was doing. He was testing us when we were at our best.

In order to pass each test, I had to study for - at least - a full afternoon. That's really not asking too much of a student. That's a gift - compared to how things were when I was an undergrad. Thanks to those little in-class assignments and the practice tests, I knew exactly what was on each test.

This repetition helped me the most. In class, Prof. Nitica was like a broken record. He repeated himself so much, he sometimes dropped the tone of his voice, mimicking a robot. Nobody laughed. But I always shot him a grateful smile.

When it came to Math, I needed to hear the same lesson over and over again. It was as if I'd moved to Mexico and tried to learn Spanish by immersion. On the third try, I'd hear the roots of what I already knew and begin to make sense of the language.

By the end of the semester, I was skipping yoga to make it to Math on time. I had an A-plus in the class. On my desk at home sat a pile of scrap paper - notes I'd been taking on how to revise my English class.

Every teacher is taught the importance of empathy, structure and repetition in the classroom. However, it's hard to understand why these components work when you are a master of the subject. Most teachers are lucky enough to love what they teach. Most students don't love what they learn. That's a pretty big gap to fill in forty-five minutes.

Prof. Nitica taught me one way to bridge that gap. In his math class, he cared about what mattered most. What mattered most was that his students did well. Once I became one of those students, I saw how much it mattered to me too.

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