Good for the Soul

People who love teaching love to talk about it, or perhaps I should amend that. People who love teaching love to talk about their own teaching. Then again, maybe I should amend that once more. Okay, here's the right formulation: people who love teaching really love to talk about the parts of their own teaching that work well. They're almost like an obsessive co-worker who's into genealogy and has traced some lost great-great-great uncle (twice removed) to the 17th century. It's the most fascinating subject in the world, but only to him.

The other parts of teaching--the parts where you really stink, bore your students to distraction, screw up and don't know what you're doing--well, we don't like to talk about that as much. Like almost never. Too risky. Why give your colleagues ammunition? Ironically, talking about stinking it up with someone you trust is often more valuable than sharing your new gimmick for ginning up in-class discussions or your latest brilliant idea. This semester, for example, I have been horribly unorganized. I left a week off the syllabus in a course. A week! One of my better-organized students pointed it out to me only last Thursday. This is to say nothing of the time I forgot to distribute a reading a class meeting before the students were to have read it, or the three or four times I taught something out of order and generally created more confusion.

I have felt so bad about my lack of organization the last few days that I sought to do penance. Instead of going home before my night class and coming back to campus, I decided to stay at work and carefully hammer out a detailed plan for how I would approach the evening. I typed up a big schedule and lesson plan with times next to activities, the central concepts I needed to teach, and a good mix of active learning strategies to teach them.

Then I walked into class and saw a student reading something other than the text I had so carefully prepared to teach. Sure enough, I had misread my own syllabus! Aaargh! I so totally suck. At times like these I try to solace myself with some bromide like "to err is human," but I secretly know that these gaffes are really windows to my soul, indices of my life-long inadequacy. No matter that I quickly switched gears and taught an older lesson plan I had previously used. No matter that it did not come off badly. I still suck.

So it was a great blessing yesterday to wander into a colleague's office and hear him beating himself up for falling far behind on his grading. He just confessed his guilt and said how rotten he felt about it. I told him about my own lack of organization this semester, but also how good it was for me to hear that he sucked as well. I think we both felt better.

It's like I often tell my students when we're reading Greek tragedy. The point is not that the hero gets it right. There is no getting it right. There's only facing our inevitable flaws with whatever honesty, sorrow and fortitude we possess. It's always the same: the lessons we teach are the hardest ones to learn.

Then again, maybe suckosity just loves company.


Solveig said…
Your preparing for the wrong lesson reminds me of myself once. I was teaching too many hours (18) with too many preparations (4) in a too long day (classes at 8 AM, midday, and night). And for me, a class isn’t over when it’s over. It keeps playing in my head, even when I sleep.
In any case, my 6:30-9 PM tech writing class ran overtime, both in reality and in my dreams. The next morning at 8 AM, I arrived in a classroom in the same building and started teaching . . . tech writing. The students looked puzzled, but then, it was only 8 AM. Those wily students let me – in fact, encouraged me to – teach them about technical description for nearly ten minutes, when it hit me: these were my American Lit students!
Lesson learned! Never again.

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