And Then Teaching Made Me Very, Very Sad

My reasons for writing this are two-fold. One, I am procrastinating. Two, my day has blown literal chunks, which means I must turn to reflection to plow through it.

One of the most common questions I get is, “What are you going to do with your degree?” My general response is, “Well, I’m going to write.” It seems fairly obvious—a Creative Writing MFA, a writer. My sort of math. But then there is the ever-present looming threat that exists for all writers—what happens if I don’t make it, if my writing doesn’t sell? 

I have always assumed I would teach.

See, I love teaching, and I always have. (Or, at least, since I started doing it.) 

I am both a teaching assistant and a supplemental instructor (SI) this semester. These are two fairly different, yet similar, jobs. I do more as a teaching assistant in the actual class than I do as a supplemental instructor; as a supplemental instructor, I am expected to…well…supplement. I’m supposed to help facilitate the students to a point of learning independently. In a way, this is also what I do as a teaching assistant, even though I am less involved as a supplemental instructor. As a teacher, and this is part of my formal teaching philosophy, I believe that the most important moment in the teacher/student relationship is that independent moment, that moment where the student no longer needs the teacher. While I’ve had good moments this semester, I have received a totally different perspective on teaching that I have teaching theatre, and I have arrived at one simple conclusion: there are a LOT of students who either just plain don’t care or don’t know how to care. I have a hard time digesting that, because I, as a student, care much too much.

Today, the professor I SI for couldn’t be on campus. In traditional me form, I said, “Okay, let me help in all the ways I can.” I volunteered myself for four hours of open assistance for papers, portfolios, or any course related questions. Now, where I know all of the students in my TA section, I do NOT know all of the students in my SI section—I don’t SEE all the students in my SI section. So, when I was walking across the campus to get to the place where I told the students I would be, imagine my surprise when a girl came running up to me, yelling, and waving a paper over her head. I froze when she started yelling, as I had never seen her before and was unsure whether or not she was talking to me. But the answer to that question became blatantly apparent when I heard “You need to explain to me RIGHT NOW WHY I GOT A MOTHER-F$&*@(G C!” I didn’t know what to say. I told her to slow down, speak more calmly. Her friend came running up after her, and the girl said again, quite loudly, in the middle of the main through-fare, “WHY DID SHE GET AN A WHEN I GOT A F@#%$&G C?!?” I asked her to see the paper, and she handed it to me. A quick scan made it quite obvious why she had gotten a C; she was missing one of the two main components of the paper—a personal response. I showed that to her on the rubric checklist she was holding in her hand. She blew a gasket and starting calling me all sorts of lovely names and asked again how her friend got an A. I asked the friend to see her paper. Flipping it open, the personal response was apparent, interspersed throughout the entire piece. I read one section of it out loud. The C student literally EXPLODED. “I CANNOT WRITE A PERSONAL RESPONSE. THIS IS A MOTHER F#$%^&G ACADEMIC PAPER AND SHE DOES NOT GET TO KNOW MY PERSONAL LIFE AND THOUGHTS. THIS IS F$%^#$G BULLS$%T!” I stumbled over my words, and she asked how she was supposed to personally respond to her thesis about the color of the seven rooms in The Masque of the Red Death. I took her paper again and gave it a second scan, and then told her that, with her thesis as it stands, she would need some major revision in order to incorporate that personal response. She started screaming again about how she shouldn’t be expected to be personal, and it was ridiculous and all that jazz. I tried one more time to explain to her that she didn’t necessarily need to give the intimate details of her life story in a personal response; she just needed to PERSONALLY RESPOND to the text. She snatched the paper away and clenched it in her hand, crumbling it, and then she was suddenly raising a fist towards my face. I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I ducked. I was legitimately afraid that I was going to get hit. I didn’t. While her fist was still hovering in the air, I backpedalled and told her she needed to calm down and take some time to think about both the comments on the paper and what I had told her before she came back to talk to either me or the professor again. She walked a few steps away, her friend apologized for her, and I bolted.

I don’t know how the professors do it, how they deal with the students all the time and get into these situations. I didn’t know how to deal with it, so I just did the best thing that I could think of at the time. Maybe it wasn’t the best thing, but it was the only thing. The student’s behavior was inappropriate, as several have been since receiving their various papers back over the course of the semester, but this particular behavior really crossed a line with me. I addressed a blanket email to the entire class, all seventy students, that basically informed them I was not their punching bag and that they needed to treat me with the same respect they would a professor. I don’t know how many of them read it; I don’t know if she read it. Honestly, I don’t care, because it needed to be said.

My internal debate regarding my feelings teaching has been an ongoing thing this semester. The section that I TA for is filled with brilliant students who don’t know how to be students. They are some of the brightest minds I’ve seen at their level, but they just don’t care. Or they don’t know how to care. And I care about them. Every single part of me want them to wake up, to do the awesome work I know they can do and be the amazing students I know they can be. But they won’t. They’re making a choice. One of my favorite students, a student capable of writing more beautiful than many people years ahead of her in their educations, has stopped turning in her work. She’s stopped caring. Maybe it’s personal problems, maybe it’s something else. But even though she is physically in class, she has stopped showing up. She is giving up. It makes me sad. My students, all of them, make me sad. I want to be better for them; I wish that I could make them want to learn, make them want to be better. But I can’t. Again, they are making a choice.

These are the two types of students I’ve encountered this semester: those who treat me horribly and those who don’t care or know how to be students. The good moments, the moments when I work with students who genuinely get it, the moments when I have students who turn in beautiful writing, or have done their reading, or do all the extra credit that they possibly can, the ones that want to be better…those are getting harder to see. And when I do see them, I need to hold on to them. Because those moments are the reason that I want to teach, for those students who care. But what if those students are becoming fewer and farther in between? What if we, as a society, are raising people who don’t care, people who just want to glance on by? I’m sad tonight. I’m sad because I see these students who could be better and choose not to be, and these students who want to blame everyone else for their own lack of understanding. I don’t see initiative in these students; I just see a lot of righteous indignation that the world isn’t being handed to them on a silver platter. 

Most of all, I’m sad because I’ve realized that, as a teacher, maybe I won’t have the impact that I want. There will be students that I won’t be able to reach. There will be students that will fail, even though they shouldn’t. Even though they COULD be better, there will be students who choose not to be. I haven’t reached a point yet where I am capable of separating myself fully from my students. I care too much.

I can’t decide if it’s a product of the semester or just a fact of life, but what today has told me is that I’m not sure I love teaching anymore. And I don’t know how to handle that.

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2 thoughts on “And Then Teaching Made Me Very, Very Sad

  1. I’ve been following your writing for quite some time. From what I know, teaching is a difficult profession and I wouldn’t be able to argue that writing is any easier. I think you can be in constant touch with reality in your teaching time and implement that in your writing. It isn’t easy to watch students waste their lives when they don’t know how to tap their potential especially when they have capable teachers. You shouldn’t be disheartened because once in a while a student will come around and you will see yourself in them. You will see that they are diligent and precocious and when you give them the right support, the right books to read you will feel like it was worth the while. I promise.

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