Teaching The Teacher: A Mentor's True Lesson
Source: Open Talk Magazine 11/12/2010 12:54:00
Like anyone on the first day of class, I was a bundle of nerves. I got lost trying to find the classroom. I didn’t know anyone, didn’t have any friends. I felt alone and unsure. When I entered my first classroom for the day, I took a deep breath, said a short prayer, and then took my place in front of the class. Yes, I was the teacher.
I had never taught a class before, so I was understandably nervous. To my mind, I had nothing else going for me other than an obsession for the rules of grammar, 9 units of a postgraduate course in literature, and guts.
What I lacked in experience, I made up for in preparation. I’ve never done more research in four years of college than I did in six months of teaching! I had to be prepared; each class was a performance, and I had to wow the audience every time. In the process, I was uncovering more knowledge for myself.
My class in American literature sparked a fascination for Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, and Ernest Hemingway. (In fact, I ended up writing papers on Hughes and Hemingway for a post-graduate class.) While I was teaching, I felt like I was also in class with my students: learning, discovering.
A particularly memorable class comes to mind: we were discussing Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “Hills Like White Elephants.” (I’ll be honest—I had to read the story three times before I understood what it was about.) In class, we talked about Hemingway’s iceberg theory, his style for dialogue, and what the term “white elephant” means. We talked about the details Hemingway reveals and what he leaves out. In the end, we all realized that the story is about a couple talking about an abortion. Seeing my students wide-eyed at that discovery and amazed at Hemingway’s craft was gratifying.
I also learned to be creative in my classes. I had to come up with ways to keep my students interested. We had word games, movie screenings, and role-plays. I had them do a “Walden Weekend” where they had to give up their gadgets for two days and write about the experience. We also did a performance of each of their favorite poems; one of my students did “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou. She performed it with such verve and sass, just as if the poem were written with her in mind!
I’ve learned to involve my students in the learning process. At the beginning of the semester, I’d ask them: what would you like to learn in this class? What have you always wanted to know about literature, grammar, and writing? What kind of activities would you like to do in this class? I try to integrate their responses in my syllabi as best as I can. This made my students feel valued. Having their suggestions recognized also added to their enthusiasm in class.
One of the most important lessons I learned in class is: it’s okay to have a sense of humor! I used to think it would undermine my authority in the classroom. That was not the case at all. Laughter loosened up all the nervous energy in class. (I mean my nervous energy.) It struck a rapport between student and teacher. It made our conversations, dialogues, debates, and discoveries much more enjoyable.
I went back to school to teach, but I came away learning so much. I am not just intellectually richer, but emotionally too; I’ve learned the importance of patience, compassion, integrity, setting a good example. I have my students to thank for all this. They are the best teachers anyone could ever have.