I remember walking into my first college classroom in late September 2001 as a teacher. Due to a series of circumstances, I walked in generally unprepared to teach. The process of training Graduate Teaching Assistants in DAAP at the time involved a morning of meetings discussing syllabi creation and some art projects while subsequently enrolling in a course that would be taken concurrently with your first quarter of teaching. I missed the meeting to take a long planned trip with my then girlfriend (now wife) and so I got everything second-hand. This wasn’t entirely bad though since the meeting was held on the morning of the 11th and things took a pretty quick turn away from pedagogy that morning. I do remember one piece of advice from our mentor in those first couple of weeks: “You’ve just got to be 15 minutes ahead.” This was quickly feeling like tight-rope walking without a net.
What do you teach when you haven’t been given much guidance on what to teach? How do you teach when you have been given even less guidance? I fell back on the tried and true method of teaching the way I was taught. I tried to be an amalgamation (imitation?) of my favorite undergraduate teachers that first quarter and for many years later. The professors I was drawn to were supportive, kind, rigorous, funny, smart, challenging in all the right ways and I tried to be the same. I used projects from my old classes that were modified only because I had to write them from memory. I felt often like I was only 15 minutes ahead but these students…god, these students…well, you should see what they could do with those projects. It was magical. And my students liked me, I think. Maybe this was due in part to my enthusiasm for their work or maybe it was because I was generally nice and supportive. Who knows?
One thing I think about from time to time is how long I could have gone along this way if I just taught at universities in the mid-west. What I mean is that so many of my students were like me: good at school, from middle-class to upper-class backgrounds, simultaneously dissatisfied with the state of the world and unsure of our place in it. It wasn’t that I actively tried to only reach students like me, it’s just that the students who were generally similar to me seemed to be the best students. I wonder if I would have thought about teaching differently without much exposure to difference or if my views on good students would have ossified over time. Again, who knows?
Things did change, though, and a big shift in thinking about teaching came when I started working at community colleges. My assignments were better constructed by this time and I felt more in control of a classroom than when I first started out but the students were just a little different. I think I first noticed that the amount of “good” students I had in any given class seemed to be significantly smaller than at the universities where I had worked. The second thing I noticed was that many of my students had lives that I would describe as, well, hard. I had first-generation college students, students who couldn’t afford the supplies, single parents, 18-year old military spouses living 2000 miles from their home town for the first time, English as a second language students, 16-year old home schoolers, retirees, and more. At the beginning of the semester we would receive letters from the student services department about the accommodations we would need to offer in our class. These ran from extended test and assignment times to having full-time medical and personal assistance in class. I never taught a class at a community college that did not have a student without a learning disability of some kind in it. It was eye opening to say the least.
I can say without any false humility that I was not a good community college professor at the beginning. I would shake my head at my student’s situations. I would collapse, exasperated, in my colleagues offices wondering why these people could just not get their shit together. Why could some people never show up on time? Why couldn’t they ever turn anything in? How did they even get through high school? Were they in some sort of plot against me to see how far a person could be pushed before causing a mental breakdown? I did break, eventually, but not in a way that I ever anticipated and in ways for which I am forever grateful.
First, and I don’t know when this realization really sunk in, I quit thinking that the students were out to get me and started asking questions about their lives. Why are you having a hard time getting to school? Why weren’t you turning these assignments on time, or ever? The answers were often heartbreaking. These students worked night-shifts or two jobs to afford housing and school. They had people in their lives who were medically, financially, and personally dependent on them. They were in abusive situations, or abandoned by families, or were surrounded by addicts. I was surprised what I would hear when I stopped thinking the student was against me and started getting interested in their experience. The relationship was no longer antagonistic. What’s more, I realized I had a lot to learn from them too. More of my students got failing grades than I ever imagined but I came to admire their resiliency and their desire to change their circumstances even if they really didn’t know how to do it yet. We had more discussions about “soft” skills, and finding quality mentors, and finding your way through a system that often feels like it only gives lip service to you. I was not a perfect community college instructor, but I became better at it. By the end I felt helpful to my students, proud of their efforts, and less exasperated; I just was trying to help.
Now I’m back in a university again but I am not the same. I find myself looking around my classroom a little more attuned to the needs of students who might not be the stereotypical “good” students. But I also know that each student I get to work with has something to say if I can just find a way to listen to it. It can be hard to find that time in the flurry of projects and assignments but I think I know that if I can find a way to be open in the classroom that listening happens organically.
I wrote above that my first teaching mentor told us, “You just need to be 15 minutes ahead.” At the time that seemed to be profoundly bad advice. I felt out of control, unsure of how to manage 25 students working on different art projects, and how to run a critique, and how to deal with in-class conflict, and grading, and so much more. As time as passed though I have wondered if he was maybe speaking from his position at that moment. Because, to be honest, I think I might now understand where he was coming from. I don’t worry too much about projects anymore (I know how they are supposed to be structured and I know where to go to find new ones when projects seem to grow stale), or grading (students like rubrics but I also like to address things in comments that the rubric can’t quite measure), or class conflict (everyone wants to be heard and I don’t need to speak unless they are being disrespectful of each other), or being in control (what is control, really, anyway?), or anything else besides just really trying to be in class, present, with the people who surround me with only aspirations for them.
When you apply for a teaching art job, one document they always ask for is a teaching philosophy. I understand why they ask for it but the name of it is really curious to me. I like to think about it not as a teaching philosophy but that I am teaching philosophy. I want a type of attention in classroom that maybe moves a little slower than the attention we give most things. I want to grant permission to linger, or to question, or to be amazed, or to really be in a space together, simultaneously knowing that it will end while being appreciative for the time. I don’t know how to write that yet in three short paragraphs but that is a failing best left for another day.
Gratuitous Picture of the Day (The house feels too quiet edition):