Lesson To Be Learned
April 29, 2010

Once upon a time I was a teacher.

I taught first-year writing at a pretty big "name-brand" school and I loved it. I loved prepping materials, I loved trying to figure out where my students were currently at so I could reach them better. I tried to genuine with them. To be realistic - I mean, honestly, how many of my students really WANTED to be in the freshman English class? I knew they didn't. In nine years of beginning class with something like, "This is first year composition, the class that everyone is just dying to take," I only had one student ever tell me that yeah, he actually did want to take the class and was looking forward to it.

When the curriculum called for literature, I tried to pick stuff that was accessible. True, a lot of it was stuff that I had enjoyed, but it wasn't just that. I wanted them to not hate reading for my class. I hoped they'd enjoy at least some of it. At least as much as it was possible for an engineering major to like something he was being forced to read.

Later on, when the curriculum changed from reading literature and writing to a focus on the writing process, I struggled at first to make sure that the essays I assigned were still meaningful to my students. It took really listening to them and figuring out where they were before I was able to strike a balance between their interests and knowledge ... and starting to push them into the realm of academic discourse. I knew - then and now - that most of them didn't actually need academic discourse for anything other than getting through school. I tried to make that clear in class. We were doing things this way because learning this way of thinking meant they could tackle any other discipline with a little adaptation.

I compared academic writing to the scientific method. I compared different types of examples to cinematic close-ups and long-shots. I constantly asked them for feedback.

For many of them, it was the first time they'd ever been told their writing was not A quality. Some took it in stride and learned. Some didn't really care. Some decided I was full of shit and not to be believed.

Our class was set up so students wrote a first draft. I looked at it and gave general comments. Their peers looked at it and critiqued it. Then a second draft. I was more detailed in this draft. Their peers critiqued again. A third draft. This was the not-really-graded draft. I went through this one with a fine-tooth comb, gave them details, suggestions ... and a guide for deciphering roughly what their grade would have been if I'd actually given that draft a grade.

The idea - which came from our director - was that the students would re-write all their papers one last time for a final portfolio and THAT would be graded. He felt that putting a grade on this third draft gave them the wrong idea. I thought that not having any freaking clue how you were doing until the end of the semester in a class you didn't want to take but had to have was cruel and unusual punishment. That was my compromise. They could figure it out, but it wasn't written anywhere to remind them. (There was a whole hierarchy - a pyramid - of things they had to be able to do in a paper. Miss one block, and it was this grade, two blocks and it was that one, etc. Was fairly easy to figure out, but you always had to look it up rather than refer to it.)

The students who earned an A or a B in my class knew how to write.

They won writing awards. They were published in our first-year writing magazine.

They knew what they were doing.

The students who earned a C were passable writers. Average. But they also knew how to write.

It was damn near impossible to fail my class, but one or two each semester seemed to manage it. I would run the numbers until I was sick (except the last two years when I programmed the spreadsheet to only give me a letter grade instead of a numerical average).

I had one rule as a student went from draft to draft. Hitting print without making changes was NOT a new draft. If I could put two drafts next to each other and count five words changed/added and two new sentences in an entire ten page paper (in Times 12 point, no less - no courier short cuts in my class), then that wasn't a new draft. I told them that. Repeatedly. Said to them, "Now look, if one of you just gets it and you're on a roll and you get absolutely everything right in the first draft - as unlikely as that is because frankly that's damn hard for ANYONE to do - then I'll tell you that you don't need to change much in your next draft. I will tell you that explicitly. Otherwise? Read the suggestions from your peers. Consider them. Read my comments. Contemplate them. RE-think your points and re-write the draft. That means more than cosmetic changes."

Most of them got it. They growled. They fussed. They kicked their feet, gnashed their teeth and roared their terrible roars, but they got it.

The few who failed the class either didn't turn in the final portfolio at all (really rare) or I could literally put first draft and fourth draft side by side and see that they had really changed nothing but a couple of words.

I agonized over it every time it happened. In every instance I can remember I saw the pattern of no changes in the earlier drafts and warned them. Showed them how their classmates were taking their peers' comments and mine and changing what they'd done. Warned them that there had better be significant changes on the final or they would not pass the class because 1) the work was too weak and 2) they had failed to learn the prime directive of the class: using drafts to write.

In each case, the students were shocked that they had failed despite all of that.

I miss teaching. I miss the interactions with the students, learning from them, trying to get them a little motivated. I miss that charge when they finally got something. I miss that charge when I finally got something from them.

I don't miss grading. I don't miss "passing judgement" on their writing because that was damn hard. And, of course, every semester I was going over the same things with a new group of people - that got old. But having a student who'd always been told he was a bad student or a crummy writer - or even just average - having those students discover that they were better than they thought ... that they suddenly got how to write this kind of paper ... that was so worth it.

I doubt I will ever go back to teaching. It's been six years since I was in a classroom and it's taken me that long to be able to write this post. Honestly, I originally started this blog to try to come to terms with that lost career ... but I've not really been able to write about it until now. It was just too painful. I had to find something else ... and I've grown into a new career that I love just as much and is very, very different from what I once did.

But what I took away from that experience was the one thing that I did not teach my students. I didn't know to teach it to them.

For the great bulk of people in the world ... it doesn't actually matter how good you are at what you do. It doesn't matter how much you love what you do. Or the results you get.

It matters how you play the game. How you present yourself to the powers that be.

Not everywhere. Not in every job or company. There are some who pay attention to quality and results and I've been lucky enough to have one professional experience in such a place.

But for the vast bulk of people ... and the vast number of employers ... it's about how you present yourself and how well you play the game.

I taught my students it was the results that mattered because I thought that was true. I wish now there was some way I could teach them the truth without it coming across as cynical or disheartening, but I'm not sure there is a way to do that even if I could reach them again.

And while I've learned that lesson now ... I'm still not good at promoting myself and I never have been. I'm a "leader" from within the group, encouraging others to improve or to speak up or just that they've done a good job. Not the kind of leader that gets noticed.

I've no idea what it will take before I learn that lesson in any kind of effective way. It's a shame. I have a lot to offer if I only knew how to communicate that to the right people ... in the right way ....

It feels a lot like a puzzle for which I have no reference picture and all of the pieces are just shades of grey ....

Posted by Red Monkey at April 29, 2010 5:49 PM | Why Johnny Won't Learn and Mrs. Curnutt Is Tired of the System | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |


David Sanchez said:

While your official title may have changed, you are still a teacher. Simply reading this post was enlightening to me. I don't want to say that I rely completely on results to "judge" my success, but your emphasis on presentation and "how you play the game" definitely makes me reconsider my thought process. I think that I would have enjoyed your class thoroughly.

... and I still need to learn how to better edit my writing via drafts. Thank you for reminding me.

April 30, 2010 3:05 PM


inthefastlane said:

Playing the game is so much a part of life. I tell my kids that when it comes to figuring out school or work or life, a big part of it is figuring out how to play the game. Not always fair, or right, but do your best AND learn the game. Hard lessons.

April 30, 2010 8:44 PM


dawn said:

Been too damn long since I've read your blog!

Reading this reminded me why I'm glad you were my "mentor" for teaching first-year writing. I've always appreciated how you think about teaching, how you cared about your students.

That "pretty big 'name-brand' school" lost a really good teacher when they lost you, my friend.

May 6, 2010 11:35 PM
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