Friday, September 29, 2006

Surprises from the classroom

We're 4 weeks into the semester now and I've almost learned everyone's name. I only see these *kids* once a week , so it seems to take forever to know who's who.

They're a pretty mixed group, with a surprising number of boys. Usually in a class of eighteen students I'll have only 4 or 5 boys, but this semester it's the opposite. Boys make me nervous. They tend to cause flashbacks to the year I spent teaching Spanish at an elementary school and had to bear the torment of 6th and 7th graders on a daily basis. I was not a happy camper then and ended most school days very near in tears. I did much better with high school boys who didn't spend all their time trying to figure out ways to harass me.

The boys at the community college are very much like the high school students I taught. It's interesting to me to imagine what they must have been like in high school and what group they fit in to. With a new start at college, some of them are trying out new roles, but many times they seem to fall back on their old ways. Oftentimes I have the athletes who spent their high school years charming their way through classes. Confident and very personable, but sort of lazy. They smile at me a lot and crack jokes, call me *Professor* when everyone else calls me by my first name. Very amusing. Very charming.

Then there are the boys who try to blend into the walls and hope I won't pay any notice of them. Well-behaved and quiet and badly in need of help, but afraid to ask for it. They got through high school by not causing any trouble and they're hoping that strategy will still work for them. They're the hardest for me to connect with in the classroom because they won't respond to either the friendly cajoling I frequently employ, or the stern *teacher talk* that I hate to have to resort to. Stern doesn't really work for me and they see through this act of mine.

As a teacher, I know that I shouldn't have any preconceived ideas about my students, but I can't help it. What I enjoy is watching them trash the ideas I have about them as the semester progresses.

There is the muscular football player who last night volunteered to read poem after poem out loud for the rest of the class as we talked about the connections we make when reading that help us to understand text better.

And his friend who asked if we didn't have time to write a follow-up to one of the peoms we read that the class had really enjoyed. (I think that was a ploy to avoid doing any *real* work!)

The shy Haitian student who every week arrives early and rearranges the furniture so that I, and the rest of the class, won't have to do it.

The student who skipped class the first week, arrived late with a smirk for the second class, but then produced a perfect Origami crane while I floundered to make something resembling a box as a demonstration of the value of background knowledge when reading.

I like for them to surprise me. I'm glad to find these good things in unexpected places and talents in unexpected people.

Have you ever had a moment where you wondered how on earth you got to that point? I often feel that way in the classroom. I came across this picture, my college graduation pic, this evening while searching for an old friend's address. I was 22 and engaged to be married and had no clue what I would be doing the following week, let alone near 15 years later. Never would I have imagined myself to be teaching college. I look at it and wonder what my college profs thought of me, the quiet girl who always sat in the front row, but never said a word. I was terribly shy and hated to speak in front of people. How I find the courage to teach puzzles me, still. My knees sometimes shake, but I've learned to stand behind the desk at those times!

I like to think of what the students I have known will become and how they will find their place in the world. Most I never hear from again, but a few do keep in touch and will email me once in a while. I like that they do that and wish that more did. I think it's the nature of the course I teach, and the way I try to do it, that leads some of them to want me to know that they're doing well and that they've beaten the odds. That they've surprised themselves, even.

10 comments:

Susan Gets Native said...

Laura, you just rock.
I needed a prof like you in college. Not for reading, but for MATH.

bunnygirl said...

But, but... you're so smart, pretty and articulate, you CAN'T be shy!!! :-)

You sound like a fun teacher, and very dedicated, both to the subject and to really knowing the students. That goes such a long way. My favorite teachers, all the way from elementary through grad school, have been the ones who cared enough to learn about the real people sitting in those desks.

I hope they keep surprising you, in very pleasant ways!

samtzmom said...

What a lovely post Laura. I am sure that you have touched many more lives than you can imagine simply by believing in them, and letting them know that they can be successful. THAT'S what makes a teacher a teacher... kudos to you for seeing past the images they try to project in order to see the potential inside them.

Sandy said...

I wish I would have had more teachers like you. And yes, I do still remember the few that I had, who seemed to care.
Good photo, by the way.

LauraHinNJ said...

Susan: I taught math for a short while - not pretty.

Bunnygirl: Thanks, but it's true!

;-)

samtzmom: Each and every one of them is a character. Many of them have been beaten down by school and just need a little boost.

Sandy: I've been thinking for a while about getting in touch with one of my college profs who helped me a lot just to say thanks.

silverlight said...

The thing is , that these kids think college is like high school. uh,uh, tain't so. In high school, the resposibility of learning is on the teacher. Now, in college you are supposed to be an adult. What they learn now is their resposibility. The teacher puts out the lesson. The student has to pick it up. At least that's the way it used to be. Now, they HAVE to participate.

Madcap said...

I think most people (my bias showing here, I know) don't really benefit from formal schooling until they're adults and have worked through their basic growing up. I love the anecdote about your football playing poet. That warms me cockles!

LauraHinNJ said...

Silverlight: You're right, but the college where I teach and this series of courses for low-level students attempts to help them in that transition to responsibility.

Madcap: Part of me wants to jump up and down in agreement, at least when I think of how much of my formal schooling was wasted on me. I remember so little and paid so little attention. I had no idea what I was really interested in. If I could go back and re-do the decisions I made I would have studied entirely different things - I was just too young to know what I was really interested in, in order to make those decisions.

Schools now make learning so *serious* - there's no fun or exploration in it for the little ones, even.

My football-playing poet is something else - that was quite a surprise!

Michelle said...

I imagine you are a wonderful teacher that makes the learning fun and rewarding rather than just work. No doubt you have made a huge difference in more lives than you know, whether they stay in touch after the class is over or not.

debbie said...

i remember that hair. you look so young. you are so right. who knew what would be in the next 15 years.... i'm just glad that you have been a part of mine.