Friday, October 1, 2010

Teaching Anniversary: 20 Years of Fun

Today I am celebrating 20 years of my career teaching languages. When I told this to my colleagues last week, they started looking at me suspiciously. "She must be a lot older than we thought" - this was a message written all over their faces. The secret, however, is that I started very early. I taught my first language class when I was 14 years old. I had no idea what I was doing and felt completely terrified. Still, even then I realized that there is something very attractive in teaching, especially in teaching foreign languages, which means teaching not just grammar rules and vocabulary but an entire universe that comes with them.

Since then, I have realized that if you were lucky enough to be born with a "teaching gene," this profession offers rewards like no other. I would like to share some of those especially rewarding moments with my readers.

A few years ago, I volunteered to teach a course in Hispanic Civilization to a group of high school kids from immigrant Hispanic families. These students came from very disadvantaged backgrounds, many of them had history as gang members and of being arrested. The course was also challenging because students ranged from 13 to 17 years of age, which made it very difficult to come up with the kind of material that all of them woould respond to. Among my students there was one guy, let's call him Felipe, who very obviously hated being in that class. He spent every class session hiding behind his dark sunglasses (even in winter) and never removed his headphones. I was honestly afraid of asking him to remove the headphones because the guy was huge and dressed like gang members in MTV videos. Since I knew that he had a history of gang participation, it hardly made any sense to try to discipline him in a conventional way.

Students had to hand in written assignments at the beginning of each class session, but Felipe never did. Once, however, he turned in his homework. I realized immediately that his text was copy-pasted from Wikipedia without a single change. Of course, I could have berated him for that, shamed him in front of the class, reported him to his high school teachers, and even kicked him out of my class. None of this would have made an impression on Felipe who had been hearing what a screw-up he was during his entire career as a student. So I decided to address the issue in a different way. On Felipe's homework, I wrote: "Wow, this is really good! I loved your paper. I wish you shared your ideas with the rest of the class. Your classmates need to hear what you have to say."

When I was handing back homework, I could see that Felipe was awaiting his in a defiant state of mind. As soon as he got it back, his facial expression changed to one of confusion and suspicion. On this day, he removed one of his headphones half way out of his ear and started listening in. Probably, he wanted to know if I was going to mention him and make fun of him. He did the same thing during the next class session. A couple of classes later, Felipe finally decided to make a comment on the topic we were discussing. When he did that, I said: "This is a fantastic comment, Felipe! Everybody, please listen carefully and write down what Felipe has to say because it's such a crucial comment. Please, repeat it, Felipe."

I can't say that things changed dramatically right after that. But there were tiny shifts in Felipe's degree of interest and involvement during that entire academic year. When at the end of the course I took my students on a field trip in New York, Felipe was invaluable in helping me look after 24 rowdy teenagers. After the end of the course, I was required to discuss each student's progress with their high school counsellor. When she heard that Felipe not only got an "A" in the course (and a well-deserved one since I don't hand out easy grades for any purpose) but was also my stellar student, she was convinced I was confusing him with someone. "Felipe? Felipe Suarez??" she kept saying. "Yes, Felipe Suarez," I responded. "Your school is so lucky to have a mature, intelligent, and responsible student like him."

I heard from these students a while ago. Felipe graduated from high school and a year later started going to a community college. My other student who had a long-standing history of gang involvement, graduated from college and is planning to go to law school. They wrote to tell me that I changed their lives. When I got that e-mail, I bawled in my office for forty minutes. These are fantastic kids and all they ever needed was that somebody believe in them and treat them with respect.

In short, there is nothing in the world that can compare to teaching.


Michael Blekhman said...

Congratulations, dear daughter! I congratulate you and your students!!!


Clarissa said...

Well, you were one of the people who passed me the "teaching gene." :-) So it's our shared holiday.

Melissa said...

That's a wonderful story. :)

Congrats on 20 years!

Catherine X said...

That's wonderful my friend. As a part of the PHD program - it is mandatory for me to take the Teaching seminar at my school every Friday morning (It concludes with a very good lunch cant complain:) )
The lady who does this has the same view of teaching as u do- I just love that attitude. We have guest speakers (faculty with a drive for teaching) every week and what I gather from them is "Treat students like human beings, don't be cynical about them, they are humans with problems and issues in life as much as we do as academics" - the golden rule is to ACCEPT, ENGAGE, AND BUILD - I can testify that you do a great job of this.
I look forward to teaching next semester - I hope to be able to manage management well with my students ;)

Also, the faculty has given us a handbook of the "Excuses that students make" - it is hilarious, would love to pass it on to you once I get it in electronic format.

Hope you are doing well my friend !