Somebody asked me the other day if I miss teaching. I stopped teaching and took an administrative job after twenty years of teaching undergraduates and graduates both in the liberal arts and business.
The question caught me off guard. It’s like the question about missing New York, since the answer is both yes and no. Yes, as in I would teach again and go back to New York again. No, in that I would rather be a guest lecturer than a full-time professor, and I wouldn’t mind spending a long weekend in the city catching some plays on and off Broadway. But that’s about it.
I found teaching and living in New York hard. On the plus side, both can be exciting, challenging, and fun. On the down side, they can be routine, unimaginative, and risky. Living in the Bronx certainly had its riskier, even unsafe, moments, although at no time did I feel as if my life was in peril. That reminds me of Otto von Bismarck’s comment that, “There is a providence that protects idiots, drunkards, children, and the United States of America.” I must be on that list but will leave it to the reader to figure out where.
But how can teaching be risky, you ask? Beyond the drivel about transforming students and creating “change agents,” both of which are the direct result of Paulo Freire’s Marxist theories, the risk in education has to do with personal responsibility. That is, the responsibility a teacher has for shaping and helping form minds around universal truths. This is true even at the university level, which is what makes the story I am about to tell even more painful.
One afternoon as I sat in my office planning out the next few lectures and outlining a research paper I had been struggling with, one of my students came to see me. It was toward the end of the semester in the spring and this student, like other seniors, wasn’t as engaged as she should have been. She missed classes, did not do the reading (a perennial problem. See Hissy Fit 101, “Teaching!”), and did not get involved in any of the discussions. As I remember, her group work suffered, too.
She came in, plopped down in the seat next to my desk, and announced excitedly that she had news for me. That got my attention. When I asked her what it was, she told me that she had figured out what to do with her life. “Really?” I asked, surprised. “Yes,” she replied. “I’m going to be a professor like you!”
Although I can’t be sure, my jaw probably dropped. I sat back to take it in. Apparently, this under-performing student had been paying attention all along. She understood what I had been trying to do in the course and was so impressed with me that she had decided to take teaching as her vocation. It reinforced what I had learned years before about not making judgments about individual students. You never knew what went on inside them.
“So, tell me,” I said, giddy with self importance. “What was it about the class that made you decide this?” I wanted to appear as humble as the situation called for. “Well,” she answered seriously. “I see you come into the classroom and all you do is start talking. So, I figured, how hard could it be?”
To say that my heart sank would be a gross understatement. My inflated ego popped and sputtered around the room out of control. I did not know what to say and so said nothing. I stared at her, incredulous. When I finally came around, I tried to explain what the academic life was like and the years of preparation it would take. I didn’t quite hear the words that came out of my mouth, which was all right, because she wasn’t actually listening.
There’s a lesson to be learned here, although I’m still not sure what it is (see Mittwoch Matinee). My father’s admonition about there being no free lunches comes to mind. In more somber moments, I count her comment and similar affronts as payback for my youth and young adulthood in which I was just as clueless. Then again, it could be a reminder to be more patient.
In the end, I told the person who asked whether I miss teaching what I tell everyone else who asks: “Sure.”
Image credits: feature by Dom Fou; lecture hall by Nathan Dumlao. Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.”