I slept in this morning and woke up with a gastric hangover caused by too much turkey, stuffing, and other Thanksgiving table delights. It was with a less than determined “ho-hum” that I sluggishly put on my walking grubbies early this afternoon. I think “yuk” would a better way to describe my attitude towards walking. I kept trying to talk myself out of walking as I opened the door. Hitting the unexpected crisp and invigorating 38 degree air, however, was like a splash of cold water. I woke up and off I went. All along my route, there was an unusual stillness in the air. It was as if everything was in a holiday repose. Only I disturbed the pristine sun-cast shadows of the bare, interlaced branches of the water oaks, dogwoods, and pecan trees that marbleized the streets. I had been thinking about blessings a lot lately, not only because of the Thanksgiving season but in an attempt to prevent a family crisis from casting me into the depths of despair. So I wasn’t surprised that I started thinking about an assignment an e-mail colleague from England had given me a few weeks ago. She charged me to answer, “with clarity, brevity and a lively presentation,” the question, “What do think are the rewards of good teaching.” The assignment was due yesterday, but since it was a holiday and classes were out, I suspect that she will give me a day’s grace.
Given the fact that with rare exception the academic culture places little if any value on teaching or rarely goes beyond lip service in support of non-researching and non-publishing teachers, I don’t think the rewards of good teaching can be measured adequately by such institutional methods of recognition as salary increases, promotion, and acquisition of tenure. I’m not even sure the good teacher would get so simple a thing as an appreciative “thank you” and a handshake.
Remembering my colleague’s instructions, I will only say that I think the real reward of good teaching has a human face. Nothing can better convey what I mean then a story about one of my current students I’ll call Susan.
Susan is a 35 year old wife with a supporting husband and a mother of two adoring teenage girls. She came into class straight- jacketed by an obvious overwhelming self-consciousness and weak self-confidence. They were written all over her face and screamed out in her body language. She acted as if she wanted to sit in the back of the room by herself where no one would notice her. She was visibly upset when she was placed in a circle of other students and discovered that there was no hideaway recess in my classroom. She was uncomfortable sitting in group circles with others looking at her and she having to look at others. She wouldn’t smile and would sit tightly upright. She would talk with the other members of her group only when it was required. She volunteered nothing easily, and was hesitant about participating in the biography exercise we use to start getting to know each other. Her eyes were constantly roaming as if trying to see if anyone was looking at her. On one of the bonding exercises I use to begin forging a learning community in the class, she wrote that she was nervous, confused, frightened, and unsure. She was not sure that she had the ability to be a college student. After all, she had been at best a poor to mediocre student in a rural Georgia school system that had yet to discard the separate but equal concept in education, and that it had been over fifteen years since she had been in school. Moreover, she was not sure if she made the right move of coming back to school so long after she had graduated high school, not sure if she could carry the burden of both school and family however supportive was her husband and children, not sure if she was being selfish, not sure if she was capable in the first place.
When it came time for her to do the signing exercise, one of the ice-breakers I use at the beginning of the term in my class, she would not stand up and sing solo before the class. She was the only student to refuse. She was terrified. “I can’t,” she exclaimed as she vigorously shook her head. A few others in the class urged her on by saying that they had been scared but had sung and they had survived. She still shook her head and refused to stand up and sing. “That’s OK,” I quietly said in a calming voice, “sing while you’re sitting down.” She shook her head. Then, two other students from different parts of the room spontaneously got out of their chairs and walked over to her as I carefully approached her. We knelt down and one of the students whom she did not know said, “Let’s be a barbershop quartet and sing some of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” We did with Susan hesitantly whispering the words so quietly no one could hear her. Nevertheless, we all understood and applauded her efforts. I gave her a tootsie pop and said, “Good. That’s a step.”
“She may be scared silly,” I said to myself in my written notes, “but she’s here. I don’t think she realizes the courage and strength she has within her. I’m going to keep my eye on her.”
Her lack of self-confidence leaked into everything she did in class. She was quiet as stone during class discussions, sitting motionless and without expressions. During the quizzes, she would go along with whatever anyone said in the group. When the group divided the daily assignments, she did what was assigned to her by the others without an utterance. One day, I pulled her aside after class. We strolled out to a bench, and as we sucked on tootsie pops, we talked. She admitted that she lacked self-confidence. She had been talking about that very subject with her husband the day before. It was driving her up a wall. She knew it was obstructing her efforts and performance. She was always worrying about what others would think and about that proverbial “what you wanted.” She admitted that she had to think less of what she feared others thought of her and more of what she thought of herself.
“I was always like that all my life. I know it has to change, but,” she asked, “how do I do that?”
I answered by asking her why she came to college. “To make something better of myself. I want to be a better and more informed person so I can be my own person. I want to grow!” she answered.
I was stunned. That wasn’t the answer I expected. “That’s a hell of an answer,” I replied. “I don’t know anyone who could have said it better.” I asked her if she ever thought about what it took for her to make the decision to come to college, to have the courage to admit she was not satisfied with her life, to have even more courage to act on that realization, to accept the burden of being wife, mother, and now student. “What does your being here say to you about you?” I asked. “What does your going to college say to your children about you? Concentrate on those answers when you come up with them,” I then advised, “and then screw whatever anyone else might think or say.”
Slowly over the next couple of weeks I noticed a different look begin to appear on her face. She struggled to make a comment here and there during a discussion. A word grew into a phrase, a phrase into a sentence, a sentence into a statement. Smiles began to replace tightly closed lips. The look in her eyes changed. She began actively discussing the answers to questions during the quizzes within her triad and even volunteered to help other triads. She increasingly took on a leadership role in her triad. Every time she’d look at me I’d give her a slight nod of my head, a loud “that’s good Susan,” a wink of an eye, a subtle thumbs up sign, or even a tootsie pop.
Then her triad had to put on a skit before the class. There she was, standing up in front of the class, having the largest speaking role. She later wrote in her journal that she wanted to have that role in her triad’s skit; she wanted to get in front of the class and, as she wrote, “blot out my fear.” She went on to write in capital letters, “I CONVINCED MYSELF THAT I CAN DO THIS AND I DID! I feel more and more confident about myself.”
A week later, she wrote in her journal that she had given a speech in her Communications class. And though she was nervous, she said she kept thinking about the faith I had expressed in her ability, the support and encouragement she had received from those in her triad, and how she had talked up in front of our class. She got an “A” for that major presentation, and was so proud of her peer evaluations that she clipped them in her journal for me to see.
I have an e-mail colleague from Australia who says that all professors have these opportunities. But, it’s the good teacher, however, he goes on to say, who takes the opportunity. It’s a heady experience to see people grow and be a part of that growth. Once you begin to feel the students in the class, to start touching each other’s souls, when you have that electrifying occasion to see the students reach out and grab and be transformed, there are no question marks. There are just exclamation points, and a sense of wonder and fulfillment. No publication, no grant, no conference paper, no length of resume, no amount of salary increase, no promotion can match the exhilaration of that sense of accomplishment.
Yes, the real reward of good teaching has a human face to it. It is the knowledge that you’ve made a difference. When that happens, it doesn’t matter one bit what anyone else says or even if anyone else knows.
Make it a good day.