“We learn by example and by direct experience because there are real limits to the adequacy of verbal instruction.” — Malcom Gladwell
“Ideal teachers are those who use themselves as bridges over which they invite their students to cross, then having facilitated their crossing, joyfully collapse, encouraging them to create bridges of their own.” — Nikos Kazantzakis
The jitters began in earnest around 6 a.m.
I welcomed them, the old friends, gave them refuge, as it indicated to me (as jitters always do), that something big was about to happen. Jitterish moments aren’t always considered companionable, but this morning was different.
You see, it’s the first day of school, and I am a teacher.
The idea of teaching came early to me, mixed in with professional ice skating and singing on Solid Gold. I can’t say with sincerity and nostalgia that I “always” knew I wanted to teach, but I do hold vivid and sweet memories of play-teaching in my grandparent’s basement furnace room (the heating duct made a great intercom). I set up chairs with dolls, and I stood in front, teaching things I thought were important. I wonder what those things were?
My enthusiasm for the first day ducks and hides at the first sight of “back to school” sales. Seeing colorful backpacks festooned with Hello Kitty comingling with 4th of July paraphernalia makes me a bit nauseous. It’s not that I don’t love me a good, sparkly folder or jazzy pencil case…it so happens school supplies are one of my most favored things, and I pay homage to their kitsch. But seeing them before AUGUST incites a small fire in my belly, akin to spotting Christmas décor in Costco before Labor Day. It just ain’t right.
I’ve progressed beyond the furnace room, and now I teach English. Not how to speak English, although I’ve done a bit of that, too, but primarily the writing of so-called academic English, mixed with some study of film and literature. Speaking to a colleague in the women’s bathroom, (where I so often find myself in lingering, rich conversation), I shared how this fall semester feels different to me. It’s a combination of knowing some of what’s coming with my increasingly diverse student population, but also knowing that I won’t be showing my students HOW to write. I can’t teach writing. I haven’t known this very long. I really thought, for a very long portion of my career, that if students didn’t leave my classroom with the gift of gilded prose that I was personally responsible. Now, I see my role as more of a facilitator. I teach my students tools that can help them find their voice. In fact, Karantzakis’ metaphor works well for me, right up to the point of collapse.
There’s an important distinction between competency with a goal of mastery and acting like a master. There’s a crucial line between simply knowing you can handle it and embodying enthusiasm for the upcoming challenge. I know, going in, that I don’t have all the answers, but I have the experiences I have, and I can share them passionately with students. I can believe in them. I can help them see that each one of them has something unique to say. Maybe the big difference today is my anxiety level…or maybe it’s my new owl lunch sack from Target, but I was fired up to walk into those classrooms today, and for that, I am plum grateful.