Well, I am sorry. I meant for this to follow more quickly upon the heels of my first entry in this new exploration. But time and the beginning of another academic year intruded and I am just now getting to follow up. I should say that the academic year has begun--actually into the fourth week already!--and has brought its usual supply of old and new challenges. As I have made a practice to share my classes this year, I'll do that now and then get on with "part two":
Rel 320: Spirituality, Character, and Service
EN 95: Writing and Grammar
EN 200: Advanced Composition: Argument
HUM 410: Senior Thesis
And I'm also teaching an adult on line class right now:HUM 310: Faith, Living, and Learning.
So, yes, obviously, I've got a bit of a load. Glutton for punishment? Nope: Glutton for the pleasures of teaching.
Now, back to 50 years ago and to...
Sally Hrdlicka. I want to begin with the story of Sally. I hope it is okay to tell this story; it is mostly about me and a little about her. But it is a crucial story for me. I want to tell this story because it marks an early conversion point for me. Perhaps baptism is the better word. But this moment started my life long journey with the question that has dominated most of my life as a teacher: What is this really all about? I am an English teacher; is that where it begins and ends—or is there something more to all of this? The context for this story is a deep desire to be a good teacher; I really wanted that. To be honest, I also need to say that I wanted to be a popular teacher, too. I think what I meant by popular is liked; I wanted to be liked. And, yes, I know that sometimes those two desires are in conflict with each other. Sometimes I had to choose to be disliked, although in the long run, I think I’ve been liked more often than not.
To be clear, I had no idea what it meant to be a good teacher. Outside of ideas like classroom management, following the adopted curriculum plan, providing well-planned lessons and grading carefully and fairly, nowhere along my journey as a student aspiring to teach did anyone ever suggest to me that good teaching is about more than those kinds of things—in fact, I came to learn that good teaching is often about sacrificing those things. Since teaching is an art more than a craft and a classroom is often more about surprises and serendipity than a well crafted lesson plan, my experience is that the lesson plan is often tossed out the window in favor of something far better and, usually, more important. (At least it is in a constant state of rearrangement.)
What does all of that have to do with Sally? Sally was sophomore student in my first year as a full time teacher; she was blond, with what I thought of as Barbra Streisand looks. I wish I could post a photo of her, but would do so only with permission and since I don't know how to reach her... She was a good student, but my story with Sally is about something more than being a good student. I’ve often wondered what happened to her. I’d like her to know what a life changer she was.
The particular story I want to tell begins on Friday because Friday meant spelling and vocabulary day. The students had a list of words they were to master each week of the year. On those days, I honored the traditional spelling test mode: Say the word, say the word in a sentence, and repeat the word. Wait a short time and move on to the next word. It was an easy day for a teacher. In addition to that, the time-honored process also required that I wander the classroom to discourage cheaters. I remember the admonition to be random in my selection of rows to walk on—and to walk quietly. Always best to walk from the back of the room to the front—I actually was taught that. It felt like a hunting expedition. Stay out of sight and downwind so they neither see nor smell your arrival. I think the idea is that it would be a good thing to catch your prey.
Well, I did that; remember I wanted to be a good teacher. I caught Sally pulling a small cheat sheet out of her left sleeve. And I remember my panic because, honestly, I really hoped to never catch a cheater. Now, the prey was in my sights; do I pull the trigger? At the moment I was about to make her an example, she sensed my presence, turned her face toward me, great tears in her eyes, and silently begged me not to say anything. Please! I can still see her face.
I didn’t pull the trigger. I didn't want to say anything anyway; I’m the hunter who intentionally makes a noise so my prey will escape. (What a horrid metaphor, by the way: “prey.” Student as prey. Sad and even shameful—but it was what I was taught. Oh, no, not explicitly; but it is an apt metaphor.)
I didn’t say anything. We met after class and I asked Sally what that was all about. Tears and tears and real remorse. (She was not a student who cheated after all; I knew that.) “Last night,” she told me, “my parents told my siblings and me that they were getting a divorce—and our lives came undone. I could not think to study and really didn’t remember that today was spelling day until I sat down in class.” Nothing more came of that moment; I mean I left it and reassured her that we would get beyond this. She was grateful.
But I learned something in that moment that never left me. Sally is one of my most important teachers. I learned that there is more going on in the lives of our students than we can possibly know. I learned that the person sitting in front of me has a life outside the classroom—that is, outside of my frame of reference. I learned that I’d better be aware of that fact. A student is a person with a life. With family. With friends. With lovers and spouses and partners. I learned that sometimes I may get a glimpse of that world and when I do I’d better pay attention to it. Because in those moments real teaching happens—or might happen.
I should have known that, right? I mean I’d lived through all those years of schooling and certainly carried my own secrets and struggles with life, but I think I thought I was really the only one. Everyone else seemed to have life figured out and knew how to work it. I didn’t (still working on that as a matter of fact). Sally didn’t see it coming. She was blindsided. She was reeling from the loss of certainty and from the need to figure out how to live in the reality of that lost certainty.
I hope she walked away from that moment feeling cared for and understood; I walked away certain that I’d done exactly the wrong thing and fearful that once the word got out my teaching career would come crashing down around me before I’d reached the end of my first semester.
Beginning that day I began to pay more attention to the connection between life in and out of the classroom. While it would take me years to realize just how important that connection is—and for it to change how I hope and try to be in the classroom—this is the beginning of a journey with students to discover what I eventually came to call relational teaching.