September, 1966. First day of school, third grade. I loved the summer-to-fall transition: the anticipation of classes, of Halloween, of Thanksgiving. The stories of Pilgrims and Indians. The new school outfits. The books. I would flip through my math book, amazed that in a few months these symbols would have meaning. And I read my English story books straight through, well before they were assigned. I felt guilty about this, as though reading ahead were cheating.
August 29, 2016. 5 a.m. Bleary eyed. Anxious. First day of classes at SUNY Sullivan. First week in my new position as Chair of Liberal Arts. Time to gear up for intensity, the anticipation of days spent with students, presenting problems in the classroom; and with faculty, solving problems outside of it. For weekends planning lessons and grading. For panic attacks when it seems impossible to do everything that needs to be done.
And yes, I love my job. The intensity forces me to strip my life to its essentials, to establish priorities, to understand myself and my goals. The intensity also is one reason why teaching has such a high turnover rate. It is a complex and demanding job.
I have been a college professor for 23 years. In spite of my life-long love of reading and writing, and in spite of the fact that, with the exception of grades 7-12, school was the one place I felt I belonged, I never intended to become a teacher. I know many educators who played school when they were young and envisioned themselves in front of a classroom. Not me. I had no desire to force a bunch of bored kids to learn math and memorize the planets in the solar system. Or grammar, for that matter.
So I came to teaching late in life, in my thirties. By that time I had had several jobs. With each, after a year or two, I lost interest. I didn’t know if I was afflicted with my maternal grandfather’s inability to stick to one occupation or whether I just hadn’t found my vocation. In 1993 I quit a well-paid administrative position that consisted of me haggling with students over money (ugh) to attend graduate school as an English major. Now I haggle with students over ideas.
August, 1968, My family had just moved to a small, picturesque town so that my brother Tom and I could enjoy a Norman Rockwell type of upbringing. I was 12; Tom was 9. I have always loved transitions — the seasons, new places, new experiences — and the move was exciting to me. Until I started school. Within the first month I had received my first zero in math because we were on a family trip when the teacher gave a test. Not only did the zero upset me, but the teacher announced my grade to the entire class. Being the new kid in seventh grade is tough, but having teachers and classmates sneering at me made life pretty miserable.
All of the sudden no one cared that I was the smartest kid in class; now I was a skinny, unattractive girl who was vulnerable to bullying. A target. The same behavior apparently occurred in Tom’s grade, as he developed chronic stomach ailments.
Fall, 2005. I had graduated with my Ph.D. and was teaching writing theory to prospective high school English teachers. To my surprise, I discovered that, like me, many of my students had suffered in school. They chose to become teachers to help students, to improve the profession. And the field of education has changed radically since the 1970s, back in the days when teachers were still allowed to beat kids with paddles — as though that would improve their learning experience. Now many teachers are creative and caring, yet they are blamed for their students’ failures. Back in the 70s everything was the student’s fault. Now everything is the teacher’s fault. Reality lies somewhere between.
Fall semester, 2016. During my first week as Chair of Liberal Arts I received several complaints about teachers. One first-year student was feeling overwhelmed and wanted to vent her frustration. She blamed her teacher for her emotional meltdown.
Not everyone thrives in college, even when they have great teachers who truly care about them. When I started teaching I assumed that my students were all like me. I was incredibly naïve for a woman in her thirties. I am now aware of the diversity that exists in our student population — individually and mentally, not just racially and ethnically. But the pressure is on. These kids who hated high school are told they will never succeed in life without a college degree. So they attend college. One of our jobs as teachers is to mentor our students, to help them understand their interests and goals — to understand themselves.
Spring, 1974. I barely graduated from high school. The move to the small, picturesque town was a failure. Everyone in my family agreed. When my brother graduated in 1977, he and my parents packed up and moved. I had already gone.
Fall, 1974. I enrolled at our local community college. My dad’s idea. To my surprise, I loved it. The teachers treated us with respect and the assignments were interesting. I thrive when left to work at my own pace; in high school we were monitored closely and, I felt, bullied by the teachers. My reaction was not to work at all. But in college, where if I didn’t work I failed and no one humiliated me, I made dean’s list the first semester. I rediscovered the little girl within who had eagerly anticipated the beginning of school. I had found my place, my vocation, my home.
Fall, 2016. I believe that without self knowledge one cannot move forward in life, cannot survive the transitions necessary to grow or adapt, to succeed. Self knowledge is a tricky process; it does not come from a book. It involves personal evolution. It involves an open mind and intellectual curiosity. Creating an environment in which students can achieve self knowledge is an art. Good teachers are mentors, magicians who want to transform students’ lives. Maybe someday they will be recognized as such.