Tuesday, March 14, 2017

You're Doing a Good Job

It's always good to get positive feedback. Some times you need it more than others. Sometimes you don't even realize how much you need it.

There's a scene in the very underrated movie Half Nelson where middle school teacher and crack addict Ryan Gosling is somewhat drunk and explaining to a friend how making a positive impact on just one student makes all of the difficulties of teaching worthwhile. If he can reach just one, he will be satisfied. Later, Gosling is very drunk at a bar and rambling to random people. A man recognizes him as his daughter's former teacher. This man's daughter is now going to college. She is studying history because she grew to love the subject in Gosling's class. He wanted Gosling to know that he made a huge impact on her life, but Gosling is so far gone he has no idea what the guy is saying. The guy eventually gives up, shakes his head and walks away.

It's a great scene that captures a phenomenon that I can relate to (no, not the crack thing). Gosling was clearly abusing drugs to fill a hole or overcome depression or avoid responsibility. He's at a point where he's doubting himself and his worth. He's overwhelmed by life. He can't see the long-term positive effects of his actions as a teacher, so he turns to the bottle and the pipe, which makes him feel like more of a failure, which leads him to actually become a failure (when you buy crack from your own student, you have failed as a teacher and as a human). When evidence of the impact he is making through his work is presented to him, he's too far into his vices and his own head and self doubt to recognize it.

I think about this scene a lot because it speaks to how I feel about teaching. It really is about reaching one person (hopefully a few more, but honestly just one). Although I haven't been in the grips of serious drug addiction, I certainly have moments of self doubt and feelings of not doing well enough. My fear is that I will become too lost in the daily grind and often excruciatingly slow progression to see the long-term value, and eventually, lose the passion to teach.

It hasn't happened yet, but I'd be lying if I said I haven't come close.

This semester has been tough for a number of reasons, most of them out of my control. My two classes have the lowest number of students enrolled in my entire time at Tunxis. Each class has been cancelled at least once due to weather. Plus, the country is currently being ruled by an egomaniacal madman and the state is in a serious budget crisis, so there's a general sense of malaise and doom that hovers above all our heads constantly. Or maybe that's just me.

There's also the typical issues to deal with, such as the few students in my class not showing up. There's an average attendance rate of about 70%. On the one hand, this is great when it comes to correcting papers: less work for me! On the other hand, it's not very encouraging as a teacher, or as a student for that matter. Students notice when other students stop coming, and it can affect their own attitude towards the class. When attendance drops from 16 to 12 to 9 people, it interferes with the class chemistry. I generally plan my classes with the number of students in mind. If I plan for 16 students to show up and only 9 do, I have to change things. It's not that big a deal, but on top of everything else it is frustrating. It doesn't exactly lend itself to lively class discussions. It's also incredibly discouraging when I take the time to correct a paper of a student who never shows up again. That is draining. It makes me wonder what's the point of correcting any of them?

The point is that one student. I was reminded of that the other day. As class ended, one of my students, a nice older Asian lady, approached me. She always sits in the front row and her text book is completely marked with highlighter and words in the margins. She is very eager to improve her English, which, quite frankly, isn't all that bad.

At this point in the semester, on top of the general feeling of disgust at the world, I was feeling a little disappointed in my own performance as a teacher.

I appreciate my job as an adjunct instructor and I truly believe that teaching is the most important profession in the world and we're making the world a better place and blah blah blah, but sometimes the nobility of the profession gets lost in the day-to-day labor. The work can be overwhelming at times, and progress is always slow and often minimal, so there's not often immediate positive feedback, as a teacher or student.

Not often, but sometimes. This was one of those times. And I really needed it, much more than I knew.

She expressed to me how happy she was being in my class with an opportunity to learn. She wanted to thank me for the work I was doing. In my mind, I was simply doing what I have for the past 8 years (8?!?! Holy shit!) and not even that well.

But my perception of my own performance didn't mean a thing to her. I was influencing her in a positive way. She thought I was doing a great job. She actually took the time, at 9:25pm on a Thursday, after 3 hours of class, to offer her gratitude.

"You're an excellent teacher. It's obvious that you care. You take the time to make sure people understand what you're saying. I almost quit because you were so intense the first day, but I'm so glad I stayed."

Her excitement at learning and her sincere appreciation for my help was palpable. I couldn't help but be infected with her positivity. All I thought the entire time she was talking was, "You have no idea how much this means to me right now."

It's barely halfway through the semester and I was feeling like it was finals week. I do my best to offer encouragement to my students as much as possible because I know they need it constantly to make it through a long semester. Well this time, the teacher...had become...the student.


The truth is, we all need a boost every now and then. Even the strongest among us need support sometimes.

When it comes to your profession, it's important to hold yourself to a high standard, but that can also lead to being your own worst critic. There needs to be a limit on how hard you can be on yourself. Sometimes, simply showing up and doing the work makes a huge difference, especially in a profession like teaching. As a teacher, I'm motivated to be the best I can be and I try to make classes interesting. But sometimes it doesn't happen. Sometimes lessons or entire classes can be lackluster. That doesn't mean they're not necessary or not making an impact. 

This lady, like the father in Half Nelson, let me know that I was doing a great job. Thankfully, I was able to recognize and appreciate the meaning of her words. I reached one student. I was successful. More than anything, though, her words encouraged me to do even better. If she thought I was a good teacher now, just wait until the rest of the semester.

Maybe you're thinking, "this whole post was just a way for him to brag that someone called him a great teacher."

My response to that is, ".....Yeah? And?"

I Love You All..Class Dismissed. 

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