Teaching composition is a really big responsibility. Composition instructors make first contact with students who are new to college, new to writing and new to critical thinking. Many times I feel, as I’m sure all of us teachers feel, that I’m not only teaching my students how to write essays, but I’m also teaching them how to be college students.
When I first started teaching, I only wanted to teach my students about how literature could be a meaningful force in their lives. I saw myself as sort of a gatekeeper of a traditional form of literacy that I saw being devalued among members of my generation (I am, after all, a millennial, just like my students). I have always been a very traditional learner (see my learning styles graph at the top of the page). I can listen to a lecture for hours (I even like traffic school). While I was in graduate school, I was adamant about teaching books that I found valuable and teaching primarily literature in all of my freshman composition classes. I admit that I was college teacher who really only knew how to teach my subject of study. After all, I was only 24 years old and I didn’t have a degree in Education, or in RCTE. I was a student of Literature (with a capital “L”) and that is what I was going to teach. So, I did. I read Hawthorne with my students and I lectured about psychoanalysis and postmodernism, and I think they learned something, but I don’t think it was always “composition.”
Nevertheless, every semester, more of what I learned from my colleagues with degrees in Education would sneak into my teaching. One semester I would start to incorporate “nontraditional texts” and the next I would have my students working in groups in hopes of creating a student-centered classroom. By the time I came to teach at the community college, I was much more open to running my classroom in a way that, frankly, made me uncomfortable. I started to use the techniques that I had learned through my pedagogical training: addressing varied learning styles, utilizing classroom technology, using a combination of group and individual work, active learning. I started teaching things I was resistant to in graduate school: like rhetoric and grammar. Turned out that I liked it. It took me a while to recognize that my own strengths- my ability to read and comprehend easily, my long attention span for lectures and my seemingly natural love of writing – were my weaknesses as a teacher. I had to learn to see things more from my students’ point of view, so that they would be engaged. It was only after I got their attention that I could make real learning take place.
Now, I enjoy revising my courses every semester to fit my student’s changing needs. After all, one of the things I’ve always enjoyed about teaching is the constant opportunity to learn and I learn new things from my students everyday. Beyond learning from them, I feel the constant responsibility to learn for them. There is a lot of information out there, and I constantly feel like I am changing and adapting, so I can better help by students learn to navigate it. I think that learning to write is also learning to think and to read the world around us. Students are constantly bombarded with so much information; I want to help them sort it out. I also care quite a bit for my students and I genuinely want them to succeed. I am always trying to improve myself, so I can be of help to them. I remember the moments in my own education when I made connections that helped me learn to think, or to see, and I hope that I have those moments with my students. I see teaching as a both gift and a constant challenge, but one that I’m happy to accept either way.
P.S. I still teach Hawthorne almost every semester.
For those who haven't seen it, here is a video that outlines some of those challenges.