I looked up from the calculator and the computer screen, satisfied that I had done everything I needed to do, that my affairs were all in order, and I closed out the browser with a sigh. One semester down. One semester of getting used to being called Professor, of going to college on the other side of the equation. No longer a student. Now an instructor. And three months after I began it still seems a bit odd, but far less than it did in September.
I got to know the students quickly, playing the name game, having them write about what makes them unique on the very first day of classes. I’m tough that way, expecting something right off the bat, but there really was no other way to show them what they were going to get from me over the course of the next three months. And now that time is over, and I’ve said my goodbyes, and I have my schedule for spring, for the next four months of my teaching career.
As I looked at that blank computer screen I remembered doing the same thing nearly 11 years ago, when I first entered a high school classroom as a teacher. I felt inadequate back then. Who was I to grade the work of those students? Who was I to say who should pass and who should fail? It was as heavy a weight as I had ever had to bear before, and while this is similar it has even more of an edge to it. Because this is college.
When I was in college I wore jeans and the same four revolving t-shirts, replaced by three revolving sweatshirts in winter and the colder parts of spring and fall. I sat in the back of each one of my classes and made friends with the misfits back there. But I wasn’t a misfit, far from it. I was the kid who constantly had his hand in the air, waving it for emphasis or out of frustration. Sure, I got top of the line grades, but I was never satisfied. I realized as this fall semester progressed that I’m the same as a professor, except I expect that drive to do well from each of my students.
But they’re not me, and I had to keep wrapping my brain around that, to keep reminding myself that my expectations had to be reined in and shifted to accommodate where they were coming from. I had to remember that this isn’t high school, that they needed to learn to be responsible for themselves, that I couldn’t hold their hands, call their parents, and bleed out the worries that I had for some of them as the semester moved on like a downhill train.
So I followed some sort of hybrid strategy, emailing them when I was worried, trying to prod them along without mothering them. It was a tight-rope act of which I was proud, but was it enough to instill in them the intrinsic motivation they would need to persevere and pass the course?
I stared at that screen after submitting final semester grades, and I smiled because for the most part they did get it, they did follow my guidelines, and they did pass. Of course there were a few who didn’t make it, but overall they were leaps and bounds above where they had been when they began my composition course, and the grades proved it out. But more than that. The work they turned in by the end of the semester was better, more concise, more dynamic than even I could have hoped to see. And I’m looking forward to doing it all over again in the spring… times three.