Like most people in the same circumstances, when I first became a teacher I thought I was going to MAKE A DIFFERENCE. I entered with the naive notion that, with a healthy dose of "cool" and the right mixture of "respect," my students would grow to love me, pay forward the respect to each other and back to me, and achieve their potential. I thought that with the right attitude, I could have saved Emilio in Dangerous Minds or had my students start their very own Dead Poets' Society.
Then I stood in front of a classroom.
It didn't take long for me to realize that those dreams were largely unrealistic. It's not that the end goals were outright unattainable, it's that inspiration and action are things that cannot be directed from the outside -- they must spawn from within.
After one year of having students tell me I played favorites, I was mean, and I didn't know what I was doing, I began to believe them. I studied for the LSAT, researched law schools, and thought, "Screw you guys, I'm going home."
But something tugged me back. I can't quite tell you what it was, but I knew that I couldn't leave teaching yet. So instead of entering Year Two with the same attitude, I altered my approach to that of survival.
The ensuing six years had their ups and downs. I grew a lot as a teacher and as a man. I learned how not to handle more circumstances than how TO handle many. But as I grew more and more passionate about my job and my students, I also grew more and more STRESSED, which made me more and more ANXIOUS, which ultimately resulted in a pretty severe depression. I realized that only a handful of my students were living up to the expectations I had set, and I was unwilling to let those who fell short off the hook.
Worst of all? Since I hadn't met my quota of saving all students, I considered myself one who fell short. I was a failure.
A lot of things happened between the moment I admitted this to myself and the moment I'm writing this blog, but the main one was my decision to turn my PASSION into COMPASSION. I realized that my goals to have students succeed was more for the ego gratification I would get through my students' success.
Today I received yet another heartfelt e-mail from one of my freshman students at UCSD. I'd venture to say that nearly 40% of my students have expressed outward thanks to me this semester, either through e-mails, thank you cards, or -- in one instance -- a red apple on the last day of class. This is not meant to be boastful, but rather to point out that something I'm doing seems much better -- and that's the only foundational change I made.
I decided to teach students about perspective in addition to writing. I gave them the sense of agency and accountability. When students e-mailed me with excuses for late papers, I opted for, "I understand. Things happen. Do the best you can" instead of the standard, "No late work accepted." When they came to ask how they could get an A on the next paper, I switched to, "Don't worry about the A. Let's work on improving your writing, the grades will happen" instead of "Read the rubric."
I noticed how jaded a lot of professors become after several semesters of teaching basic composition, and I thought there was no hope for me. I still realize I may end up jaded after another couple of years, but right now I've grown to love the process of watching kids struggle to find their way with the written word. For some reason, they actually seem to enjoy the bumps once they get to the end of the semester.
Oddly enough -- despite the criticisms of some peers that I was being soft -- I began to notice my actions had a counterintuitive effect. Now that the class felt LESS "do or die," students began prioritizing it. In the past two years, I have only had one instance of academic dishonesty, zero confrontations with students, and my average grade still rests comfortably in the high C to C+ range. In other words, my compassion for my students -- in addition to the accountability I demand of them -- has led to far greater success than any hard rules previously had.
And best of all? Many of the correspondences I received from students mentioned how their "outlook" had changed after my class. Several expressed that they had found more effective ways of managing stress. A few even told me they had become less fearful and anxious.
When I went through my dark times with depression, all I wanted was for someone to show me the way out. I realized at some point near the end that it is much easier to stay out than to get out. My goal became to help anyone within my power to do so. With compassion, I do my best to serve that purpose -- even though my class is writing. Interestingly enough, I think the end result has made EVERYTHING better.
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