“These young people” I sighed after reading the second request for an extension. The e-mail messages came in weeks before the first day of class and before the student even saw the syllabus. I reply politely, make sure I can log in to all the University’s systems and start writing my presentations. Later in the day I commiserate on Facebook with my fellow college instructors about how annoying these young people are; were we like that or did our teachers like us because we weren’t like that? How long will it take for these shenanigans to go from amusing to downright enraging? Its all fun and games, until a parent starts to stalk you because their brilliant child is barely earning a C in the course.
I complain a lot about these young people, so why do I get giddy with excitement at the beginning of each semester? Why am I so happy when I am on campus? The truth is my complaints belie how much I love teaching and the gratitude I feel for being lucky enough to teach future generations and future leaders. These are small annoyances I put up with in exchange from being re-energized by the same young people I love complaining about. If I am honest with myself, I get more from teaching than I give.
Over the years, teaching has served me in a number of ways. Teaching has kept me ahead of most when it comes to using technology, a strong lift for someone who is generally tech-incompetent. If it hadn’t been for the technological skills learned in order to be a more effective teacher, I wouldn’t have been able to pivot quickly during the pandemic. Teaching, financially saved me.
As much as I can be a pessimist, teaching helps me notice the small changes society makes, not just by how academic terms have entered day-to-day conversations, but how students react to content. The number of terms I no longer have to teach grows each semester, and that there are new ones to replace the old ones is the most quantifiable way to prove that progress is happening. Those are hopeful moments when the news is flooded with all that is bad in the world.
Teaching is a space where the more I share of myself, the more students relate to the material-I once used Patsy Cline as a case study for one topic in a very urban setting, I noticed an African American student being really engaged with the material and she was so excited, particularly tickled that her immigrant teacher was the one using Patsy Cline. Another time, explaining that the same person who was teaching them in English now, couldn’t have spoken to them in English when she was a teenager was eye opening to them and helped them dig deeper into their own experiences with language acquisition in a way they hadn’t honestly been able to do before.
When I communicate with my students I am often reminded that I once wanted to be where I am and worked really hard to be here, I can be bitter that being a barely literate white male will always be recognized and remunerated better than I will, but society's racism and sexism is not a reflection of the quality of my work or how many of my dreams I have actually accomplished.
Sometimes the best things in life are a fluke-I ended up teaching at my university because I had been missing academia and wanted to do more academic research without enrolling in a Ph.D program, I reached out to my contacts and one responded needing an instructor. I have now been there for twelve years. I have also taught at other universities, somehow, my university manages to select students I enjoy teaching. They are pains in the butt, but they are motivated, intellectually curious, have strong work ethics, are humble and have purpose. Every job is more enjoyable, the better the company.
Good people are healing. The news is always bad and seems to be getting worse. Teaching heals me because it reminds me that the world is probably more like my classroom than media coverage conveys-at the end of the day, if I were to meet every person in the world, I would probably like 23 out of every 25 people I meet-just like in my classroom, and yep-those two make life miserable, but they are just two.
Another e-mail comes in: the dead relative. Every semester hundreds of people die for the sake of an extension. I don’t even bother worrying about whether the death is real or not anymore. I am questioning whether I should teach this course this semester, it hasn’t started and I have time to quit. I have so many reasons not to, but I remember how great my students are, how much I take from teaching and what an honorable opportunity this is to nurture kindness in the world and squash damage before it is unleashed into the world. Another e-mail, no subject line, probably a question that’s answered in the syllabus I posted.