Things I learned about teaching while I haven’t been teaching

Thursday, April 26th, 2012 by Rachel

Until this January, I taught every semester for the past four and a half years. That’s nine semesters in a row. Nine semesters when I was responsible for one to three classes, constructing syllabi, planning lessons, checking homework, taking attendance, holding office hours, holding student conferences, grading four to eight papers, helping students channel their inner creative writers, orchestrating mini-workshops, etc.


This semester (yes, I still think of my time in terms of semesters), I have been focused on perfecting my performance as a Real Housewife of Hendersonville. The house is clean. My flower pots are thriving. Our pantry is stocked. I make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich every day when I pack my husband’s lunch. Dinner is almost always on the table when I hear my husband click his garage door opener. I have hosted one party and several overnight guests. I go to bed early, and I’m up early. It’s a good life.


There are constant reminders everywhere that I am not teaching. The 90% of my friends who are still teaching. The TV. The Little Red Riding Hood centerpiece on my desk (a student gift). The books downstairs I’m not teaching out of anymore. I think about it a lot.


So here are few of the things I’ve learned about teaching while I haven’t been teaching.


1) Students will survive.


The two-course composition sequence at Georgia College lends itself to many students taking the same instructor all year. When I announced last fall (one week before registration) to my classes that I would be leaving, many students freaked. I volunteered to provide honest feedback on other instructors. They took notes. Some freaked again when they couldn’t register for a Rachel-endorsed instructor. But in the end, they all ended up in an English class. Some have struggled this semester. Others have been happy. Some haven’t even noticed my absence. But they’re freshmen. They get through. Freshmen are more resilient than they realize.


2) Students will blossom under different instructors.


I write this thinking about one specific student. An A/B student last semester, the student didn’t talk much, never came to my office hours, didn’t add me on Facebook after I left (how rude!), and never showed any enthusiasm until the final paper. An instructor has told me that, this spring semester under her direction, the student has thrived, is creative, goes above and beyond on all assignments, and has one of the highest grades in the class. I don’t take this as an insult. It is so exciting for the student to have found inspiration, and it’s so exciting for the instructor to watch! I take this as a challenge. We all have the potential to be that instructor who pulls something special out of a student. We all offer something different as instructors that might appeal to different students. Be different. Be yourself. And if you’re lucky, you’ll inspire a student to do the same.


3) Students are surprises.


Generally, you end a semester and know which students you’ll stay in touch with. I have about 3-5 from each semester who I communicate with or keep an eye on through Facebook or email. But I was caught off guard by some of the students who’ve kept up with me after I moved out of Georgia. I guess this comes back to #2. Sometimes, as an instructor, you don’t realize who you made an impact on until the semester is over. Some students actually liked the way I marked up their papers until they bled with ink. Some students wished I’d been teaching a creative writing class instead of a composition class. Some students wanted to see pictures of my new house (which I still haven’t taken! Oops!) I’ve been surprised to see the student enthusiasm continue outside of my actual classroom, and I’m sure it’ll keep happening as time goes on.


4) The Internet is not a place for instructors.


I know that we use the internet to vent about life, relationships, jobs. But I am so sick of the “Shit My Students Write” trend. There are Tumblrs. There are Facebook groups. Some instructors make Memes. There are instructors who Facebook and tweet every time they come across a grammar error or typo or logical fallacy in student writing. More and more, I am seeing direct quotes from student work, and I do not think this is okay. Very often, I blame the instructor for the error. If you can believe it, errors are preventable. And…you are an English teacher. It’s your job to work to teach students to avoid these errors.


By the way, the internet is a pretty public place. I don’t care if you have privacy settings on your social networking sites. Everything is hackable. Everything is findable. Everyone is findable. I would be horrified as a student if I looked up an instructor (during or after the semester) to find that she had posted and joked about a line from an essay I’d written. My guess is that this student would have the right to complain to a department head.


At the end of the day, what do you have to gain by advertising how DUMB your students are? Look in a mirror. Think about the golden rule.


5) Love what you do.


I don’t care if you hate your job. I don’t care what you’re doing, if you’re teaching, writing, working at McDonalds, working in a factory, working for the government, etc. In this economy, everyone should be grateful to have any kind of job. Find something positive that you like about it. Stop all the whining and complaining. Focus on the good things that get you through the day. Maybe it’s the person who says hi to you in the morning. Maybe it’s the fact that sometimes there are donuts in the office. Maybe you have a kind boss. Maybe it’s that one student who actually seems to be listening at 9AM. If you hate your job, start applying for other jobs. If you hate your teaching fellowship, guess what—you will graduate and don’t have to teach forever. A job is a gift, and, whether you like it or hate it, you are lucky to have it.


What gets me through the day? A good breakfast (grits!). My trip to the mailbox. Chores (Laundry is my favorite, even though I hate folding). Checking on my plants. A loved TV show (Crossing Jordan). A phone call to my mom or a friend. A trip to the dump or grocery store. An email from an ex-student or a literary magazine. Knowing that I will have a job again (hopefully in the fall semester!). Knowing that I take pride in my work and I put 110% into anything and everything I do.


  1. I must admit, you were one of my favorit teachers my freshman year… even though the class itself wasn’t my favorite. I miss you, and really would like to keep in contact more. I keep up with what you are doing on facebook, and so much more. You inspired me to write again, and gave me the tools to do so. I will be forever thankful of that, I miss you Rachel.

  2. Thanks, Ash! I’m glad you were a part of my first semester teaching! I keep an eye on you too. It looks like you’re doing really well–in Colorado and engaged! How exciting! Send me a note sometime. I’m around :)

  3. i keep up with you too. <3 so glad we have all reconected

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