Thursday, May 9, 2019

the one where i learn something

One of the cool things about being a teacher is getting a fresh start on a regular basis.  You get amped up about the coming school year and you dive into it with a revised plan.  The weeks and months of student interactions unfold and you find yourself approaching May with a bag full of bitter losses, plans that fell apart and students wishing you were dead.  If this sounds like hyperbole to you, then you are obviously not a teacher.

Of course, there are the plans that work out great and the students who you helped and heck, some of them even tell you so.  It's not all bad, but we humans do tend to focus on the negative parts, don't we?  So you find yourself nearing May, having a lot of conversations with yourself in the car on the commute home.  What worked this year?  What didn't?  What will you do different next year?  The cool thing is that you can kind of cut your losses at graduation and start fresh in August.  

As this time of reflection has rolled up on me this semester, it's had me looking back and really considering the social aspect of being a teacher.  This is something teachers don't talk about very often but perhaps they should, as it appears to be a weakness for many of us.  What is the social aspect of being a teacher?  It's pretty much everything beyond the dry delivery of information in your class.  And no one wants to be the dry deliverer of information.  We all have personalities and teaching approaches that inform that delivery.  In 3 hour studio classes, there's also a lot of personal interaction that goes on which makes who you are almost as important as what you know.  What I mean by that is that if you are a cold, personality-void-of-a-human and you know a lot of stuff, you may be able to pass that information along to a couple of the self starters in your class.  But if you are engaging and passionate and you show a personal interest in the lives of your students, you will certainly reach a much larger group of students.  This separates the ineffective "teachers" from the best teachers you've ever had.  

I teach those 3 hour studio art classes.  Those classes meet twice each week for 3 hours each.  That's 6 hours of contact time with each student each week.  6 hours in the same room with them.  6 hours of working on tedious projects.  If you wanted to be the dry deliverer of information, your classes would seem unbearable.  I had classes like that in college.  Dreadful.  But I also had classes with engaging and fun professors who yelled and waxed philosophical in class while their students worked.  Those were the preferred studio environments.  

Seasame Street and the Magic School Bus taught us that education can be entertaining.  Taking notes from Kermit the Frog, I've learned that my classes can be rigorous, my projects can be challenging and my subject matter feared as long as I make it fun.  I know there are teachers who would scoff at this, and I'd quietly tell you to spend 6 hours a week in those teachers' classes and get back to me on who was correct.  Because my subject is Sculpture, I basically live in a toy box every day at school.  When I get bored watching students work without needing any help, I can grab a couple of things and make some sort of ridiculous thing to make everyone laugh.  We can take a couple of hammers to a project gone astray and pulverize it into oblivion.  We'll do something absurd for a couple of minutes and then everyone can get back to work with a renewed sense of focus.  My method is proven.  It holds up.  

But the social aspect of being a teacher goes beyond this surface classroom entertainment.  A good teacher asks questions and gets to know their students.  I'm lucky enough to be a part of a department that acts more like a family.  Our extra curricular activities allow us to get to know students outside of class and identify with them on different levels.  The ways this can link students and professors are many and varied.  It's probably just best to give a few real life examples.  

We talked about Nick recently.  Oh, I guess I shouldn't use real names.  So we'll call this student "Snick" to protect his identity.  When Snick started out that first year, he wasn't really all that open to my nonsense.  When students resist the goofing around and keep their walls high and strong, my tendency is to try harder.  Snick wasn't having it.  I would have told you at that time that he hated me.  So I shifted my time and attention to places I felt it was better received.  That part is really difficult and that could probably be a whole series of blog posts, but I'll leave that for another day.  Then, 3 years later, I wear Snick down when he's forced to take my class again.  I did my usual thing of being silly, asking questions and getting to know him and it worked.  He opened up and really came into his own as a sculptor in my classes, making some of the strongest work he made as a student here.

Then there was "Smolly".  Smolly showed interest in the nonsense right out of the gate and even participated in it.  During less ridiculous conversations she engaged in more thoughtful questions and discussions, even stretching over into some semi-spiritual aspects of art.  She continued to be engaged as a student the whole time she was with us and this allowed us to really grow into each other.  She's headed off to grad school now and this year she mailed me the most meaningful letter of appreciation.  

Oh and what about "Sassy-squatch", "Swhisk", "D'Sean", "D'Danielle" and "D'Katertot"?  (This code name thing is hilariously fun for me.  I hope Sean reads this and laughs hard at that one....I mean "D'Sean!)  They responded well to my nonsense and we all became racquetball buddies and 5K buddies and eat out at every opportunity buddies.  They also all excelled in my classes and won awards with their work.  And maybe the most significant fact about this group who graduated, what, 5 years ago now, is that I've talked to every single one of them in the last few months.  Several in the last week.  "Sassy-squatch" is talking to me right this second through Instagram, reliving the memory of that time we ran a 5K together on campus and took ridiculous photos at the finish line and we both accidentally won awards.

There are more serious connections too.  I won't lower those moments with silliness but it is pretty meaningful when students feel connected enough to me to find me in hard times to talk it out.  Or to seek serious advice about their next steps.  Or to talk about relationships.  Or to cry in my little orange chair.  I can be serious when I need to be.  And the most important interactions may only take a second.  One of the most memorable of these interactions was a quick but meaningful fist bump to a student who really needed it several years ago.  

Full disclosure:  These are extreme examples.  There are many, many more examples of smaller connections on different scales.  There are also plenty of students who have always thought I was the Devil in flesh and have avoided every mention of my name.  
Fuller disclosure:  Every student who enters my studio gets the same offer.  It's the student who chooses their level of engagement by their actions and reactions.  A smile instead of a scoff.  Following instructions instead of disrespect.  Saying yes to an opportunity instead of saying no.

The thing is, none of those examples above would have been possible if I had not stepped out of the "passing along the academic information" mode and been a real person.  None of it would have happened if I had not made an effort to make a human connection.  We will likely never fully know the extent to which we touch and affect the lives of the people we bump up against each day.  Maybe something I did made someone's day better.  Maybe it changed their path in a more meaningful way.  

So was it worth the extra time spent at school?  Was it worth the trouble of having a handful of students pissy at me because they didn't get invited?  Was it worth the passive aggressive comments about having "favorites"?  Was it worth the pain of saying goodbye to graduates you care about?  Those are just a few of the questions swirling in the head on the late April commutes home.

I suppose the answer is obvious.  Of course it was worth it.  Just in the last few weeks I've received a handwritten thank you note from one of those people mentioned above.  Another one listed up there took the time to write out a really touching letter that explains how meaningful our interactions were to them.  Look, there's nothing about this that's easy.  Teaching like this is not the path of least resistance.  But when you're living and working beside people who need a connection and who become better students and humans when such a connection is provided, don't you have a responsibility to provide it?  

The internet teaches you to feel nothing.  Just stay distant and use sarcasm and cynicism to protect your heart from pain.  Text your questions instead of looking someone in the eye.  Ask shallow, surface questions and self-deprecate to keep anyone from looking deeper.  Live your life off of likes and follows and interpret your online popularity to determine your validity in life.  But this year has taught me a contrary set of lessons that reach far beyond teaching.  Connect.  Feel.  Meet.  Discuss.  Be honest.  Sit down and eat with someone.  Sit across from them with a coffee in your hand and look them in the eye.  Tell people you like them when you like them.  Tell people you want to be their friend when you want to be their friend.  Celebrate with people.  Be proud of people.  Hurt with people.  Eat more ice cream with people.  Ok, that last one may be more about me than y'all, but you get the point.  

During winter break last year I had one of those mid year crises and decided that when January rolled around what every single one of my students needed most in life was a hug.  I talked myself into a frenzy and I had every intention of walking into my studio on the first day of classes and greeting everyone with a hug.  Those of you who know how vigilant I am at avoiding hugs should really appreciate the gravity of this decision.  I was convinced this is what my people needed.  I'm still pretty convinced.  But I let winter break talk me down from the ledge and when I walked in on that first day, I smiled but hugged no one.  In hindsight, maybe the hug would have been over the top.  Today though, I feel even more strongly that students need a better connection.  They need to know they have someone who gives a crap.  Someone they can go to.  

Of course it's worth it.  For me and for you.

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