I have a trifecta of true loves.
The first of my loves belongs to writing in all its forms. The second of my loves belongs to creativity and imagination. And the third of my loves belongs to teaching.
Where do I even start with teaching? Gah.
It used to be that I had a rose-colored glasses view of teaching. I have always inherently respected my teachers and professors, and so I desired to be in that position of respect. I have always responded well to education, and so I desired to expand the young minds of others. To “change the life of a child” as it goes.
When I was accepted into UIC as a Teaching Assistant, then, I was thrilled beyond belief. Here was my chance. Here was my chance to wear tweed and expound brilliance and engage a rapt audience and change people’s lives.
Then I went to my TA orientation. They handed out the number for the counseling center and disability center, explained to us what to do if we felt threatened in the classroom, and talked disparagingly about the abilities of our students and the horrors of grading.
They basically smiled at us and said, “this ain’t no liberal arts playground anymore kids, and this is no University of Chicago or Northwestern, so hang up your jacket and tie and put on the armor of indifference.”
I was appalled.
Granted some of my disgust was due to the fact that I felt like I had wasted a day, sitting around and having people crap all over my tweed-colored dreams. And some of my disgust came from a place of paternalistic “holier than thou”-ness–of course I could inspire these young people to become achievers, rescuing them from their difficult urban lives as I instructed them on Thomas Hobbes and John Locke!
I am still appalled, but after four years as a TA, I am appalled for a very, very different reason.
The students at the University of Illinois at Chicago are AMAZING, and how dare anyone say otherwise.
UIC has the honor of being the third most diverse campus population in the entire United States. That means our students come from every walk of life and from every place in the world. I have taught non-traditional students returning to school after serving tours of duty. I have taught hundreds of first generation immigrants, many of whom work outside of school and occasionally miss class to take an older family member to an appointment and act as translator. I have taught students with incredibly complex personal stories, students with registered learning disabilities, students who are ESL or ELL.
And the fact of the matter is, sure, I have taught them, but in return they have legitimately schooled me.
I have been forced to walk right up and confront the uncomfortable differences between many of their worlds and mine. I am not a first generation immigrant. I do have a stable place to live. I have achieved multiple degrees. And despite my own identity struggles along the way, I have not been the victim of systemic racism.
And in understanding those differences, in researching the hundreds of ways that the city of Chicago has sustained prejudice in its schools and urban spaces, I have grown to respect the hell out of my students.
Sure, they need me to answer some of their questions, to guide discussion, to grade their work and offer comments, and to provide a safe place full of various literacy approaches in which they can learn. And I take all those duties incredibly seriously, and it is a lot of work. If you’re a follower of the blog, then you’ll remember I’m finishing up a PhD Teaching Track that is helping me learn to do all those things more efficiently and effectively.
But these students do not need me to save them–they are perfectly capable of saving themselves. That’s what they’re doing by being in college for Chrissake. I can champion their efforts, but the efforts are theirs. The work is theirs, the vibrant discussions are theirs, the difficult questions are theirs, and the attention they give to each other is theirs.
And they’re making all these efforts in the face of assholes who think the color of their skin or their wearing of a hijab should slam a ceiling down on the sort of education they are able to achieve or limit the sorts of jobs they should work.
In the end, teaching is the most gorgeous endeavor I have ever undertaken, not because it takes place in lofty halls and rolling quads and thickly wooden offices. (Although, yeah, I would teach at one of those schools if I got to bring all my students with me and continue to wear my dinosaur T-shirts.)
It is the most gorgeous endeavor because it is real. It is terrifying and beautiful, simple and complex, frustrating and rewarding. When you really care about teaching, it becomes the occupation of the tireless, the crusader, the life-long learner, and the comic.
It is not a parade of lectures; it becomes a series of questions.
It is NOT a place for the indifferent. If you are indifferent, stop teaching.
And it is NOT an occupation for the pied-piper of the hopeless. You are not Gwenyth Paltrow, and you are not going to swoop in and sing a song and make students care about their lives…
…because they already care. Goddamn do they have incredible ideas and intense understandings of the world around them, entirely on their own. You just have to bother to ask them. And then in turn, you should feel privileged when they allow you to help them create springboards and platforms that propel them along their way.
In any case…
I am still learning to be a teacher, and I always will be.
I am still learning to voice my opinions about the system of education in this city and country in a way that is helpful without becoming paternalistic. To really act against embedded sexism and racism and classism and prejudices against sexual and gender orientations, rather than bemoaning the fact that they exist.
And I’m hoping that my website here will give me a safe place to talk about teaching triumphs and tribulations, and to start exploring my actions more seriously.
Because my students deserve it.