Teaching 101: Not as Easy as It Looks

So, here’s the thing: You go through life thinking teaching is so easy. That harks back to grade school, I think. Back when your sense of appreciation for the people up by the chalkboard was none too high. Why would it be? They always took offense to you sailing paper airplanes across the room, and they never found funny a spitball lodged so deep in a buddy’s ear that it required surgical tweezers. I mean, come on — that’s funny!

At some point, most of us gained a bit of fondness for our teachers, but I can’t say we ever stopped thinking what they did was easy. That anyone with the right amount of chalk or a pair of reading glasses dipped low along their nose could do it. Because it’s teaching, right? I mean, you get up there, you say some stuff, you write it on the chalkboard for emphasis, you snap at a couple of kids — “I’m warning you. I once bit the ears off an alligator! — and then you write on reports, “Your prepositional phrases don’t cohabitate with your conjunctivitis.”

Easy peasy. Anyone can do it. Your whole life you think this, and your whole life you would continue thinking it … right up until the moment you walk into the classroom yourself, stand up by the board and think, “Holy fish sticks! What in the heck am I supposed to say?”

Then a paper airplane sails across the room.

I had the pleasure of teaching a college class this semester — the first time I had ever tackled one on my own. It was an opinion writing class, a topic that I am supposed to know a thing or two about. And I’ll tell you, when I was first presented with the idea of developing such a course, it sounded easy. How hard could it be to teach? I’ve been writing my own opinions and commentary for well over a decade. Want to know how to do it? First, you get an opinion; second, you write it down; third, you go see what’s in the fridge to eat. “Shoot,” I thought to myself. “I can teach them that in a week.”

Then a minor problem presented itself: The class was actually 14 weeks. And most respected institutions of higher learning don’t encourage discussions about whether week-old Chinese food pairs well with column writing.

There was an even bigger issue: Even though I’ve written hundreds of columns, I honestly have no idea how I do it. I just come up with an idea an hour or so before deadline — usually about my dog rolling in something dead — and then I start frantically typing. How it becomes this I chalk up to magic or divine intervention. Needless to say, I struggled putting together a plan.

I remember the terror creeping in a couple days before the first class. Would I remember what to say? Would my lesson plans be any good? Could I hold people’s attention for over an hour? Would my voice crack and people laugh at me?

I came up with a first day contingency plan that involved turning popsicle sticks into an elf village.

Then a strange thing happened: I started teaching. I don’t know where it came from, or how I knew what to say. But I said something, and people at least sat there looking like they were listening. Nobody drifted into a coma. And then they started talking. And they thought about things. And then they wrote down the things they thought. And a lot of it made total sense. (Well, not all of it, but some of it.) And it all kind of happened, just like that.

Next thing I know — BAM! — it’s over. The semester I spent so much time worrying about is done. There’s a sense of relief with that — I survived! Good golly, I sur-vived! — but also sadness. Because I’m going to miss this bunch, and that first nerve-racking experience. I’ll tell you, there wasn’t a bit about it that was easy. Not a stitch. But it also was one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever done, and one of the most rewarding experiences.

For 14 weeks I shared with these people everything I thought I knew, and learned a whole lot I didn’t. In return, they stepped out of their comfort zones and in many cases opened up like they had never done before. It was exciting to see, and fun.

But never easy.

Which is why I have a new appreciation for teachers. Maybe more importantly, a real admiration. I’ll tell you, it’s no walk in the park cohabitating conjunctivitises, and you’ve got to be on constant lookout for all those paper airplanes.

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