I do believe I was born to be a teacher. As a typical older sister, I’ve been bossing people around since 1974. In college, my sister and I liked to throw parties. Crochet parties. That’s right: in our late teens and early 20s, we spent our weekend evenings with lots of friends and lots of yarn, teaching other people how to start a scarf or an afghan. Wild, I know.
I did not get any official teacher training. Wait, that’s not true. I took one class in grad school where I was a teaching assistant of sorts. But I distinctly remember driving to my first day of teaching at the University of Minnesota, Crookston, my palms sweaty with terror, thinking “What if I’ve made a horrible mistake?” Then I got up in front of my first class and never looked back.
I could go on for days about the joys of teaching. Seeing students finally understand something they’d been struggling to wrap their brains around is an honor to witness, and to help facilitate it feels like a damn superpower. This is my seventeenth year of teaching, and in that time, roughly 3,500 students have come through my classrooms. They didn’t all love me (and I certainly didn’t love all of them), but almost every one of them showed me a bit of their own hearts through their writing, and I am so grateful for and humbled by that opportunity.
But also, as you might expect at any job, sometimes things get really hard. I’m not talking about being swamped in grading (although that’s hard, and a constant, ongoing struggle, and the bane of my existence in so many ways). And I’m not talking about students whose personal issues flare up at the worst times and sabotage their education (and those are heartbreaking, and infuriating, and exhausting). I’m talking about when students waste my time, or disrespect me or my discipline. The most difficult example of both of these issues is when students think that somehow they have purchased a product in paying for my class, and I am supposed to serve it up to them, when and where they feel like it, with them needing to put forth sometimes literally NO EFFORT at all.
Case in point. Yesterday in my College Writing 1 classes (I have three sections of this class, so 75 students registered), we began the exciting, painful process of their major research project. A multiple source research project is part of the course description, and I have been teaching research papers for my entire career. Last week I worked to make them understand what topics might be good choices, and handed out lots of things: a two page explanation of the research assignment, including definitions and suggested vocabulary words, if they don’t know how to write about sources (which most of them don’t); a detailed, two-page example of the kind of writing I expect them to do, which I wrote myself a few years ago when my explanatory assignment sheet wasn’t enough to help them understand; and a full page of links to helpful online writing labs where they could go if they needed still more guidance. I also explained, gently but firmly, that to miss a single class in the next four weeks would potentially catastrophic. “We’re going to be active learners. I’m going to walk you through the entire process one step at a time, and if you miss a day I cannot reteach it to you. You will be missing more than you can imagine.”
These are not the kind of classes where I can just hand students a sheet of Power Point slides and you can understand everything we covered. These are the kinds of classes where I have devised exercises and examples to help them have meaningful, hands-on experiences that will guide them through a process of writing that many of them have never properly done before. I love teaching this section: this is often where light bulbs start coming on above students’ heads, and I feel that, for the most part, I am a good and thoughtful guide for them on this journey.
So the email I received yesterday, while not really unusual, was still disappointing. Here it is, exactly as it appeared in my in box.
“Hi I wasn’t able to make it to class today due to illness. Please tell me anything that I missed or need to know. thank you”
First of all, I teach college level English. When I was in college (cue the old coot voice), I would never have dreamed of saying to Dr. Purdy “Please tell me anything that I missed or need to know.” He is a goddamned expert, and I’m a fool for missing class. I would talk to other students and read the syllabus carefully and hope I hadn’t missed so much that I ruined my chances to pass. Also, I would recognize that to assume that somehow he’s going to be able or willing to encapsulate an entire 80 minutes of class time for me in a summarized form would be fucking insulting to him. Plus I would know that as just one of his many students, I had no right to ask for him to use his time in such a way!
Secondly, while I was an undergraduate just as e-mail began to be a thing, and therefore never e-mailed any instructors ever, I certainly would have been embarrassed to send any sort of message that included any errors, much less three or more. I am an ENGLISH teacher because I love written language. And proper use of punctuation. I am not perfect, and this blog is a testament to that, but by god I expect students to have some semblance of respect for my profession and do a basic proofreading before they hit “send.”
It was all I could to not write back to that student with a diatribe explaining how how insulting that message was to me and to all the students who showed up and worked hard in class yesterday. Instead, I said this: “You missed an entire day of active, exciting learning about research and understanding the library database. Best of luck on figuring that out on your own.”
Maybe this student was really very sick. I have no idea, but if that was the case s/he welcome to come and meet with me and I will try my best to get the student caught up. And I will also spend time explaining how to best write to your instructors for help, because messages like this make a job I love less lovable. And that’s not good for anybody.