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Grateful Teaching

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Yesterday was Teacher Appreciation Day (don’t worry—you can keep celebrating since the whole week is Teacher Appreciation Week).  And if you’re a teacher, there’s lot of freebies for you.  Here and here detail good resources to learn what treats await.

Maybe it’s oddly fitting, then, that yesterday was also the day that I discovered one of the teachers I most appreciate, indeed one of my very favorite professors had been diagnosed with a pernicious cancer, predicted to do its work all too quickly.  Though she is in her 70s, I was shocked at the news: she is one of those indomitable women that one can never imagine dying. 

We have stayed in touch over the, now many, years since I was in her class.  Which is no surprise: as an undergraduate, she was already more than a professor to me.  She was a true friend and mentor.  In actuality, I only had one course with her (though I worked for her as a teaching assistant), but throughout my undergraduate career, she always had her door open, ready to, as she would say, “visit.”  Looking back, I am amazed at her spirit of welcome—she never seemed hurried or rushed or “too busy.”  She exhibited such hospitality: at the back of her office, her coffeepot was never empty. And she kept a special tin full of cookies, just for me.  With such evident joy, it’s no surprise she had an office full every day with a raucous gathering of folks, the air blue with smoke (back in the days when people still smoked inside) and with witty conversation. 

She is a proud daughter of the canyonlands of New Mexico—and I have seldom met anyone who carried herself with such easy, unapologetic confidence.  From her I learned  (and continue to learn) the winsomeness of authenticity, the absolute rejection of the pretentious, and the embrace, instead, of the ridiculous. When I think of our conversations through the years, the thing I remember the most often is our laughter. 

Despite her good humor and personal warmth, she had incredible standards as a teacher—about which she was unremorseful.  In that, she modeled for my own teaching that an expectation of excellence was not antithetical to a classroom full of great delight. 

This week, a study from Gallup has been getting a lot of media play: it posits that the school one attends is not as important to one’s success in life as the relationship(s) one has with professors. In particular, those professors who challenge and invest in students. 

I didn’t really need a survey to tell me that, but I’m glad to have the proof.  My undergraduate experience at a comprehensive state university with the teachers who poured their time and talent into me as a student had convinced me of that long ago.  It reminds me, however, of a critical part of my work—and why James places such a high bar on those who presume to teach.

For me, though, I strive to live into my calling as a teacher as much (if not more) in response to the examples of my own teachers as to any outcome I might achieve with students in the long-run.  I always hope I can live up to those extraordinary people who taught me and, in my own teaching, carry forward their legacies.  Teaching, then, is an embodiment of gratitude, if you will.  We love because we were first loved, we teach because others first taught us.   

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

2 Comments

  • Jim says:

    Excellent last line, Jennifer. I'm sure you're speaking for many of us. Your professor's model is the teacher's version of 'casting your bread upon the waters.' Sometimes unbelievably, it does return unto us.

  • Kathy Jo Blaske says:

    One of my favorite passages is John 15:15. Jesus speaks to his students:
    "I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father." I count many of my teachers as friends.

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