This morning—perhaps even as you are reading this—I’ll be beginning the new academic year. My 30th as a college teacher. And fittingly, I think, I’ll be in the same course at 8 a.m. as I was in the fall of 1990 when I, just 3 months past my own college graduation, stepped into the 1st year composition classroom as a graduate student at the University of Washington. My teaching assistantship put me in sole charge of 22 young minds—a huge responsibility that I feel afresh with each succeeding group of students.
Especially this year—with our masks and socially distanced desks and cleaning protocols and so much else, it’s easy to focus on all that has altered. And of course, since that very first class, I’ve witnessed many changes in technology, in pedagogy, in the accessibility of materials, in the ways students interact with me as their professor.
But even as I’ve spent hours this summer converting each of my three courses to accommodate in-person learners, learners who will be joining by livestream, and asynchronous learners, I’ve also thought about how, no matter how the circumstances change, good teaching at its core remains the same.
Essentially—for me anyway— teaching well means connecting with students and convincing them that they and their learning matter to me as the teacher. It’s about cultivating a conversation built on mutuality. In fact, teaching is so deeply relational that when a class seems like merely content delivery, something very profound is lost. (Don’t get me wrong—all of us can definitely learn from things like YouTube videos, but that’s auto-didacticism, not teaching.) That one can connect with students in a large number of ways is certainly true—whether I’m interacting with students on a discussion board, through an email, over a video connection, or during an in-class discussion. However it happens, though, it is the students’ humanity, the recognition that one is interacting with beloved children, images of God, that needs to lie at the heart of our connection. These are my brothers and sisters as much as they are my students.
In the classroom, then, I want to practice incarnational pedagogy: making sure that what I say matches what I do (knowing that that will demand humility and grace as I fail to live up to my own ideals as much as I would like). That I enflesh my words with the kind of teaching I would hope bears witness to my deepest beliefs.
Yes, there’s a good deal of content I aim to cover with them. But here’s what I hope my students hear as we begin our time together this week—and continue to hear across this entire semester:
- You are welcome as you are.
Your grade does not define you.
You are already enough.
I say often after I’ve returned papers and tests: you are not this grade. This grade is the assessment of your work on one particular thing on one particular day. That is all. Good or bad, it is not who you are nor does it measure your worth as a human being or the affection and respect with which I hold you. And nothing can separate you from the love of God.
2. I want you to succeed.
Too often, students come into an English class already decided that they are bad at writing or at literary interpretation. Grammar or organization or analysis has eluded them in the past—and their confidence may be low. And though they certainly might not be as proficient as they could be, I want them to understand that I am not here to reinforce what they can’t do but to show them how they can thrive. For example, I ask them to come to our student-prof conference time with their own ideas about what is ailing their writing. Turns out their diagnosis is almost always spot on—and then, we work together to figure out how to address it. Even that small step of yielding authority over their writing to them provides them with a boost of self-assurance that we can build on. All professors know that it’s super easy to write an assignment or exam that shows what students don’t know—I want students to know that I expect them to succeed because I know they can. And I tell them so.
3. Your voice matters.
And why do I want them to succeed? Because we need every single one of their voices in our civic life, in our churches, in the places where we work, in our broader communities. This semester, I’m starting my 101 class with a recent New York Times essay by Min Jin Lee, entitled “Breaking My Own Silence,” in which Lee traces out her long journey towards finding the power of her own voice. I hope my students are encouraged by Lee and feel motivated to take further steps along their own road–even if they, too, feel like their voice is too small, too inconsequential. Yes, the writing we’ll be doing in class is hard because thinking is hard, nuance is hard, conversation and engagement are hard. But like any workout, the longer one exercises, the fitter one become. I want students who ultimately are fearless in speaking truth, in speaking consolation and restoration, in speaking hope.
Words of life the world is desperate for.
It’s rather fitting that pearls—the symbol of the 30th anniversary—are formed by irritation. Schooling is probably a bit like that, too—but what beauty results from all that molluskular kerfuffle.
Here’s to making some pearls this semester.