Friday, January 08, 2010

Reflections on a Teaching Career

Classes at my community college start up again next week. But, for the first time in the last 8 years, I won't be in the classroom. I am taking a break this semester--with my husband's recent retirement, we are both trying out being fully retired.

I have the option to return to teaching next fall. While I certainly have not made that decision yet, it is possible that I have spent my last hours in the classroom. That prospect has me reflecting on a teaching career.

I first began teaching fresh out of graduate school. I headed off to graduate school immediately after college. While working on my master's degree, I wrote a note of appreciation to one of my favorite professors at my alma mater. I said--if there is anything I can do to repay you, let me know. His quick response--how would you like to come and teach for a year. As it happened, one of the English professors was going on sabbatical, and the English department needed someone to fill in for a year. That one year turned into my first teaching career of 8 years.

When I initially went into teaching, I was a young, green English instructor--all of 22 years old to my students' 18, 19, or 20 years old. Some of them had been just two years behind me in schooling. I had that wonderful combination of youth: audacity and blissful ignorance. It never occurred to me that I didn't know as much as I thought I knew. The first few months in the classroom, reading student papers, taught me more about grammar than anything else I had learned to that point. Nothing like reading papers that you have to correct to teach you proper writing.

Since the college where I was teaching had a small English department, I had the opportunity to teach a wide array of courses. In addition to composition, I taught American literature survey, the development of the English novel, Shakespeare, creative writing, and literary criticism. I was the first instructor to teach the latter two courses. You can see I had lots of room for academic creativity.

One of the high points of my first teaching career was participation in a grand educational experiment. The college faculty had decided to try to do integrated studies to meet the general education requirements. The resulting course was an amalgamation of literature, history, art, religion and culture. To prepare for the course, a faculty team worked during the summer to select content, plan the lecture sequence, determine who would deliver which lectures, and generally attend to the details for making the general education course work.

I loved this course. As faculty, we decided to focus on several key cultural periods in human history, and gather around those points the various emphases we wanted to convey. So, for example, we selected the Indus Valley civilization or the Tang dynasty, and then used those focal points to cover the history of the particular time, introduce students to elements of religion, as well as select some representative art and literature.

Variously referred to as Gen Ed, or Integrated Studies, the course lasted for about a decade. While the professors loved teaching the course, many students hated it. For a variety of reasons, the Gen Ed course was eventually terminated, and the traditional approach to teaching the basic course was reinstated.

Thus, my first reflection on a teaching career: I love learning and teaching afforded me a front seat opportunity to learn continually.

More reflections to come.

12 comments:

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

What little teaching I have done as a minister or as an adult educator ,in a couple of subjects, I realized that the teacher learns more and get more out of the course than the students, as least in the initial year of teaching it.

I loved your integrated course. My most influential teacher, James Luther Adams (you can google him) was a wonderful raconteur. He informally had students come by his home Saturday nights for a soiree in which he spoke. He was a renaissance man and drew on , art, history, philosophy, theology, politics, literature, sociology etc when talking about a period of time or events. Unfortunately, this kind of synthesis is rarely formally taught and unless a person does it for hiimself his knowledge is segmented and not integrated as it should be.

Have you considered teaching overseas for a year. Could Africa be call you?

Anvilcloud said...

I agree that the teacher is the primary learner. However, do enjoy not teaching in this next phase of your life.

Jayne said...

I am sure it will initially feel a bit odd not teaching this semester, but it will allow you to test the waters a bit. I wonder if being a teacher/mentor in some sort of voluntary capacity will be something you might consider. At risk kids always need a good mentor. You could set your own schedule to do as little or as much as felt right. Just a thought. You know what they say... once a teacher, always a teacher. ;c)

Ginger said...

It's interesting to read that your students hated the integrated course. With the exception of the honors students (and sometimes they're not excepted either), I've seen the the students in the colleges where I've worked have also disliked integrated courses. I'm not sure why. Perhaps they perceive it as having a lack of focus or organization? I went through Honors GE in college and it was the best part of higher education for me. I loved making those connections between disciplines of study!

Will be interested in your further reflections!

egretsnest said...

I hope you enjoy your first year of retirement whether permanent or no. Reflection is a great tool in teaching but we so rarely have the time we should have to really reflect and then act on those reflections. At least at the elementary level. I've enjoyed reading about your teaching and comparing our experiences at opposite ends of the teaching spectrum. It is troubling and reassuring that things I'm teaching my kids are still issues you see at your level. Fascinating.

Climenheise said...

I remember those first years. Standing in your office tossing some trinket on your desk up and down, thus earning a sister's wrath. Taking five semesters in a row of courses from my sister in everything from English composition to British Authors. I left before the GenEd experiment. I don't know: I might have actually enjoyed that course, except that in those days soccer seemed more important than reading. (Except for Tolkien, Williams, and Lewis, whose work probably saved me from complete intellectual degeneration).

NCmountainwoman said...

Nice reflection. I'm sure you will thoroughly enjoy your "test" retirement. With so many interests you will find plenty of interesting things to do.

Nevin said...

Interesting your comments on the integrated course. In some ways, not a whole lot has changed--they recently added such a course to the curriculum again (Created & Called for Community), and while I gather that many professors quite enjoy the course, most students can't stand it. A perceived lack of focus may well have something to do with it. Part of it is also likely the general resentment of people in a field different from that/those covered in a gen ed course--science majors often don't enjoy their gen ed humanities courses, and vice versa. I didn't think it was as bad as all that, myself, but then again I was a humanities person myself, and refused to stay in one discipline even within my majors.

jeanmac said...

I'm glad you are taking a break.Enjoy every day, I have a feeling you will enjoy it so much.
It was nice to read your teaching story.

Ginnie said...

I agree with AC. This is a new phase in your life which I'm sure you will make an exciting one.

RuthieJ said...

Good luck with your retirement "test" Donna. I was thinking along the lines of Jayne's comment too, esp. if you decide you miss teaching after a while.
On the other hand, there's always new knitting techniques for you to explore!
Or, maybe starting that book of short stories......

Anonymous said...

I've already written you a note of appreciation for your excellent teaching back in those Messiah years but I want to say it online as well. I've never had courses since that I enjoyed any more than those you taught (and several that I enjoyed less!). I am an introvert, but you made the upper level English classes a safe place for me to fully engage. Your young students are now entering their 60s. I think the old gen. ed. actually lasted more like 20 yrs. or so. Beth M.