Like me, a lot of writers either are or were teachers, usually English teachers. And I suspect that, like me, a lot of them wonder if they ever made a difference in their students’ lives.
That worry was forever put to rest for me when I received an email a few weeks ago that made my day. Correction: it made my month! Here it is, in its entirety:
“Hi Jim, my name is Matthew Deane. I was a freshman at UNH in 1992, and you were my English Professor. I had just returned from spending two years as a missionary in Paraguay, and for your class I wrote some terrible essays about the experience. You may recall my description of a beautiful Latin girl’s eyes as being big, black, and cow-like. How romantic and literary…
Nevertheless, you were very kind and encouraging. I had never really believed in myself, and your faith was inspiring. I have never forgotten your kindness, or your unique way of teaching. You cared, and it has stuck with me.
One afternoon, you walked through the classroom door just as I was climbing in the second floor window. Rather than call the campus police, you asked me what was outside the window, and if I thought we could have class out on the roof. “We could,” I said, and so we did. Other memories include your guitar playing, the day you shaved your beard and waited for us to notice it (details, people, details!), and forcing us to think so far outside the box that we couldn’t even see it anymore. It is because of you that I suffer severe allergies to cliche, adverbs, and over-used metaphors.
I still have my “Writing Down the Bones” book.
The very last words you said to me were “You can write a good book, I know you can.” I promised you that I would, and that you would one day read a good book that I had written.
It has taken twenty years, all of them filled with more experience than I often care to ponder, but after several failed starts I wrote what I believe to be an excellent work, and I hope that you read it.
With thanks for your belief in a student that had a big wish but very little talent with which to make it come true,
You can find the book, entitled West Of Independence at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.”
Normally, of course, I would remove the name to protect the writer’s anonymity. However, in this case it does no harm to further advertise his book (which I am now reading).
My teaching style was, shall we say, a bit unorthodox. As Matthew noted, we did indeed hold classes on the roof one day. We had to pass the desks through a window to do it, but why not? It was a beautiful day, so why sit in a stuffy classroom? (I held class out on the lawn once or twice, too.)
On the first day of class, to put students at ease, I’d sit and play my guitar until everyone had filed in and it was time to start class. Then I’d ask if anyone played guitar. Inevitably, a student would raise his or her hand, and I’d hand off the guitar with a request to play something mellow while I took attendance. I will never forget the looks of surprise and wonder on their faces at this odd behavior from a teacher. It set the tone for the rest of the semester.
Most of my students at UNH (University of New Hampshire) were kids straight out of high school. If their schooling was like mine, they had just gone through twelve years of being told what to do and when to do it. That’s not the way teaching should be done, in my opinion. I believe the role of a teacher is not so much to “teach” as it is to inspire the desire to learn. People will teach themselves if they are motivated. You just have to give them the opportunity.
We’d break into groups and the students would read their essays to each other and offer constructive criticism and suggestions. Even after I had read and graded their essays, they would have a chance to revise them to (possibly) improve their grade.
Each week we’d discuss essays from the assigned text. I lead the very first discussion, as an example of how to do it. After that, students led the discussions. The students paired up and each pair was assigned a specific week during the semester when they would get in front of the class and lead the discussion while I sat in the back.
In all these ways and more, I made the students take responsibility for their education. I was just the facilitator. And they LOVED it. I had several of them tell me my class was their favorite, and they looked forward to it every week, even though it was far from an easy class. (How many times do you hear this about a required, entry-level English class?) I challenged them, and they rose to the challenge.
Am I tooting my own horn? Well, maybe a little, but not so much for my sake as to make the point that this teaching style (and I wasn’t the only one using it at UNH) is way more effective than the rote “lecture dump” still in widespread use. If you inspire students to WANT to learn, they become unstoppable, and they will exceed even your wildest expectations. That’s what I believed then, and what I believe now (even though I am no longer actively teaching).
Still, everything I described took place many years ago, and one can’t help but wonder if any of it stuck.
Now I know!