exhilarated exhaustion

The dreaded back-to-school cold stuffs my head and rattles my chest. It’s week four of the semester, that time when the sheer fun and newness (and summery health) has worn off, and we’re in the thick of things, finishing our first novel, submitting our first drafts, waiting for the campus heat to turn on, and sniffling between classes.

I’m tired and behind on grading. Two sections worth of English 101 narrative essays fill a cloth bag in my study. Three class blogs have filled with weekly posts.

Despite this unread, unmarked, and unrecorded work, and despite my sleepiness, I am happy.

In my previous post I emphasized my new approach for the semester, a kind of hyper awareness to my attitude and interactions with students. To frame problem moments in the classroom differently, even positively. It seems to be working. For instance, one composition section is quiet. I realized, however, after students shared info about their hobbies, that many are readers, and self-identified with quieter, more introverted leisure activities. Talking in class is likely difficult for them. Instead of haranguing them to speak, I’m working with their natural patterns, and though our classes are more subdued than my other section, a spirit of good naturedness prevails. And, they’re much more dedicated and focused on peer review than the more outgoing, chatty class.

Another example: today I gave my literature class a quiz, and discovered that 1/3 of the class hadn’t done the reading. Instead of being lecturey or huffy or punitive, I asked the class what we should do. Other students talked up the quality of the books (“how could you not want to read them?”), and emphasized the need for self-motivation. I think their words spoke louder than mine.

Ken Bain’s book What the Best College Teachers Do was the first to make me consider how attitude shapes so much more than anything else in the classroom, and another book I’m currently reading, Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, also focuses on attitude. Rubin admits that this kind of attitudinal shift, even if it’s a modification rather than an overhaul, demands patience and energy. It’s easy to express frustration. It’s quick to speak with exasperation. It’s hard to step back, consider the underlying issues, engage with the people, and maintain a positive attitude.

But what a difference it makes.

For all of us.

Last Spring was a particularly trying semester on several levels, and I had lost any trace of positivity. I was in survival mode.

Now? I’m a little closer to thriving.

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back to school

The days are still sunshiney and warm, with azure skies, but evening comes quickly, and the chill of fall descends. My reading stack has split in two—books for class (right now: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Truck, and Feminism and Pop Culture (all for different classes)) and books for fun (The Happiness Project, and  Committed). I’ve moved my class binder to a place of prominence and my wedding binder is stowed in my pink, bejeweled bag from the boutique where I bought my wedding gown.

The great autumnal shift.

This year, I am experiencing another shift—because of my Teaching Fellowship, I have a respite from campus service in the form of the much coveted Governance Sabbatical. No committee duties, at least on campus. This means I can focus on teaching…and I love it.

As I sat outside on my deck today, soaking up as much of the late summer/early fall sun as possible, I read my students’ first freewrites, and really thought about what it meant for them to offer up these words on a page for me to read. For some of them, it’s a rote act, and their words remain topical, or not even their own as they scribble down song lyrics. But for some, they dig deep, and start revealing themselves—nervous about college, on the edge of breakups, families in flux, dreams just taking shape.

What an awesome privilege to read these pages, to help shape their prose, to give them the tools they need to best express themselves.

And, what a responsibility we have as educators, to do our best by these students, who open up their lives in their words and comments and conversations.

This semester, I’m trying to really listen, to pay more attention to the person behind the prose, the loud or quiet person in the chair in the front row back row or middle of the room. To be honest and fair and deserving of their trust and encouraging them to be the best they can be at this moment. To be compassionate, and to help them transition to the self-directedness of college.

And, to allow them to bring out the best in me.