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Tricks of the Trade
April 25, 2007 - 7:59am


When I was accepted to grad school, I had a big problem: In order to get my fellowship, I’d have to teach. I’d always been terrified of public speaking. As an undergrad I talked my Speech-Comm TA into letting me write papers instead of making required speeches. (Convincing him took rhetorical skill, right?)

I was also under the impression that teachers had to know everything. My high school Spanish teacher was a tame-looking young woman who could talk about subjects as diverse as rudimentary Spanish grammar and how to host Crisco orgies, and she was gone by the end of that fateful day. What hope was there for me?

My palms sweated as I remembered some drama major in one of my undergraduate English classes lecturing our professor on director Elia Kazan. He mispronounced the name but seemed to have an argument. What anarchy would have resulted if Dr. Wilson couldn’t respond?

Wilson had been teaching for decades. He waited patiently for the student to finish showing off then asked him to define his terms, which revealed self-contradictions, and finished him with, “In this class, Mr. Archer, we say ‘ Elia Kazan.’” He also said the name wrong but did it with such majesty that we all grinned in relief that there was order in the universe after all. I had no hopes of ever doing what he did.

Of course, when I got to grad school, they ran us through a class on methods, and we observed experienced teachers, including adjuncts. That’s how I learned to make blindfolded rhetoric students feel the bark on a tree and write poems about it.

But one day I had to stand up there on my own and—O!—how will I purge my shame? In one of those first classes, I brought in Mrs. Churm, a former ed major, to read Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax to my college freshmen, because I didn’t know what else to do in an environment-themed course when Barry Lopez fell flat.

Eventually I found my way, and after I’d taught a few years, I was asked to advise my own groups of new teaching assistants here at Hinterland. I told them the obvious: You’ll do at first what we all have done—emulate your own teachers, good and bad. But every day you teach, you’ll learn more about classroom management. For now, over-prepare, dress to the persona you hope to project, never lose your temper, and never—ever—go to class without a chicken foot wrapped in golden ribbon tucked in your pocket, else all those pairs of eyes—staring, staring—will steal your soul.


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