Open Letter to My College Professors
The story goes that parents get their due once their children have children. The grown children find out about all the hard work and sacrifice it takes to be a parent, and then finally appreciate what their own parents went through.
Well, there’s promising news for teachers, too, from their educated “offspring” who go on to become teachers themselves. I got a big dose of this deferred payback recently when I became an assistant professor at a private urban university.
The transition from Ph.D. student to university professor was abrupt for me because I continued in my profession as a journalist during graduate school rather than working as a teaching assistant. My large, state university had no instruction in teaching, so I figured competence in the classroom just sort of came naturally to those of us who had studied and thought deeply within the discipline. I had assumptions about teaching based on my own experiences on the receiving end, which I realize now is kind of like judging what kind of writer you might be by the books you’ve read. I had the vague idea that I’d pass on my own enlightenment as a graduate student to a fairly receptive audience. I’ll pause here to give the experienced educators who are reading this a chance to stop laughing.
After just eight weeks with a full course load, it’s an understatement to say my thoughts about teaching have become more, well, focused. I find myself harking back to my own experience on the receiving end again, but this time as an undergraduate like the students I now teach.
I think what has taken me back are the blank stares, heads on desks, and absentees in my classroom. As I struggle with teaching in ways I wasn’t expecting, I guess I’m a bit defensive and feeling sorry for myself. I sometimes think I don’t deserve what I’m getting, just as my undergraduate professors didn’t deserve what I gave.
But it’s probably a good thing I’m thinking about my own bad behavior as an 18-to-20-year-old. The optimist battling these pessimistic feelings believes such memories might be a first step toward focusing on the students in this process, instead of myself. Like a transgressor at an AA meeting, I want to stand up and cleanse my soul, hopefully to get rid of the guilt I feel when I think of what I did to others, because now it’s happening to me. “Okay, okay, I get it,” I want to say to my professors of old. “I was a twit.”
I usually come to this confessional frame of mind at the end of each day as I trudge to my car toting my 60-pound bag of books, folders, oversize place cards (put on desks to learn students’ names as quickly as possible; novice teaching tip No. 8,709), DVDs, videos, laptop, cables, grant forms, research proposals, insulated coffee cup, and stacks of papers to grade. During this evening ritual, I conjure the image of myself sitting at a large, uncluttered writing desk, after plenty of rest and with unbounded time, to pick up a sharpened quill, dip it in ink, and pen a formal apology to those educators who had me in their classes at what was then Northeast Louisiana University in Monroe, La., from September 1971 to May 1975.
The letter reads something like this:
Dear Dr. Carroll, et al:
You probably don’t remember me, and it may really be too late at this point, but I wanted to write to tell you how sorry I am about the way I conducted myself in your classroom (and, in general, during my early college years, but I’ll limit this to academics).
If you’re still teaching, my hat goes off to you! If not, I hope you have been able to look back with satisfaction on your teaching career, despite my presence.
I know I’m not one of those students you might think about, or even still talk about, when searching your memory for a rewarding experience to help acknowledge all the hours and effort you put into your lectures and presentations. You probably gladly forgot my name the instant the semester was over.
I wanted to let you know, though, that it sometimes takes a long time for a student to appreciate what lessons he or she learns (as we know these days, we all have different learning styles!). As an educator myself now, I’m certainly learning mine.
While you might not recall my presence specifically, you do know me. I’m one of those who sat in the back of the room, avoided your eyes because I hadn’t read the material, and said little. If you made an effort to call on me, I deferred with a mumbled, “I don’t know.”
If you were the professor for the history class I had after physical education, I was the one who often fell asleep with my head on my desk, once even drooling on my notebook.
If you were my speech teacher, I was the one who came unprepared for my presentation and rambled beyond my 10-minute time limit by 15 minutes, never getting to the point.
If you were my English teacher, I never cracked the spine on Beowulf and I complained about my grade despite missing class regularly.
If you were my journalism adviser, I avoided doing my work for the news service during my designated hours, despite getting paid.
If you were my zoology professor, I got an A on that test because you happened to give the same one you had given two years before, and a friend of mine had a copy.
If it makes you feel any better, I’ve now had the experience of looking out on a sea of blank faces and wondering if I am the only one in the room who has read the material.
It might help to know that half my students in one course skipped class the meeting following the midterm, and half of another class acted like insolent 12-year-olds when they got Bs and A minuses on their tests.
So far, in my first semester, I’ve had four grandmothers die, six hospitalizations, countless numbers of colds and flu (flu season must have started in September this year), two cases of mono, three cases of sick friends who couldn’t get themselves to a doctor, and one honest “I overslept” for a 12:45 p.m. class.
Perhaps you can take comfort in the numerous times in my classes in which students’ heads have dropped and gone back up, dropped and gone back up, driven seemingly by the same laws of thermodynamics as those bobbing glass birds found in novelty shops. Maybe the shattering of my naïve illusions about imparting my higher degree-conferred wisdom in a way that would captivate youthful minds will make you gloat. I wouldn’t blame you.
It’s more likely, if I know you, that you’ll sympathize, though, and do what I’ve done – realize it’s probably not about my knowledge, or their lack of sleep or interest on any particular day. It’s at least partly about setting my own expectations, aspirations, and frustrations aside and trying to notice when they do things right, or perhaps more importantly, when they do the right thing. And, it’s about asking their opinion.
There is perhaps nothing so humbling as standing in front of a crowded room of 18-to-20-year-olds and asking them to tell you, anonymously and with forethought, what’s wrong with you. That’s exactly what colleges and universities do each semester with teacher evaluations, and the outcomes count for a lot.
I decided to take a colleague’s advice and try to get feedback by using my own private, mid-semester survey, and, to my surprise, my students offered constructive suggestions and even sympathy for the difficulty of making journalism history interesting. They gave me attaboys for effort, even puzzling over why a certain lesson didn’t work despite my obvious enthusiasm for the topic.
One of my students came to see me, in part, to buck me up about a class. She blamed lack of participation on uncaring classmates, her classmates, whom she suggested didn’t care much about a general education class they were required to take. She told me it was obvious I was trying hard and she did her best to make me feel better. Maybe I’m naïve, but she seemed sincere, and no grade was hanging in the balance. I later found out one of her own absences from class was due to the fact that her mother was dying of cancer. Her actions are in stark relief to mine as a post-teen.
I took heart in my student’s rationalization about the class, but somehow, as the semester has progressed and my comfort level and interactions with students have increased, the once deadly atmosphere has livened up, and students are participating more. There are fewer naps and downcast eyes. Could it be the students weren’t the problem after all? It’s a colossal understatement to say that’s a possibility.
So, I guess I have more to atone for than I thought – my past sins as a student and my current ones as a teacher facing challenges in the classroom from students who are much like my younger self, and just as likely (hopefully) to actually be affected by the way I treat them as I was by how you treated me – even if it took decades to realize it.
I hope you’ll accept my apology for my behavior. I’d also like to thank you for yours. Your job is harder, and more fulfilling, than I ever imagined.
--Danna L. Walker
Danna L. Walker is an assistant professor of communications at American University.
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