Teaching Moments

The big breakthroughs come one by one, writes Melissa Ballard, not in the massive group breakthroughs you see in the movies.

August 24, 2007

Hilary Swank will not be contacting me about starring in a movie version of my life as a college instructor. I have known this for a long time, but I was reminded of it recently when I watched her in Freedom Writers, a movie based on the remarkable achievements of a high school teacher and her students. A movie seemed like a good way to relax as I transition into a new academic year, and films about teaching always have potential appeal for me. As I watched it, though, I was struck, not for the first time, by the differences between teaching and learning as they are depicted in movies based on actual events, and my own very
different reality. An obvious truth, to be sure, but one worth remembering.

In 11 years of college teaching, I've had groups of students who seemed to gel better than others. I've left some class meetings feeling as though I knew what I was doing and the students were getting it. At other times, I've thought I needed to go on Blackboard (the electronic one, which must be capitalized) and send all of my students an e-mail apology and a promise to do better next time. But I have never experienced any of the large-scale transformations of an entire classroom of students that I see in movies about teaching.

I have, however, had a number of wonderful moments (not to be confused with "teachable moments," a term I would be happy never to hear again, except in a humorous context) that I cherish deeply, and that give me hope that I'm making a difference for some of my students, some of the time. In my real-life classes, there is for example, the young man (a composite, like all the students in this essay) who sits in the back row all semester with a slight frown on his face. He finally comes to my office for the required individual conference, which he has put off until the last week of classes. During our meeting, he elaborates the ways in which he has changed his behavior as the result of taking my class, thanks me profusely, and asks if it would be OK to
check in with me informally next semester. It most certainly would.

Then there is the student who seems too shy to speak in class unless I call on her. Another student, reporting on the results of a small group discussion, credits the quiet student with a most insightful remark. When I give her a discrete thumbs up, her face lights up and her eyes dance.

Another young woman, who has an outstanding academic record, takes my classes in order to hone her skills. She sits just to my right, in the front row. She never misses class, she takes notes, she answers questions, and she never complains, "this couldn't possibly work" for her. She is both tireless and creative in her efforts to improve. With students like her, I begin to feel invincible.

Finally, there is the student who, when we discussed pleasure reading, admitted to thinking that was a contradiction in terms. He still e-mails me three years after graduation, and he always ends his messages by telling me about the books he's read lately, and asking whether I can recommend any titles. I'm happy to do that.

This is not the stuff of Hollywood, even if shot in a series of flashbacks, with Vaseline smeared on the camera lens, and a soundtrack by the Polyphonic Spree. So, as I use some of my remaining time "off" for professional reading, writing and reflection, I will remind myself to resist the lure of the bright and shiny: glossy textbooks, elaborate workshops in exotic locales, and technology programs with randomly placed capital letters in their names. While they all offer the promise of quick educational fixes and happy Hollywood endings they are not, at least in my experience, what matters. Instead, I need to learn more, listen better, and always, always, remember it is the small moments in teaching that count the most. Also, Hilary Swank will not be contacting


Melissa Ballard is a study skills and reading instructor and dean of the fifth-year class at Oberlin College.


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