Thursday, April 7, 2011

Meditation on Being a Teacher

There was a time in my life when I was absolutely convinced that I wasn't cut out to teach anything to anyone. In the summer of 2000, I had just earned my Master's degree in English Literature, but I was at a crossroads. If I wanted to continue into the PhD program, I was also required to attempt teaching college students how to write and, even more nerve-wracking, how to think critically (at least in theory). Considering I was twenty-two at the time and felt very nervous about teaching people not that much younger than me, and was also feeling other pressures to change the direction of my life, it's not surprising that I chose to end my academic career.

I don't regret the decision, because it ultimately led me to my work as a librarian, but I've always felt like I chickened out. I was sure that my parents, who were both teachers themselves, disapproved somehow. They had intimated that I would be good at teaching. My father was a tenured professor in the discipline I was abandoning, my linguist mother taught Spanish before moving on to her career as an editor, and my childhood was filled with looking things up in the dictionary and trying to understand out the difference between "lay" and "lie" as it was explained over the dinner table. That one still gives me trouble sometimes.

The teaching portion of my current job as a reference librarian in a large public library is fairly minimal, given all of the other things that I do at the library. It takes up a relatively small amount of my time; the classes are one-shot attempts to teach patrons how to use the programs and services that the library offers. When I first started teaching computer classes, beginning with Computer Basics, the easiest to conceive but sometimes the hardest to teach, I was terribly nervous. How could I be responsible for teaching people skills that might make a difference for them when applying for jobs? I started slowly, gained momentum, and eventually realized that I . . . was kind of good at what I was doing. People were actually learning things! It was amazing.

Library patrons are probably some of the easiest students to have because, unlike the college students that plague some of my friends who did not  abandon English literature, they have very low expectations and absolutely no investment. The classes we offer are free, which also means that getting people to attend can be an uphill battle. My patrons are grateful if I answer their questions. They are happy if they learn anything at all in the course of the hour and a half I spend explaining things like how to use a mouse or how to minimize a window. I get immediate feedback in the form of evaluations that are handed back at the end of class. There are some hard realities that could be discussed here about economic differences, and the digital divide, and our educational system, but I will save that for another post. I am simply grateful to have the opportunity to share my knowledge with people who are so willing to embrace it.

Which brings me to my other teaching job, one that is both challenging and rewarding. My son is now more than 18 months old, and he is acquiring words and concepts almost faster than I can keep up with. It is tempting to want him frozen as an adorable toddler before he can develop into a rowdy (rowdier) boy or a teenage terror, but at the same time, watching him learn and grow is fascinating. He absorbs everything I say and everything he sees around him, and he reflects it back at unexpected moments. His other parent and I read to him every day and encourage his curiosity and engagement with the world, but it's difficult to determine . . . success? I'm sure most parents wonder if they are teaching their children the right things at the right time and place. Teaching someone the difference between right and wrong, or even teaching someone to say "cold" when they're not 100% clear on the concept, is a bit more difficult than teaching the right-click. Unlike my other job, I have no evaluation forms to tell me whether I'm going the right direction. I can only hope that the outcome will be similar to when he learns how to ride a bike. He will wobble a little, and maybe crash into a few parked cars, but eventually he will be ready to drive off around the block out of my sight as I sit on the porch steps. I will wait patiently for him to come back around to me, and hope that someday he can teach me the difference between "lay" and "lie."

Meditation Index


booksNyarn said...

And teaching - and learning- as a parent continues for every day of your life!

jpetroroy said...

So well written, Anna :)

Helgagrace said...

Thanks, guys!

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