Thursday, September 01, 2005

Joy and Responsibility

Startup of the Wheaton semester is extremely energy-consuming if you are teaching First Year Seminar (which I am, a class called Rings, Swords and Monsters: Tolkien, Wagner, Beowulf). There are meetings and more meetings and workshops, and then there is the marathon advising session (which one year I had to do on Labor Day Monday) where I have individual meetings with each of the nineteen students in my class. The day is exhausting, not only because the math of 19 students x 20 minutes per meeting = a very long day, but also because the cognitive demands are pretty high. You have to try to get a read on the students' strengths and weaknesses and the plans for the future and then match it up against a potential schedule. Is it a good idea to have all four classes MWF with no classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays? (No, it is not). Should I take basic French even though I had four years of French in high school? (No. You take a placement exam and end up in Intermediate French). Should I really take Chem and Bio in the same semester? (Yes, if you want the option to go Pre-Med). You also have to try to match students with classes and faculty that will fit their learning styles (i.e., student with documented ADD should probably avoid a large lecture course in the first semester; student who wants to be a Theatre major should not fill the entire first year with math and science to "get them out of the way"). You also have to try to encourage students to stretch intellectually, to drop bad prejudices ("I just don't like science" -- how can you be sure? You've only had boring high school science. Try a course with Prof. Morris and see if you even can be bored), and to understand the Wheaton curriculum.

So, as I said, exhausting.

But this year's meetings were different. I don't really know why--maybe because I have a particularly great group of kids, maybe because my daughter has reached an age where my wife and I are thinking and talking a lot about future education, maybe just because I'm reaching a certain age--but whatever the reason, I was acutely aware that trailing behind each student was an enormous amount of parental and family love and pride. I could imagine their parents watching them walk bravely into their first day of kindergarten with that mix of pride and terror that parents feel, that emptiness and fullness as a child steps further into the world. Now, here they were in my office planning their first year at college. Each student was like a chalice filled to the brim with a family's hope and pride, a chalice that had been filled drop by drop with so much labor over so many years and could so easily be spilled out.

Joy and fear. I imagined their parents feeling it, and I felt it myself.

It is very easy for things to go wrong at college. I have had much more than my fair share of student successes, students who discovered how great they were while I was watching. But I've also had disasters; I've seen students dig themselves into very, very deep holes. I've seen them get into all the sorts of trouble that 18-22 year-olds can find. I can imagine their parents back home awake nights thinking about car accidents and date rapes and drug overdoses. I know I will be thinking about those things in the years ahead.

I have responsibility with very little power: I can't control what students do in the dorms, and I'm realistic enough to know (and young enough to remember) that what happens in their classes and with their professors is only a very small part of their lives. It could be a crushing burden, and it is when a student really messes up I can't help that person enough.

And yet, so much joy. My students are smart and articulate. They are, at least right now, in these first few golden days, hungry for new knowledge. They have new freedom and it has gone to their heads. The air sparkles around them with life and promise.

And I get to be a part of that.

I love being a teacher.


Natalia said...

Just taught my first discussion section today -- possibly the most frightening thing I've ever done.

m. smith said...

Dear Mike,
It is professors like you that keep me pushing myself each every day to join the ranks of your profession. Thanks, and good luck this semester!

Triona Trog said...

It's nice to read something by someone who enjoys his job so much. Which is really a big part of why I read this blog. :)