Frankly, I’ve been phoning it in all semester. I am to the point now where I am so familiar with the things I teach and the way I perform in front of a classroom that I put it on autopilot in January, and, suddenly, we are here in the middle of May.
I had one of the best classes I ever had in thirteen years of teaching. They showed particular prowess in the use of the language and their ability to process information in creative ways. Their tests were great. Over half of the class is earning an A before I grade the final exams, which shouldn’t affect their grades much at this point, except those people who are on the line between grades. A good exam could mean the difference between a B and an A.
On the other hand, another of my classes was the most difficult I have ever had. They didn’t respond to discussion. They showed little initiative. While most classes have at least one personality that would jump start group work and class discussion, this class did not. They weren’t exactly droolers. Taken one on one, they showed interest in the class and did the work. But as a class, they were lifeless.
My third class took place in the evening. It started with ten students, but by mid-semester only six of them remained. Of them, five earned top grades. I couldn’t reach one student, whose cavalier attitude and lack of interest separated her from the rest.
My class is difficult. There are, however, many pieces from which to build a grade. Regardless of whether the class is American I or American II, each student must take a quiz and complete a chronology each week. There are 28 of these grades, and this part of the class is the easiest to get through. Students get to use their textbook and notes to complete the quizzes and chronologies.
Trickier are the written assignments. I have four. The first three are required to be four to five pages long. One concerns two primary documents that they have to compare and contrast, or analyze in some way. Scholarly articles from history journals form the nucleus of the next two assignments. I don’t tell them what to write or provide them a subject. They have to figure out that part on their own. The final paper of 10 to 12 pages, again, is on a topic of their choosing. But they must use the primary documents and articles from the previous assignments to build their papers. In addition, they must use one more article they find in a journal database.
The written assignments present the students the greatest challenge. They have to read the documents and come up with their own subjects. They have to use their creative minds. As a teacher, I am part composition teacher. I mark up their work, highlighting grammar and usage, as well as content. I judge the pieces according to organization, whether they have developed a central thesis, and on the way that they supported their argumentation with references to the works they are reading.
We also have three tests. They consist of two parts, multiple-choice and essay. The essays must be real essays, with a central thesis and argumentation supporting that thesis. It should lead to a convincing conclusion. But since we have been working on the essays in groups, many of them seem to have absorbed the material and can handle it well. I give the students the chance to study a list of multiple-choice questions out of which those on the test will come. Those who take the time generally do very well on this part of the test.
I also give them a chance to carve out decent essays. They possible test topics form the central theme about which they develop their group work. Each week, we take at least one class, where we divide into groups. Each group will them work on the essay topic, using each other’s brains to come up with what they might put on the exam.
I have largely gotten out of the lecture business. Most students, except the best, take away little from lecture. They often take notes and then don’t revisit them until briefly before the exam, and then they cram to make sure they get it all in. They may do well on the exam but then forget everything they’ve learned shortly after.
The result of me getting discussion or work underway on the essay topics is that I really only worked hard when the students turned in essays. Then I went about my work marking them up comprehensively. Tests are easy to grade and only take a short time. I use several films each semester. The students are always busy, even the dead class, doing something related to American history.
I’ve found that stepping back from the center of the room allows the students to deal with the material more closely. They form ideas on their own. They prove their creative might. The material stays with them longer. Their essay responses are better, sometimes even adept. And it all has made my work easier.
So, this semester, I slept late and did not mend harness. Getting out of bed in the morning proved difficult. I woke at the last minute and arrived at class just on time. I napped every day, which is nothing new, but like in the morning, I woke wondering why should I even get out of bed. Apathy ruled my life. A feeling of uselessness dogged me. I wrote but not nearly as much as I wanted and could have.
To be fair to myself, I did rewrite a book manuscript over the course of the semester. When I first drafted the book, I didn’t write a concluding chapter. While rewriting the book, I put together that last chapter. I also kept up on my househusband responsibilities. My kid seems happy. He either hasn’t missed me, or I have been doing better than I feel have.
Meantime, I put little thought into my teaching, except how to get the students involved in history in ways meaningful to them. It’s new to me not to be the center of attention. I’m surprised at how little work I had to do in classroom except fill in information they may have been missing or shepherding the discussions back to the topic.
So, on reflection, while I may have not been doing well personally this semester, my classes have. Most of the ennui I feel is on my part, not on the part of students, who always showed up to class. Several of the students walked out of their final telling me this was the best class they ever had or that they will miss the class now that it’s over.
What to take from this? As much as I worried, my feelings of uselessness and world-weariness did not interfere with my duties as teacher and father. My new method of teaching worked for the students, even if it left me out of the center of attention and feeling like I wasn’t doing my job.
I have to shake this inability I’ve found getting out of bed and finding the motivation to do much more than the exact minimum that I must. This is work that goes beyond measures of effectiveness in the classroom or at home. I will do what I usually do when faced with big problems in life. I’ll write about it. If that doesn’t work, then, I suppose, it will be time to seek professional attention.