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Stumbling over the finish line

marathon-runner-collapseToday we held the last class meeting of the semester, and no one is happier about it than me.

Every student gets tired after the middle of the semester. With papers to write, tests to take, and even more books to read, they come to a point where they are just sick of it all. I see it every semester. A kid starts class wide-eyed and curious. That gives way in the first few weeks to looks of seriousness and even studiousness. Around the time of mid-terms—October in fall, beginning of March in the spring—that look turns to one of someone involved in pure drudgery.

It happens to teachers, too. At least it does to me. I start every semester with a sense of discovery. Around the fourth week, when the students have settled in and are working away on the weekly quizzes and turning to their first paper, my enthusiasm begins to fade. I think, how many more weeks of this? Then that first paper comes in and I have 60 to 105 pieces of abjectly bad student writing to get through.

Fortunately, some students do well. Their essays take ten, maybe fifteen minutes to comment on and grade. Without any organizational problems and with plenty of clarity and specifics, a good paper can be a joy to read. Really bad papers are as easy to grade as the really good ones. They take few marks here and there and a general comment on getting with the program.

Average papers take the most time. A single four- or five-page paper can take forty-five minutes to an hour to comment on. Since I am a history teacher and history demands good writing, I also find myself in the role of composition teacher. I mark all the run-on sentences, subject/verb agreement problems, tense issues, even pronoun antecedents. I have to make comments on sources, content, and exposition. Organization is often a problem, with students running back and forth in time, misaligning themes, and repeating themselves.

By the end of that first round of papers, I’m wondering why I teach in the first place.

Class lecturing makes up the rest of the job. Each class comprises a performance. I am an actor in a role that tries to intrigue and engage the students. Lecturing is generally not a problem for me. Once I get going, only the end of a class stops me. I get expansive, especially when I look out of those faces and see that people pay attention to what I’m saying and the connections I’m making.

There come days, however, when I’m not up to it. I wake up tired and have to overcome that hurdle just to get started. Sometimes a lecture falls flat, no matter what I do. I stumble, hesitate, and lose my place. I don’t drone, I just get lost. Eyes wander, people start sneaking texts on their cell phones, and I can see that some are doodling rather than taking notes.

Lecturing at the beginning of the semester is easy. The students don’t know what’s important. They hang on every word. But as the semester gets going, more pressure falls on my performance. Unfortunately, this burden occurs just about the time I getting up in the morning feeling tired, when my lectures don’t have the oomph I want to give them.

By the time I get through those first papers, I’m looking forward to the first test—a class period when I get to sit in front of the class and look studious with a book. Tests grade easily. Multiple-choice questions are taken care of with the Scan Tron. I put them I a stack and zip, zip, zip, they are all graded. Test essays take only a few minutes each to grade. Either they studied or they didn’t. After an hour, I’m done and have the grades recorded on the computer. I go home and take a nap.

But there’s another three writing assignments. Two are shorter, four to five pages. Each of them, however, demand the attention and devotion that the first needed. About the end of the second round of papers, I’m ready to go to the dean and say, “Hey, look, you need to find someone else more dedicated to teach this class.”

Meanwhile, students have figured out that the don’t need to be overly intelligent or clever to get through one of my classes. They just need to do the work. Some put their heads down and grind it out. Others start complaining. Why do we have to write this much? Why do I have to come to class? Can’t you just give me a grade based on the quizzes and the tests? Can you let this one slide?

It’s around the middle of the semester when grandmas die, cars break down, and sickness strike. Maybe most students understand that I’ve seen and heard it all. Real grandmas do die, cars do break down—especially student beaters—and people do get sick. As a teacher, I have to take my students at their word—even after the same grandma has died twice. I could demand a doctor’s note for a sickness, but I understand two things: Students usually don’t go to doctors when they are sick and I don’t want to keep track of all those notes. I don’t want to have to read an obituary or look at someone’s car repair bill. A teacher has to know when keeping track of honest students just becomes more work.

And students are really tired after the second and then third papers. By this time, we are into the last weeks of the class. Everyone has wearied of sitting down for an hour listening to the teacher. That’s why I have my class do a lot of group work. I set them to tasks, such as figuring out the essays that will appear on the exams or summarizing parts of chapters that they then have to present to the class. Group work take pressure off me. Besides, students like it.

Then comes the final paper, a ten-to-twelve-page animal that students believe are monsters. At this point, some students have figured out that they have been working on their final papers all semester—the individual smaller papers create the research and contemplation that go into the last, big paper. Most, however, haven’t put that together, though I have repeated all semester that the writing all goes together. The really sharp students realize that the final paper more or less constitutes a cut-and-paste job of what they did in the previous assignments.

I really feel for those students who sit down to a clean piece of paper and think that they haven’t done any of the work for that final paper. If they think this, then they really haven’t done the work, and those poor saps have to begin from scratch.

About this time in the semester, everyone has had it—teacher and student. The last three weeks are all about endurance, getting to the end. Sometimes I wind up like that marathon runner at the back of the pack who wobbles over the finish and then collapses on the ground. Many of my students have stopped running and are just glad to get to the end.

And that’s what higher education is all about. Endurance. I think of lot of us want to believe that school is about finding self-awareness, knowing more about the world, gaining knowledge, and so on. It isn’t. Those things come, I think, but only because those who realize these gifts have the stamina to grind through the lulls and lack of enthusiasm.

I’m glad of my higher education. It’s made me who I am. Since I was 18 and first in college, I was in and out of college for 32 years. I don’t know what kept me going back, but I did. I suppose, looking back on it, I was quite the marathon runner. That’s who I have to be when I teach these courses. Many teachers talk about the great joy of teaching, the rewards of watching students grow, and witnessing kids become adults. Like learning, those things come but only with relentless work.

It’s the work, I tell my students, that brings the rewards. I get to tell them that because I have to tell myself.

 

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