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The twitchy guy at the front of the room

With a new semester’s beginning comes the brain-numbing work of getting things set. Preparations include putting classes up online and going through the tedium of clicking buttons and pasting URLs. I have to read and reread syllabi to make sure that the information in them lines up with the other information on the class website for writing papers and taking quizzes.

IMG_0051[1]In teaching a class, everything demands perfection. As soon as one bit of text in the syllabus does not match something in the body of the rest of the class, students will find it. Gestalt is not their forte. Many students won’t ask questions. They go along, confused and doing things wrong, and are surprised at the end of the semester when they get their grades. Then, they blame the teacher for their lack of good sense. I know. I was a student for a long, long time.

It’s not my gift to pay attention to the little details, and classes make me to just that. I cannot whiz through the process and expect good results. I labor, for instance, over the details of the schedule. My mind does not work well with days and dates. Due to this psychic short circuit, I take a real paper calendar in hand and work things out on it in pencil. Scribbles and erasures track my perceptions and misperceptions. Once I think I have the schedule right, I go back to the beginning. Things don’t line up. I constantly iron and re-iron out the details.

And there’s a lot to mark down on that calendar. Dates for quizzes, tests, and papers fill the squares my calendar maker loving leaves open for notes. I have to figure in breaks. I seek to make things easy on students and have to space the work out so they don’t have to study for a test at the same time they have to write a paper.

Once I have things settled on the paper calendar, I have to put that into the computer. The online learning program that consultants named Desire2Learn only does what I tell it. If I don’t direct it to, say, transfer the grade on a quiz to the gradebook, well, it won’t do that. Making sure all the right buttons are clicked distracts me to no end.

Wisely, I don’t put off the work of getting the class together—writing syllabi, setting it up online—until the last minute. There’s nothing more embarrassing than standing in front of a class with the computer program going one way while I’m going in another.

In short, students are a very tough audience. They know only what they see. Since most of them are not listening, no amount of explanation does the trick. They will consult the online tools, calendar, and syllabus only when they absolutely need to.

Details. Details. Details. I muff them . . . frequently.

The hour before the first class fills me with anxiety. Did I get it right? Will I make a good impression on the students? Will typos, missing articles, or inexact punctuation get me?

Despite my worry, the start of a class excites me. I wonder what kind of students I will get. I hope they are interested in the subject or, at least, understand the importance of doing the work and getting a good grade.

Sometimes I get students of great talent and intelligence. They challenge me and keep me on top of my game. I can’t slouch. They will sniff out incompetence and lack of interest and react with vengeance. They take me to task. They ask the questions and keep discussions going.

Working with these kinds of students makes up for all the lackadaisical, cynical scruffs who lounge around in class looking like they’d rather brush their teeth with sand. Poor students, stacked too deeply on one another, spoil a class. On the other hand, they can be a real gas. With a room of unexcited, unmotivated, unmoved students, I get to do just about whatever I want and they don’t care. Nothing will get them to care. They won’t pay attention. They go through the motions. They give me the opportunity to experiment, to see what moves them, if anything.

I also look forward to that student, and there’s always one, who sits on the cusp of getting it. They mean well. They try, but sometimes they don’t. They just aren’t ready for college. With special attention, they can be convinced that they can succeed in class if they want to. This kind of student supplies the greatest frustration and joy. I may engage them, lead them intellectually to places they never thought they’d see or even imagined. They can also soak up a lot of time and attention. Most of the time, I fail at getting them involved in the work. They dry up after a while and disappear. I feel like their failure is mine.

Every class has a personality. That persona is a collection of the people in the room. Last spring, I had a class filled with students who acted, for the most part, consistently depressed. Nothing I did could get them into motion. They drained my energy. I got to the point where I hated going to that class.

But this semester, I have found a new kind of vigor. Maybe I have been skating along for a while, phoning it in. The last few years seemed to have run themselves. I did my job and did it well. I was a good teacher, but not the teacher I could be. For some reason—being sick of myself, changing the crazy pills, finding teaching interesting again—I look forward to going to school.

My classes are all pretty good, so far. I have a Western Civ class whose members are, for the most part, engaged and interested in the subject. They work well together and have drive. The class demands the students read a book a week, some classic like The Epic of Gilgamesh, Herodotus’ Histories, Dante’s Inferno. These works stupefy most people. But these students are excited. I get up mornings I have to teach this class and can’t wait to get to school.

My American surveys, however, are a different story. Many of the students in these two classes are new to college. They don’t know what they want or why they’re in the class in the first place. Some go to college because their parents have told them it’s school or get out. Most of them have jobs and see the work of the class as just more labor on top of everything else they have to do.

Still, as groups, they seem all right. I’m grateful to have had my deadbeat class last spring. Everything else after that is a step up. The class last spring taught me that students’ have negative effects on me only if I let them. I’ve decided that nothing a class or group of students can do will sap me.

The two American history classes promise to have some bright spots. I have noticed some cynicism, but there’s enough good will in the room to dissipate the noxious presence of students who will not be satisfied regardless of my efforts. I have decided I will be their strange, eccentric professor, the guy with the long hair and loud voice who gets extremely nerdy. Some of them will get it and will earn their grades. Those who don’t I will try to help. But none of them will steal away the fun of teaching. I hope for them the best. They will have to get on this ride. I can’t make them.

As I look at the next few months, I can see that, yes, sometimes things will not go well. Most times, students will respond. Sometimes they won’t. Other times, I will just make a fool of myself. Just today, I set my Western Civ class to work after showing them a couple of slides. We are talking about ancient Troy and I projected a few pictures of the excavations of the city. They got to work. I checked my E-mail and sent a message to a friend. The class grew strangely silent. I looked up and realized that I left the projector on and they were reading my E-mails along with me.

I will be tired. I get depressed. Sometimes I will not have slept well. But class only lasts an hour. I can put my personal issues aside for that long. With that determination, I go into another four and a half months of adventure. I feel like I can do this thing. Students will tell me soon enough if I can’t.

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