The first time I taught was in 2010, during a summer session of a college where a family member worked and got me a gig. I was an adjunct faculty member, literally a month out of graduate school with an MA in literary theory, a thesis on science-fiction, and a few punk- and pop-culture-related publications under my belt.
It went terribly.
No one wants to be in class during summer sessions, especially for a 6-9pm class on Thursday nights being taught by an absolute first-timer. I’d kinda bullshitted about knowing how to do any “real” technical writing when I sat down for the informal interview with the department chair before the semester started (I’ve since done some actual real tech writing gigs…after that first class) so I was teaching Intro to Technical Writing. I got a stock syllabus, a faculty email address, a copy of the textbook, and a calendar of when grades were due. That’s basically it, no guidance, no tips or tricks, just…”You’ll do fine, email me if you have any questions!”
Incidentally, that was the inspiration ultimately for this project, but anyway…
I tried way too hard to be amicable and liked, I was barely a week ahead of them lesson-wise, and I constantly struggled to fill a three-hour block of time when I had almost no experience with the material. I was nervous, I tried to be the “nice teacher,” I just was not doing well at it at all. I don’t remember specifics but it couldn’t have been more than a dozen students, and I could barely manage it all.
And…here we are now, eight yeas later. Last semester I had around 150 or 160 students throughout six classes, and I have a similar number this term. I’m the unofficial faculty member covering classic world literature at one campus (I’ve done this class three, four times in a row so far?) and have been tutoring, workshopping, and lecturing to students on a range of stuff from literature, nonfiction, composition, and how to write research papers and essays at the college level for a living for a while now. I’ve had parents, soldiers, retirees, people right out of high school, people from where I grew up and people from across the planet as students, and all of them, in some way, have been interesting people. I had a crazy Fox News-watching mom who said she was related to Johnny Cash and was sad school didn’t allow her to open-carry on campus (this wasn’t in New York). One student took classes I was teaching 3 times, and every time he never remembered who I was, assuming I was new. There were people who pestered and harassed me over “owing them” a passing grade, and people who told me that I helped them understand and feel confident about building their communication skills. Even at their laziest and worst, they were and are, my students.
For a period of time I also taught middle and high schoolers, the youngest 12 going on 13.
That was a two-year trial by fire, because as I learned, teaching kids in high school and middle school is completely different from teaching people (even teenagers) in a college setting. I came out of that with a lot of baggage but also a whole new bag of tricks in terms of classroom management and lesson planning. Those kids drove me absolutely fucking bonkers, infuriated me constantly, tested every raw nerve I’d ever had, both through their gentle monstrosity and purposeful malevolence.
They were also, at times, some of the most unsure and sensitive kids I’d ever encountered, full of plans for the future, full of plans for that weekend, and even some of the legitimately-shitty ones had times when I was genuinely proud and happy for them. Some of them got letters of recommendation for colleges from me, and every single one of those letters were glowing. I even re-did one for a student who lost the first one I did for her the day it was due, because I knew how much it meant to her.
She got into the college of her first choice, and I’m glad. One of them caught me last year on the subway, and I was shocked to see this awkward shy boy I’d known having turned into a fucking confident young man over the span of a year away from me, singing my praises to my face (this was after I stopped teaching there, for a reason you’d have to get from me in meatspace). All of them, even the bad ones, they were my students.
This also the first time I started to get asked about what I’d do if “something happened” in the school. Or the classroom. You know…like a shooting.
It’s a depressing fucking thing to get asked by high schoolers with a head full of questions but also an extremely limited sense of just how blunt they can be. I don’t remember what caused it, or which particular class asked about it, but they did, and it put me on the spot.
Later on when I started teaching college exclusively again, it came up. Faculty, on our first day back one semester at the traditional breakfast, were told that the day’s meetings this year were being supplemented with a “special safety presentation.” It was some NYPD and Homeland Security-types, on how we should think and respond if a gunman stormed the campus going room-to-room.
I hated it. I hated the fucking necessity of it, I hated having to take notes, I hated having to pay attention because as much as I wanted to ignore it, I couldn’t. Because apparently, that’s the thing now. That’s the thing that we have to talk about. Not how little money people like me make compared to the amount of work we do, how we do this work that ultimately puts us either in the spotlight or on a problematic pedestal that’s a backhanded complement. Not how the industry is constantly attacked and belittled and treated like a joke, like those who do it are failures in any other field. But how we’re “heroes.”
No one should have to be a hero. No one should have to think about how quickly they can run across a classroom, hit the lights, get everyone to shut up, and try to silently slide furniture across the floor to barricade the door, and herd everyone into a far corner away from an angle of the window in the door.
By the way, most schools don’t let us lock a classroom door from the inside.
I don’t know what the point of this all is, really. I hate talking about these sort of events when they happen because it can create a weird sense of pointless rage in me, trigger-happy bad decisions by me, and are such minefields for students and teachers to talk about in the classroom. Then of course the debates surrounding “arming teachers” come up, the arguments about having armed guards, about how teachers who die are the real heroes, teachers who get shit on by parents and people criticizing how liberal colleges are or whatever, but now that the people who are in my field are dead, they’re martyrs, easy heroes who have no complex needs that you have to address.
I just don’t know. I don’t know what would happen if “something happened” to any of them, at any time, and I hate that people go out of their way so that I have to think about that sometimes.