Teachers run in my family. My dad was a college music professor and my mother a teacher of music and, later, English. My sister and her husband built careers in public school teaching, and their son is doing the same now.
Teaching was always lurking there in my blood. It took awhile – a detour through writing and TV reporting – but I’m a teacher, too. As I come to the end of my fourth semester as a university professor, I am thinking a lot about this new path, and how much of my affinity for it might be innate.
Last weekend, I spent an evening at the kitchen island, grading a stack of papers from my writing class. It’s not the most comfortable spot, but the light is good and the hard-backed kitchen stool keeps me focused. But sitting there, a red pen in my hand and another wedged behind my ear, I had a flashback to our family room, 40 years ago. Saturday nights, we’d all gather there after Mass to watch TV. My mom would be at the corner of the sofa, grading a stack of papers. She’d count the number of right answers, quietly under her breath, and then record the grades in a book.
Maybe this is why I still have a paper grade book, when everyone else records grades online. It’s a small detail, and it would be awfully reductive to suggest this whole generational teaching gene is most evident in a red pen on a Saturday night.
But I grew up with and around teachers, and something rubbed off.
The homework is my least favorite part. High school and college teachers might have it the worst, because older students use writing to convey what they’ve learned. I recently read an essay from a professor who suggests it’s time to stop assigning essays and term papers: students hate doing them and professors hate grading them. That would be a senseless argument in a college writing class. And so I sit with my red pen every weekend.
But I teach because of the classroom time. Maybe it’s part of that “detour” I took, the one that put me in front of a camera every day. Television journalism, for me, was the perfect combination of writing and performance. That’s what I do each time I stand in front of a college class now.
Am I any good at it? Probably, sometimes – but that’s a hard question. Even at the university level, there are students who are so opaque in class, who seem so bored, that I take it personally. But one of the things I’ve learned about college students is that the idiom is true: It’s the one you least expect.
The student who doesn’t participate, seems disconnected and sleepy, is often the one who will improve the most. Some of my mistakes as a professor have been misreading students, expecting too little from some or, perhaps, assuming too much about others.
It’s been a rigorous semester: nine credits, a few dozens students, countless papers and at least 20 red pens. At the end of the writing class this week, a student handed me his final paper and thanked me.
“I learned a lot in here this semester,” he said. “And I still want to be a journalist.”
Never mind the family genes, or all those Saturday nights growing up. A comment like that is why I want to keep on teaching.
Beth Dolinar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.