The end of each semester always brings surprises. Snow in Louisiana? Here in St. Louis, we’re still waiting for our white Christmas. But for me, the surprises are always my students.
One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned as a teacher is that sometimes it doesn’t matter how perfectly you plan a class. Everything can look great on paper – in the syllabus – but as soon as the students walk through the door, things are subject to change. It’s a point I stress at the beginning of each class. After all, the class isn’t for me; it’s for them.
This semester, however, was particularly rough for one of my classes. Try as I might, they struggled to understand each component of the course project. With each additional lesson, I found myself growing increasingly frustrated. I teach two sections of the same class; my other class had no difficulty. They were going above and beyond for each assignment. What could possibly be the problem?
After midterms, we had a “come to Jesus” moment. I expressed my concerns, indicating their midterm grades as the evidence they might need. And I asked them to reflect: Why had they taken my course? What did they hope to gain by it?
College students can be brutally honest. In those reflections, the majority of the class mentioned their hope for an easy A. Their course loads were filled with major requirements, and they didn’t expect to put much time or effort into my course – with the exception of one group of students.
In my office, reading through the student reflections, I heard a faint knock. Looking up, I saw a group of five girls – my occupational therapy majors. As they filed into my office, I prepared for the worst. But instead, they wanted to know what they could do to improve. We pored over their past assignments, discussed their strategies for group work and looked to future assignments.
In that moment, I decided that, for this class, I was teaching for that group, the group that wanted to learn, the group that wanted to stretch themselves, the group that cared.
The following week, as they brainstormed and began planning the final capstone project for my course, I watched them take over one of the room’s white boards. Slowly, I saw the messy tangle of words, lines and ideas. It was a complex web. As the other groups silently worked, barely looking up at one another to discuss with their groups, this group was excitedly whispering and planning. And then they called me over.
Like a proud parent, I listened as they explained their thought process. I nodded as they caught me up on the clusters that had formed on the board. And when they nervously asked if they were on track, I smiled and said it was a light bulb moment. It ended up being the best project I received.
As a student, I remember looking forward to the final day of classes. But teachers look forward to that day just as excitedly as students.
Often, I think maybe it’s the teachers who need the break more than the students. Day in and day out, we prepare our lessons and activities. In some ways, it’s certainly a performance – and all performances need audiences.
Classes aren’t spectator sports. They’re a different form of relationship – the students and teachers balance one another. They learn from each other. A good class is one in which both participants are challenged. After all, isn’t that the point?
Heather Bozant Witcher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.