When life goes off script, it can be fun

The end of each semester brings its own sense of relief – to both students and teachers. As discussions start lagging and increased silence becomes the response to questions, I can feel my patience wearing thin.

This year was particularly difficult. It was a year of transition. Moving from my identity as a graduate student to full-time member of the faculty, with an increased course load, was eye-opening. I remember friends telling me that the first year was a nightmare. “You won’t ever feel like you’re caught up,” they said. And they were right. Each time it felt like I was caught up, another wave of deadlines and priorities came crashing down.

I tried explaining it to my husband. The closest metaphor I could manage was that it was similar to the first year of marriage. That first year is both exciting and difficult. Although the person sleeping next to you is in no way new to you, each experience faced and challenge overcome forces a realization about that person upon you. It’s about learning together and fashioning a life that supports two people instead of one. It’s about developing a new way of living.

The profession of teaching wasn’t new to me. I’d taught as a graduate student. But suddenly I had to find new ways of teaching and grading because my demands were greater. I realized after the first semester that I couldn’t assign the same assignments as though I only taught one or two classes. Now, papers multiplied and stacks began to invade my desk. My own research got pushed aside. Household chores remained incomplete.

So, I reflected. I couldn’t keep going the way I had. Something had to give. Perhaps the biggest lesson learned I’ve learned is the relief that comes from letting go and trying a new approach.

As I looked out on the blank faces of my students in response to an easy plot question, it was clear to me that the majority of the class hadn’t completed the reading. My jaw clenched and my heart began racing as I tried to keep the swell of anger under control. It was, after all, the last week of class.
But that’s when it hit me. They were tired. They had exams coming up. They were just trying to pull through to the end of the race. And so was I. We all needed a gasp of air before the next wave crashed.
For that class, we set aside the course schedule. I asked: “What is it that you want?” It was probably one of the most rewarding sessions all semester as my students decompressed, eventually returning to the course theme of identity.

All semester long we’ve read literature that asks who we are and what makes up our identities. In that class period, I felt like I got to know my students – their real selves, not the selves they perform for their teachers. For 50 minutes, the mask was dropped.

I learned about their passions, their fears, their anxieties. They related to some of the characters: Sethe from “Beloved,” confronting her history; Prospero from “The Tempest,” trying to maintain control over their first years in college but desperately wanting to return home; Marian from “The Woman in White,” pushing the boundaries of socially constructed norms.

Sometimes the greatest lessons aren’t gained from lesson plans. Walking out of that class, I realized that my students weren’t just reading – they were relating.

Dr. Heather Bozant Witcher can be reached at hbozantwitcher@clarionherald.org.

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