Ruminations of a Red Dirt Hussy

April 14, 2012

The perks and perils of teaching

Filed under: Writing and Teaching — Vadasmaker @ 9:21 pm
Tags: , , , ,

The things I know about teaching are fewer than I’d like, but by and large fall into two categories.

What my colleagues have told me are the practicalities, the things beyond pedagogy:

  • Always tell students what they’ve done correctly along with suggestions for improvement.
  • Be consistent.
  • Be prepared for that extra fifteen minutes you didn’t expect to have.
  • Document everything.
  • Don’t forget your math skills are nonexistent. Never grade using percentages.
  • Teach to the middle.
  • Remember that the average student attention span is seven minutes.

What I figured out for myself is how funny students can be, whether intentionally or not. I can’t count the times they’ve made me laugh till I nearly wet myself.

  • A comp 1 student: “So, like, Mrs. Johnson, like, were you, you know, like, were you like, hot 20 years ago or something?” The boy sitting behind him buried his head in his arms and said, “Dude, you are definitely never getting a girlfriend.”
  • A comp 2 student in a paper about abortion, which I had specifically told her to avoid as a topic: “Abortion is wrong. A feces is a person, too.” Yeah. I know. I couldn’t believe it either.
  • An introduction to literature student in a paper on Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”: “In the olden days women were often placed on a pedal stool.”
  • A comp 1 student in an essay: “There was pluffera of businesses within a 10 mile radial.” I was proud of her; she knew what she wanted to say, and she said it. Pretty much.
  • A comp 1 student, standing in my office door: “Are you Native American, Mrs. Johnson? Because you remind me of my grandma.” No, I don’t know what one had to do with the other. And I didn’t so much laugh as curl into a fetal position under my desk and cry.
  •  A technical writing student: “I thought everybody only got 5 semicolons for their whole lives.” I couldn’t make this stuff up.
  • A student who had confessed to me that she suffered from Dissociative Identity Disorder, often referred to as Multiple Personality Disorder—in her paper she talked about picking fruit in New Mexico. I asked her how she ended up in Tulsa. She slumped in her chair and muttered, “One of us wanted to go to Rhema (a local bible training school).” Apparently, she was agin it.

What no one could have made me believe was that no matter how well-armored I thought I was, how disconnected I tried to remain, my students would break my heart.

  • One student’s first paper covered her rape, by her mother’s boyfriend, a year before, and the trial which had just ended, and at which her mother testified in the boyfriend’s defense. And the thing is, the paper suffered from—well, pretty much everything. There were grammatical errors, sentence fragments, run-on sentences, misspelled words, undeveloped paragraphs—whatever could be done wrong, was. I agonized over that essay. I stared at it for hours. I lost sleep.  In the end, I gave her a C. If that shows a lack of integrity on my part, I can live with it.
  • A student who took three of my classes and finished each from an in-patient psychiatric unit. She returned for a fourth class with self-inflicted razor cuts and scars all over her arms and legs. She said she was going to make it all the way through that class, in class, and she did. (There was some humor in this. Another, older student kept telling her, “You’re not mentally ill. You’re psychic. They’re commonly confused.”)
  • A few years ago a wise-cracking, rugby playing sweetheart of a kid drowned.
  • A few weeks ago one of my all-time favorite students was killed when the SUV he was riding in rolled over on a local expressway. After 9/11 he joined the military because he thought it was the right thing to do. It’s still easy to conjure him in my mind—long, tall, dark, always laughing.

These are extreme cases, but I’m also saddened by the day to day difficulties of my students—one whose mother was in prison for making meth. One who, along with four siblings, saw her mentally ill mother stab to death another woman. The mother spent the rest of her life in a mental hospital, and my student had never visited her. She wrote obsessively about her “failure” as a daughter. Another, a recovering addict, relapsed while she was in my class. I could see it, but I couldn’t stop it.

Maybe this is the saddest one. I tutored an 18-year-old girl who brought in a paper detailing her “audition” for a local “gentleman’s club” at which she was currently dancing nude. In her conclusion, she said, “I couldn’t believe they wanted me! Me!”





  1. There are so many things that went through my mind reading this I’m not sure I can focus enough to be coherent. Of course the humor makes me laugh because that is what I WANT to do; I don’t want to be down. But the part about the relapsed addict, the rape victim, the murderer’s daughter who thought she’d failed hurt my heart. But the young lady who was so happy to be accepted to expose her body… God, life sucks sometimes.


    Comment by gloriateague52 — April 14, 2012 @ 10:35 pm | Reply

  2. If these people don’t break your heart, no matter how well-armored, you don’t have one. Only true heroes with real hearts give out a C after agonizing all night long. May there be more perks rather than perils in the future.


    Comment by Michelle — April 15, 2012 @ 12:23 am | Reply

  3. Gloria said it well. You made me laugh, you ALWAYS make me laugh even it it’s just for a minute. You also make me cry, my heart hurts. Your student’s don’t know how lucky they are to have you for a teacher. 🙂


    Comment by Nita — April 15, 2012 @ 9:04 am | Reply

  4. May our perks be many and our perils be few. I can relate to everything you wrote.


    Comment by PamKan — April 16, 2012 @ 8:28 am | Reply

  5. And I thought I was the craziest person you ever taught! I am so normal, it is boring. Thank you,Carol, for being the best version of yourself for all of us to love and enjoy.


    Comment by ponytail girl — April 16, 2012 @ 9:47 am | Reply

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