I’ve been teaching writing to college students for three decades now, and I well know how the ends of semesters go: lots of last-minute assignments and make-up tests, students coming to my office with pleas for leniency or concerns about grades, and, often, notes from some students about my performance as a teacher.
I offer all my students at the end of the semester a chance to write me a note about what they enjoyed about the class, what they found challenging, and, most important, what I might do in the future to improve the class. They take me up on it, too, especially once they learn they don’t have to sign the letters and that I won’t look at them until I prepare for the next version of that class, which in some cases might be a year or more down the road.
I am fortunate that I get plenty of comments that all teachers like to hear:
- “You changed how I think about myself as a writer. I’ve learned that I’m not bad and even pretty good.”
- “I learned more about grammar and journalistic style than I ever thought I would; I also learned how to correctly use a semi-colon!”
- “I now read the newspaper, and I never used to. I realize that being well informed is an important thing, and I’m going to make sure I am from here on out.”
But today I got a visit in my office from a student—let’s call her Olivia—who furrowed her brow in every class session and clearly wasn’t understanding what I was trying to teach her, namely grammar and journalistic style.
Olivia is not dumb; in fact, she might be one of my smartest students this semester. But I was not reaching her. I knew my explanations of what I thought were simple concepts about usage and punctuation were not landing well with her. She hated the grammar textbook, she told me. It made no sense to her. I talked too fast. (She’s right; I do.) And even when she came to my office and asked me, with a great deal of exasperation, to explain the concepts again, she left frustrated and clearly annoyed. I was more amused than irritated by her straightforwardness, rather pleased that she was not intimidated by a professor, especially one who, in her opinion, was not doing a very good job.
I have to say that I think I’m a pretty good teacher, that most students seem to learn things and feel more empowered as writers. I hear that a lot. But I knew I was failing Olivia. She knew it, too. And that bugged me. A lot.
A few weeks ago she came to me with a book she’d found at our college library, a fairly simple grammar and usage book that can be bought online for less than $13 (I looked it up), far cheaper than the expensive text I require.
“THIS is what you’re trying to tell me!” she said, pointing to a basic explanation of a noun. She turned the pages to adjectives and then verbs. I hadn’t realized that she couldn’t distinguish the parts of speech.
“I’m sorry,” I told her. “I didn’t realize that you don’t know nouns from verbs.”
“I didn’t either,” she said. “I thought I did. But you confused me.” She raised a critical eyebrow.
Again, I apologized, and she left with her borrowed book held close to her chest.
I give a 100-question grammar and style test, which students must pass to successfully complete the class. I was concerned about how Olivia would do. I give students three chances to pass the test, each time taking a slightly different version of the exam with the same kinds of challenges but using different sentences. Olivia, as I feared, failed the first two tests. She took it the third time this week, and she passed it with a B.
She came to my office, her grammar book in hand, to look at her third test and ask me questions. I praised her and told her how impressed I was with her progress. In her usual, direct way, Olivia let me know that she’d passed the test without my help and, in fact, taught herself what she needed to learn.
“You really should use this book,” she said, wagging it at me.
I explained again that the class was designed for people who had more knowledge of grammar and usage, that people who struggled with basic concepts usually dropped the class because it was too tough for them, even when I offered to help them. But, I added, I had ordered her grammar book and planned to keep it in my office.
“Well, then,” Olivia said, nodding in satisfaction, “you’ve learned something.”
I smiled at her. “Yes, I have.”
I should add that I’ve tried not to become defensive and have overlooked what to some might be a cheeky attitude because I’ve wondered if Olivia might be somewhere, as they say, “on the spectrum.” She is so bright, but she learns in a very specific way. She told me that she is typically very critical of teachers who don’t teach “in a way I can understand,” and that some teachers have suggested that she drop their classes. I understand those teachers, I thought, but I didn’t say so.
Instead, I said, “I appreciate that you told me that I wasn’t reaching you, that you stuck with the class, and that you found a way to learn this material despite everything.”
Olivia’s face softened for a moment. “Thank you,” she said.
I held out my hand, which she shook. I wouldn’t have dared offered her a hug.
Out of this came the hope that I, who have been at this for a long time, never become a teacher who can’t learn from a student, who can’t go back to beginner’s mind and summon a memory of not knowing, who will find a way to reach a student who sticks with it and tries with all her heart. I want to applaud courage and determination, even when it arrives sounding like criticism.
I want to remember always, as Richard Bach wrote years ago in his book, “Illusions,” that we teach best what we most need to learn.