Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Year One? Ain't No Fun!

Fall 1966.  Fall 1978.  Fall 1979.  Fall 1982.  Fall 2001.

These were the times when I was a rookie--the five times when I started teaching in a place I'd never been before--or in a place where I'd been gone so long that none of the students knew who I was.  And I learned, each time: The first year in a new place--even if you're older and experienced--can be tough.  And humbling.

My first plunge into teaching, the fall of 1966 at the Aurora Middle School in Aurora, Ohio, is an experience I have written about a lot--most thoroughly in my Kindle book Schoolboy: A Memoir (Link to book), so I'll not say much about it here--except this: Every day I felt incompetent, overwhelmed, and wildly happy.  I knew I was doing something I loved; I just wished-to-hell that I knew how to do it!

In the fall of 1978, after a dozen years in Aurora, I headed to Lake Forest, Illinois, with Joyce and Steve (age 6) to become chair of the Department of Education at Lake Forest College.  That sounds impressive.  But I was the only full-time member of the department (several adjuncts taught courses for us).  When I got there, I learned a few things very quickly--and not all were pleasant.  I discovered that the State of Illinois had put the department on probation (no one mentioned this during my interviews), so I had to spend the year reorganizing things and satisfying Illinois that we had a good program (I did so: They lifted the probation).

I also learned that many students who came to my classes were resentful about doing work.  For one course, for example, I asked them to read a novel by Ursula K. Le Guin.  Some were downright hostile.  Read a book!  Are you kidding me?  More umbrage flared when I assigned essays for them to write.  And when I returned those essays, one student, unhappy that I'd marked usage and grammar and spelling and the like, barked at me: Hey, this isn't an English class!  I replied, mildly, Oh, what language were you using?  They eventually got over it, no doubt attributing my zeal to my rookie status.  I'd learn.

I also realized that things went much better when I taught the same way I'd always taught in middle school--using humor and silliness now and then to brighten the academic darkness.  Once I began to relax with the students, the classes went much better.

In the spring term that year, one of the loudest of the lads I'd taught in the fall was doing his student teaching.  And as I visited his classes and helped him deal with issues ranging from planning a class to finding the best materials, etc., he actually apologized to me for his behavior in the fall.

I told him it hadn't been entirely his fault.  I'd really had no idea how to teach a college class and had adopted a kind of distant, "professorial" persona that surely was annoying.  He confirmed that it was.

By the end of the year, I was feeling much better about things.  I was getting along with students; classes were more fun.

But I also knew that this was not for me.  I far preferred teaching to teaching about teaching.  This was an insight that arrived, oh, in October, and so I began looking for ways to get back to Aurora, to resume my career there.

WRA Chapel
But it took several years before that happened.  In the meantime, Joyce and I both found positions at Western Reserve Academy, Hudson, Ohio, and there we moved in the fall of 1979, to commence our careers as boarding school teachers.


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