Pushed by a Student: How My Teaching Philosophy Was Born
Calaya Michelle (Reid) Stallworth
Athens, Ga. Saturday morning.
The sun had already started its daily climb into the sky. It sent slender, auburn streaks through my half-closed blinds, acting like a childhood friend begging me to open my eyes and come outside to play. I was already awake, but I could not come out for kickball or hopscotch. I had been up for hours, working through the night. A red pen in my hand, black spectacles at the tip of my nose, a cup of green tea on the nightstand, I was sitting in the center of my bed grading my last stack of composition essays for the semester.
A rather ambitious teaching assistant who had survived her second semester of teaching college composition at the University of Georgia, I encouraged my 41 students to submit narrative essays focused on their experiences with diversity on campus and what influence, if any, this diversity had on their world perspective. It was 2002 and the entire nation was still mourning the tragedy of 9/11. My classes spent the last module of the semester discussing American identity in the media, patriotism and the human experience in personal narrative.
While I was slightly nervous about how the students might respond to the final essay prompt about diversity, considering that perhaps the first-year students did not have enough time to fully decompress and develop a clear and sincere retrospective on their experiences, through much of my early morning reading that Saturday in Athens, I had been smiling. Most of their responses, deep and reflective, exhibited unimaginable growth from the nervous, homegrown and sheltered faces that sat before me on the first day of class.
My biggest smile came when I encountered Mick’s (not his real name) essay.
When Mick came to me, he was what many teachers would call an arrogant overachiever. He thought he knew everything and was open to learning almost nothing new. I noticed him on the first day of class; he was eyeballing the syllabus, highlighting certain passages with a thick yellow highlighter, raising his hand with dozens of questions. He wanted clarity—needed to understand everything.
As the semester progressed, Mick and I grew cold on one another. Bluntly, I grew tired of seeing his hand in the air. I believe he grew tired of me telling him to take time to read the assignment sheet or to confer with his classmates before he asked questions—ones that often had been previously answered. A new (and perhaps nervous) teacher, I felt as if he was intentionally coming to class with all of these questions to undermine my authority, question my judgment and find holes in my decision-making. I think he felt I just was not giving him enough attention.
We started watching each other. From my desk to his desk and from his desk to my desk, there was a constant battle of wit and intelligence. Neither one of us would give up. I was determined not to allow Mick to take over my classroom, alienating other students and using class time to boost his ego; Mick seemed determined to run me around.
I asked peer teachers for advice and they said I should speak with Mick privately and tell him to tone it down. They explained that I should tell Mick his behavior was distracting and ask if perhaps we could find some other ways to ensure his many questions were answered. I agreed.
The next day, I spoke to Mick after class. While he was a little perturbed, claiming he was not aware he was being destructive, he agreed to limit himself to three questions each class period.
At the beginning of the next session, Mick caught my eye and I thought we were set to begin our daily battle. Only this time, something was different. There was a slight smile in his stare. Not cynical. Not nasty. Mick was focused throughout the session. He seemed to have something to do with his questions. He had taken my suggestion as a challenge.
The results were quite interesting. While Mick made sure to ask his three questions that day and the following days, his questions were more insightful, carefully planned and intellectual.
The other students noticed the change too and one day Mick shared that he could only ask three questions per day, and he was determined to ask the best three questions. Well, the other students in that section started doing the same thing. Three questions each class. It was a game and even a few of the quiet students who usually walked straight to the back of the classroom and said little unless prompted took on the challenge. Pretty soon, we were a metaphorical urn filled with inquisitiveness and critical analysis. Everyone was asking and answering these questions. Instead of sitting back and letting learning happen to them as someone else probed and picked, they began to get involved in our group discussions. When our time was up, we were still engrossed in debate. I started arriving early. In time, more than half of the class was waiting outside the door thirty minutes before class time. It was so inspiring that I decided to extend the debate module (where we discussed contemporary topics) throughout the remainder of the semester.
While this shift in behavior made Mick my classroom ally, our relationship was not without its warts moving forward. One such wart reared its ugly head during Mick’s first private paper conference.
As we sat going over the first draft of a paper on which he was obviously sure he was going to earn a superior grade, he offered concern about my handwritten comments and suggestions. Seemingly backtracking, he debated each of my comments and suggested that perhaps my points were simply subjective. I became quite annoyed and by the time the conference was over, he and I were exhausted. Mick stood up and opened my office door. “I hate English teachers. They’re all stupid,” he said, slinging his backpack over his shoulder.
Annoyed, yet unmoved by the unfortunate display, I shrugged my shoulders and invited the next student into the office.
On the drive home, I decided that I would advise Mick to drop the class after the next session; however, when I got home, there was an email waiting on my laptop:
I apologize for my comment today in my paper conference. I thought about it on my way home and it was wrong. What I meant to say is that most of my English teachers in the past didn’t really try to teach me anything. They just scrutinized my writing. You are different. I like you. I am learning things in your class.
I was simply flabbergasted. I never would have expected such deference from Mick—that he would see beyond his needs and consider my feelings. His communication actually made me think about how I judged many of my students based upon past experiences and expectations. Further, I considered how quickly I decided that perhaps he should leave the class for one simple violation. I thought that just as Mick pointed out that he was learning in my class, I needed to consider what I had been learning from students.
I hit the reply button:
We’re all learning in here. See you in class. –Ms. Reid
This memory of Mick easily shines as one of the many exchanges I have had that has shaped my pedagogical philosophy. I teach writing and literary interpretation to budding scholars, future professionals and citizens of the world who in turn teach me how to become a better communicator and person. While exploring the difference between metaphor and simile and reiterating the importance of strong punctuation and clarity, we talk about life, struggle, purpose and evolution. We write and edit. We explore. We gain a new perspective. We rewrite. We grow.
Often, I share with my students that I hope they think of the class as their village and their peers as tribe members. On some days, I am the chief of “the comp tribe.” It is a sacred space where if we remain truly open, we can experience what Tom Wayman calls in his poem “Did I Miss Anything” the invaluable benefits of the classroom being “a microcosm of human experience assembled for you to query and examine and ponder.” Perhaps that sounds a bit romantic or even loaded, but what I have learned through the years is that the more I believe it and the more I seek to foster such an environment, the better the experience will be for all. To Mick and his peers, I am “the teacher.” I am the one who has been trained. I have studied. I have planned. To me, Mick and his peers are my teachers. They let me know if it is all working. They look at the pieces of my puzzle, put it together and form the true picture.
It has been more than ten years since that Saturday morning in Athens. I still show up early. I still leave late. I still sit in my bed grading papers as the sun comes up. I have had a lot of green tea. My vision is much worse. I anxiously await my next Mick on the first day of class.