Two days ago (Dec 14), my semester of teaching officially ended when I turned in the grades for my fall classes. I am sure there are varying degrees of joy and sadness among my students for the grades earned. However, for me the evaluating of final projects and determining the grades for my students is not only an evaluation of them, but also a time when I evaluate myself as a teacher.
When I was in my doctoral program, I had a professor who shared his philosophy of teaching, which I have since adopted for myself. At the beginning of the course, like my former prof, I always say: Here is my philosophy of teaching. I set high standards for your work and learning; my job as a teacher is to help you reach those standards. So when a course is completed, I find myself asking how well did I do in part in the teacher-learner exchange? How well did I motivate my students to learn? How well did I provide them the opportunities to grow not only in the subject area, but also as persons who think critically and creatively, and care deeply about the suffering in the world? Did they leave my class better informed, and were they stretched and challenged in appropriate ways? Where did I fail them? Where could I have communicated more clearly? Most importantly, were they able to come away from my course have gained what they needed to gain, and learn what they wanted to learn?
When I tell people I am a college professor, the next question is usually “What do you teach?” I always stumble over that question, because the real question for me is not what I teach but who . When I start a class I want to know: who are these men and women sitting before? What experiences, skills, and areas of knowledge do they bring? What do they need and want to learn in my class? How can we together create a learning community that enables all of us to achieve our goals? While I wonder about them, I also wonder about myself; I wonder: what do I need from them, and how will they teach me and stretch me? You see, for me teaching is really about a relationship, a mutually beneficial relationship through which knowledge and understanding in mediated. At the end of each class, I find that I have grown; have been stretched and challenged; and have had my mind opened to new ideas and new visions of what could be.
Because teaching is so personal and relational for me, I always go through a period of grieving at the end of a semester. That is where I am now. I am grieving the things I didn’t do that I should have done to enrich the learning experience. I am grieving those students who did not seem to grasp or appreciate the material, and wondering if and how I let them down. I am grieving the loss of those brilliant students whose ideas and zeal for learning made me feel like the best teacher ever. Most importantly, am grieving the fact that I will not again have this special opportunity with this particular group of people. Now granted, I will have some of the same students in another class, but each course, and each group of students is special; and I grieve that I will not have that experience with that group again.
I am fortunate these days to teach graduate students, who are highly motivated, incredibly intelligent, wildly creative, genuinely compassionate, and intensely committed to social justice. There is hardly a week that goes by that I don’t tell someone how fortunate I am to teach the students I have. However, I have also taught students at the undergraduate and associate level, and have even mentored fellow faculty. Certainly, there are students and groups that frustrate me, push me to my limits, and keep me humble. However, with most groups of students I feel profoundly grateful for having had the opportunity to enter their lives and interact with them in ways that challenge and transform both them and me.
So tonight as I reflect on another semester that has ended, I feel some sadness of what has just past and will not come again, but I also am grateful for having a job that gives me such a profound sense of meaning and joy. I am honored, blessed and privileged to have people who call me their teacher.