Accidental Lessons

It’s an odd juxtaposition: the teacher learning from the students. It happens to me all the time. What’s even more strange is that my students teach me things without meaning to.

Take, for instance, my mid-semester checkpoint lesson. I hand out index cards and ask students a variety of questions, including, “Are you happy?”—with their grade, with the job I’m doing. I ask them if they have any advice, or anything they’d like me to do differently as we begin the second half of the semester. One student wrote: “Act like a duck.” What? I thought it was a joke, and I was mildly insulted, so I asked the student to explain. “You know how a duck, when it gets splashed with water, fluffs its feathers and shakes it off? That’s what I mean. When you hear something that bothers you, act like a duck.” I hadn’t realized my occasional anxiety translated to my students, but I am continually surprised at how perceptive they are.

I have another activity in which I divide up a short article into sections, which I read aloud, stopping after each section so students can write a short response. The lesson tends to get off track if it gets interrupted, so I asked that students not get up, minimize their screens, and silence their cell phones. One time, just when I had explained the rules for the activity, and asked for no further interruptions, a student walked in late. I tensed, and then said, “Ok, no more interruptions. In fact, no more traffic through the door. You can’t leave.” I didn’t know that phrase is a trigger for some combat veterans. No sooner were the words “you can’t leave” out of my mouth when one of my veterans bolted out of his chair and left the room. I had no idea I’d triggered him, and he didn’t explain until much later; I mistook his actions as defiance. I had a cloud of frustration and anger over me for the whole lesson, when it didn’t need to be there. Things would have gone much better if I had acted like a duck.

I also like to explain things in ways students can understand. I was working a few months ago on a rhetorical analysis paper, which can be a concept difficult to separate from critical analysis. In critical analysis, students examine an argument and either agree or disagree, then discuss why. In rhetorical analysis, students must examine the techniques and style which the author uses to convey the message. Agreeing or disagreeing in rhetorical analysis is beside the point—it’s about the effectiveness of the message. One student was having a hard time distinguishing the two types of analyses, and I remembered that this student loved motorcycles. An idea came to me. “You know how some bikes are better than others?”

“Yeah.”

“You evaluate whether or not you want to own a bike based on previous experience and research, right? You use critical analysis skills to make decisions regarding your bike?”

“Yeah.”

“Well would you try to fix your bike with only a half-inch box-end wrench?”

“No.”

“That’s right. No author is going to use only one tool to persuade in an argument. Your job with rhetorical analysis is to evaluate the tools in the toolbox, not the bike.”

“I get it.” I love to see the light of reason flash above their heads. People think that little lightbulb is only in cartoons, but I see it all the time. That’s my Rocky Mountain high, right there.

My favorite day of class is the last day, when students are finishing up their final assignments, working on revisions, and getting consultations from me on their grades. It’s also the day that some students, who don’t have anything left to do, show up to class for no reason at all. We strike up some really interesting conversations that are totally unrelated to class, and I get to see new dimensions of their personalities because they are quite a bit more relaxed. I asked one the other day, “So what are you still doing here? You’re done with everything.”

He replied, “I don’t know. I just don’t want to let this class go.” I know what he means. After a semester of getting to know my students, learning their styles and needs, getting them to critically think about and question everything, and helping them present their best work, I don’t want to let them go either. Most just need to realize that all they needed was a little confidence in their opinions and their abilities. Some of them are so grateful that they hug me on their way out. It’s so gratifying to know I helped people in my classes realize they can write, and write well, when they may have hated it up until now. I don’t expect my students to love writing when they’re done with my class. I just hope they hate it less.

I constantly seek to improve as an educator, and I think for the most part I’m still growing and learning. My students are a reliable source of honest feedback, and although most of my feedback is praise or constructive criticism, I got some negative feedback once that didn’t make much sense. “You use too much gimmicky stuff. Spinners, games, stickers and certificates? That stuff’s for kids.” Yeah, but adults love them too. And guess who loves them best? Combat veterans.

I’ve had more than one student say, “You’re so passionate about your job. That’s what made the difference for me.” I can’t help it. I love what I do, and it translates. I just hope my passion trumps my periodic anxiety. I want my students to feel like they are in a safe place among people who will not judge them based on an expressed opinion, but who instead will ask them to justify their statements with evidence, and spark a real discussion. This type of conversation is essential to critical thinking and reading, and it’s a large part of what comprises the passion in my work.

Sometimes I think my students teach me more than I teach them. One thing I can say is this: it’s the accidental lessons that make the most impact.