“You Make Me Want to be a Better [Teacher]”

I’m watching As Good As It Gets on Starz (yay for free movie weekend!) and I’ve just watched my favorite part of the movie.  I love the restaurant scene when Jack Nicholson’s character confesses to Helen Hunt’s character that he has started taking his medication for his mental illness because of her.  Now, just as she shows in the movie, she can’t see how this is a good thing until he explains that the medication helps him with his illness’s symptoms:  the cruel statements, the harsh remarks.  Now, he doesn’t exactly say this….he shows this when he says that he takes his medication for her because “You make me want to be a better man.”

I love that line.

Of course, this being Hollywood, we need to have a tone/mood shift immediately after this climax and Nicholson screws up what he meant to say and says the absolutely worst thing which drives Hunt away from the restaurant and the romance that was steadily building.  She returns to the hotel where Greg Kinnear’s character is getting ready for bed.  She storms in, frightens him, and then starts to draw a bath.  Kenner’s character is an artist who sees the lines of Hunt’s back, shoulders, and spine and sees art and he tells her to “hold it.”

That night, intimacy is laid out in pencil/charcoal/graphite sketches of loveliness.  True, she is nude; however, it isn’t sexual.  It’s merely skin.  What is beyond the layers of epidermal tissue are emotions.  Pure, exquisite emotions.

Now, toss the nudity aside.  Remember, it’s just skin.  And we don’t really see anything anyhow.

Let’s come back to the fact that we, as humans, are able to be transformative to others.  Let’s come back to the fact that we each inhabit the ability to make one another better people.  Now, let’s strip away the tiny minority of horrible individuals who are loved by God but not by history (Hitler, Joseph Kony, etc.) and look at the rest of the population.

We share the responsibility to hold up and lift others so that they, too, will want to become better human beings.

I am constantly inspired by  my students.  It’s fairly easy for me to assign the responsibility for this to them as I spend the majority of my waking hours with them.

A couple of months ago, I learned that a student had fallen asleep while writing a paper for my class.  He fell asleep for five minutes on his R key which resulted in 17 pages of rrrrr.  This, naturally, led to a tweet with a hashtag followed by “thanks” and my last name.  I actually have a twitter account for the simple reason that literary agents and publishers want to see that new writers have a social media presence.  So, since I’m in the business of wanting to sell my novel, I created a twitter account (and a facebook-writer’s-page).  When I learned about the students “tweet” (this really sounds silly), I looked up what he wrote.  This led to skimming for a few seconds.  And I saw where he and another student had “tweeted” the comments I had written on their papers.

In my defense, the comments were not bad, evil, or malicious.  One of them showed my complete ignorance about baseball (I didn’t know what a double was so I wrote to him asking if a double was when a baseball player hit a baseball twice in one swing.  Yeah….I said that I was ignorant.

Other comments related to my agreeing with a student and his opinion or how I thought this same student should seriously consider a career in writing (he used great metaphors in his essay).

I don’t think about what I write to my students (in terms of the comments on their papers) too often.  Sometimes, papers enrage me because I have taken HOURS of time teaching skills which students do not apply to their papers.  This is when I have literally banged my head on my desk or had to stop grading and leave the room because I am so outraged.  Yes.  I have a temper.  Plagiarism is another immediate spark to my emotional powder keg.  I liken plagiarism to lying.  And I hate being lied to.  But that’s another story.

Grading is exhausting.  I have to think, constantly, about the person I am evaluating.  I have to consider where the student started at the beginning of the year in terms of skills and abilities.  Then, I have to consider what I have taught the student since the student has been in my class.  Then, I have to think about how well the student’s writing is capturing the skills and abilities I have expected him/her to have mastered or worked at mastering.  I have to evaluate grammar, spelling, organization, diction, syntax, content, citations.  I have to evaluate research writing skills, persuasive writing skills, or any other form of tone and voice since that creates specific styles of writing.  I have to evaluate the student’s ability to predict the needs of the audience (and not just myself).  I have to evaluate the student’s editing ability.

And each time I see something that could be improved upon or shows signs of growth, I need to write to the student about this which means I pull myself out of the mode of reader and become the writer/evaluator.

Now, those comments create an interesting paradigm.  I need to comment on the student’s paper to justify his/her grade.  However, just as I have taught my students, anything written “can and will be used against [me] in a court of law.”  Now, I have never been sued or harassed or scolded because of my comments.  If anything, I have been thanked for my commentary because it, again, tells the students why they have received specific grades.  But commentary takes time.  And it takes thought.  Because if a student wrote a paper about  a persuasive topic, I need to make sure that my commentary doesn’t reflect my grading based on opinion but based on content and writing skills.

Then, I return the papers which creates an emotional tension.  “Did I do a good job?”  “Why did you get that [insert number] and I got this [number]?”  “Why can’t I ever please her?”  “God, my paper’s bleeding!”  

Beloved students, I do not grade based on emotion.  Those numbers are not emotions.  They are merely a reflection of your ability to utilize the skills that I have tried to teach you/show you.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Even thought that’s Hayley and we’ve just finished editing my National Board portfolios…this really is how it feels….

So, grading is difficult because I genuinely care about my students and I don’t want to upset them or see them becoming emotionally drained because the number doesn’t match their opinion of their effort or their work.  It makes grading feel like a punishment.

Wah Wah Wah.  Moving on….(this is directed at me).

So when students respond to my grading comments and talk about how they are motivated or inspired or amused by what I have written, that inspires me.  When parents tell me their gratitude and appreciation for my commentary, that inspires me.  When students stop likening the colors of the pens I have used to blood and instead see it as something which helps them learn, that inspires me.

My students make me want to be a better teacher because sometimes they don’t see me as an enemy or a hard-nosed disciplinarian.  They see me as the human being enclosed within my own costume of clothes and skin and diplomas.  And when they see the human and respond to the human, this helps me see them as their own individual humans who need just as much respect and compassion as I do.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

By stripping away the hardness and the thorns and prickles and needles that we wear over our emotional-sleeves to keep people from hurting us, we are able to become the muses of greatness.  I do my best not to see my students’ instragram, twitter, Facebook accounts.  I don’t want to.  I don’t know that I could handle all the things that are probably written about me.  This is called reality.  Just because I love my students doesn’t mean the emotion is always reciprocated.  I have one former student who says that I am the reason he almost didn’t graduate from high school or why he almost dropped out of high school.  I accept that he has said this.  I also have suspended my emotions regarding these statements because I have realized that I can not force him to retract or change those words and I am not going to go to great lengths to do so.

He has an opinion.  He is allowed to have his opinion.  And his opinion hasn’t yanked me out of the classroom.  So I’m fine with his opinion.

‘Nuff said.

But seeing the “tweets” from those two young men while watching Jack Nicholson say that he wants “to be a better man” and then Kinnear/stunt-artist draw incredible sketches of Helen Hunt as an homage to care and compassion….

…Well, that makes me want to be a better teacher.

I don’t need to take classes on that.  I just need to go to class and let my students motivate me a little more.

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