As I sit at my desk, waiting for papers to trickle in, I take a few minutes to contemplate the teaching life. Don’t worry–this won’t be a political post decrying the impossible demands placed on teachers in the United States, the lack of professional respect for them, or the very real difficulties involved in creating a career in teaching, although all of those topics do bear talking about. Today, rather than craft a careful argument about the demise of education and its consequences for our culture, I’m just going to indulge in some personal reflections on the teaching life, offered by a community college professor who is still in the trenches, hands dirtied with run-on sentences and flawed thesis statements, fingers wearied by clutching a rapidly fading red pen.
It’s at this point that I look back on the semester and consider all the work my students have done, reflect on all the goals I had for them and myself, consider where we are and how we’ve gotten here, and think: “What an awful job I’ve done! How miserably I’ve failed them!” The truth is, I always feel rotten, simply miserable, at the end of the semester. No matter how many students tell me what a good semester they’ve had, I always think about the fact that I could have helped them more: engaged them in more discussion, made more comments on their papers, asked more about their personal lives, and generally been more of a mensch and less of a schlemiel.
This is not a cry for sympathy, however, or a self-deprecating appeal for someone to contradict me. I’ve been teaching pretty much all of my adult life, and I’m not young anymore. I’m used to this feeling, and, like many other feelings I have that are not particularly productive, I acknowledge this one and pass it by, much as a man in the 1950s would tip his hat at a passing acquaintance on the street and continue walking down the block. Part of this refusal to give in to the feeling of desperate failure as a teacher comes from simple familiarity with it. I expect many, probably most, teachers feel this way. Part of it may come from simple inertia; but part of it comes from the knowledge that my students will have to survive many mediocre teachers throughout their academic career, and if I’ve been one of them this semester, it’s part of the experience that they will need to have in order to succeed as students. Like a refrain from Candide, I can say, “It’s all for the best. They need to learn to teach themselves, and if I’ve failed them this semester, perhaps they’ll learn how to do this all the more quickly.”
So, today, as the semester draws to a close, here’s to all the teachers, professors, GSAs, teaching assistants, and instructors who have done the best they could with what they had and emerged relatively unscathed from yet another semester. After all, the best thing about being a teacher is that, unlike the students we teach, we always get a chance next semester to do it right.