Archive for April 21st, 2018

Vocation

amywink April 21st, 2018

I walked into my first classroom when I was twenty-two and into my life’s work as if it were the most natural place in the world for me to be. I had thought I would like it but I had no idea how much I would immediately love being a teacher, nor how immediately good I would be at doing the work but I was, as if I understood “Here is what you are.” I had written in my application to graduate school that I wanted to teach writing and literature and had been granted a Teaching Assistant position from the English Department at Texas A&M. In this case, being a TA meant actually teaching two classes on your own. While we took a two-semester course in Composition and Rhetoric pedagogy the first year we taught, we were in the classroom alone with our students at the same time. It did not take me long to leave the confines of the required syllabus and delve into my own approach to teaching. When I was video-recorded by the Center for Teaching Excellence, they told me immediately “You are really good at this. We have nothing to tell you. The only thing we could suggest is write higher on the chalkboard but you are so short. . . .” and they left it at that.

I spent 10 years teaching at Texas A&M while I earned a Master’s and a PhD. in English, and completed one year as a Post-Doc while scrambling to find another job. I spent another 4 years as an itinerate visiting professor while I moved from position to position and began to lose the love for my work. I struggled with the increasing pressure to teach less well, to care less, and devote more time to research to ensure I could land a job–though ironically, the places I wanted to land a job worried about my research taking too much from my teaching. No one seemed to understand that the teaching fed the research and the research fed the teaching. As I was advised to teach less well, to disassociate from my students, I understood that the profession was asking me to be someone I wasn’t, asking me to stop growing. I stopped teaching in 2001, closed my first life as a teacher and returned to Austin to find some other line of work.

I didn’t. I did publish my first book, and thus “became” a writer (the other thing I am).

I returned to teaching in the fall of 2002, when I started as an adjunct for Austin Community College and was given the chance to remember what I loved. I taught a World Literature class in the fall of 2002 and my faculty observer said “Oh, you are so good at this. You have more teaching experience than most of us” and left it at that. But I was a different teacher at that moment than the first time I entered the classroom. I was not only older but I understood more about the joy I experienced while teaching, what fun it could be to engage students in learning, to help them enjoy the work instead of fear it. I remembered that I loved it and I entered my second life as a teacher.

The next year, I had the chance to teach at Southwestern, my alma mater. I deliberated on what I would do in my classes, what I discerned would make a difference for students. I decided to teach what I wanted to teach, to try something daring and innovative, something I would love to teach and something I hoped students would love. Under the “Writing and Critical Thinking” title, I developed a writing class using autobiography theory and the psychology of writing with the deliberate goal of helping students discover what they might love to do with their lives. While some reacted as if I was forcing them to make “goals”, I gently told them I only wanted to them think about who they were becoming, what would make them happy in their lives, and to figure out a way to get there. It was glorious. I also learned a lot about myself because I did the work as well. I thought about my own Wildly Improbable Dreams. I thought about what I loved. I approached 40 knowing I was beginning again. I remained at ACC while I taught at Southwestern, teaching alternating days at each. While I dreamed that I might land a full time job at SU, what I learned was that I was also no longer suited to the work required of a tenure-track professor.

I did not get a job there.

I did buy a pony. I learned how to drive him. I published another book. I bought a second pony. I learned to drive her lot better. I continued to teach at ACC and I loved it. Though community college students are often demeaned and degraded, I decided to be the teacher I had always wanted in my life, the teacher I had needed and I gave my ACC students what they needed: respect, kindness, encouragement, and attention. I decided to give the students who needed it, who rarely received the best from their teachers, the very best work I could. I decided to teach what they deserved to know. I received so much in return. My life expanded as if those wildly improbable goals I had encouraged my students to write and the ones I had written for myself were answered by a benevolent God, who hoped we would all become who we were meant to be.

All of those things helped me cope when my life began to shrink again with the increased duties of care-giving. I learned not to hate my life even though it was unconventional. Every hard thing I had ever done seemed to help me cope with my father’s declining health and my mother’s increased helplessness and eventual death. Teaching saved my life during those hard days. My students gave back what I had given them and I was grateful.

I have been teaching now for thirty years. I am very good at this work. Everyone who has seen me teach has commented, sometimes with amazement, sometimes with jealousy. This past year, I found a new opportunity for teaching, in an arena I had never considered, when another teacher recognized the teacher in me and asked me to teach at church. I somewhat cavalierly said “oh sure.” But my voice broke that day and I was surprisingly anxious about it until I found my teaching legs again and began to teach something new. I was asked again, and again, and then I volunteered.

I loved it. Deeply, deeply loved it.

I had not realized I was bored until I was suddenly wasn’t.

I did not realize I was empty until I was filled.

And I wrote a third book, a decade after my last one, because what I was learning and what I was teaching fed my writing.

So it came as no surprise that my entire Disciple class said in unison, rather loudly, that I had the Spiritual Gift of Teaching. I did not argue with false modesty. I know what my gifts are and it would be silly to deny that teaching is one of them. I just own the gift, just like I must own the gift of writing. I imagine what they see is exactly what I see when I watch someone doing the work they are clearly meant to do in the world. In many ways, I know am blessed to have such a clear vocation and lucky to understand both the gift and how much I love it.

But I understand that right now, at this moment I am also being asked to grow. I am being asked to expand beyond the boundaries I have understood during my life. And I am being asked to think about what teaching may mean now as I enter my new third life as a teacher.