Teaching Tips: Yearning and Practicalities

sailing ship photoInez Tan contributed to our Writing As a Spiritual Discipline series earlier this spring with the post Journaling to Practice Honesty. Now she shares some of her ideas for our Teaching Tips series. 

1. Affirm yourself, but also seek support from others

When I first started teaching, I would obsessively replay my mistakes, wracking my brain for ways to make up for them next time. I still do. But I also try to remember the advice I received from my first pedagogical mentors: It’s just as important to focus on what you did well so that you can keep doing it.

After every class, I write a short Facebook status in which I try to reflect honestly on what went well, along with how I need to improve. I write as though I were speaking to my students, but I’m not Facebook friends with any of them—really, those posts are for me.

Here are a few from Winter 2017:

Dear students, it’s hard to convince some of you that your final projects should be what you’re interested in, and useful for you. You’re so used to producing what your teachers want. One of you said, only half-jokingly, “My project audience is you and my grade.” But I remember now how this was a breakthrough I didn’t make until sophomore or junior year. And how much I must have had to hear it before I got it! #dearstudents

Dear students, today you worked in groups to analyze the rhetorical components of two texts—something you probably couldn’t have done at the start of this quarter, at least not this well. Quietest group: when I approached you and asked about the purposes the author had, all five of you could give a different answer in turn. But still you were reluctant to have a discussion. #dearstudents

Dear students, why are we sometimes afraid or ashamed to be our best selves before one another? #dearstudents

Dear students, your faces show no reaction when I say you’re doing good work. I started to doubt it. But upon further reflection, I really mean it! You all earned passing grades on your essay. You spent today’s class assessing yourself on the Eight Habits Required for Success in Postsecondary Writing (ugh I know it feels like being at summer camp, but it’s useful!) and working on your midterm portfolios. Truly this is good stuff, however grim the middle of the semester feels. #dearstudents

Most of the time, no one is going to affirm your teaching, so you have to do it yourself. That said, try to find mentors or friends you can reach out to in times of need. My #dearstudents posts have brought in tons of encouragement from other people, which has been invaluable. A few of my friends who are teachers themselves have started writing their own #dearstudents posts—you’re welcome to do the same!

2. Focus on the way ahead

Often when students get a bad grade, they ask if they can repeat the assignment or do something for extra credit. I’ve found, though, that it’s best to let the past be past, and instead focus students on what they can do going forward. (This goes for teachers, too!)

So when students have missed a lot of classes, or are doing poorly, I say things like “It’s not too late to turn things around.” Even if it is too late for them to do much for their grade in my class, I try to emphasize what they’ve learned and how they can leverage on that to do better in their future classes.

3. “You don’t have to X, you just have to Y”

When presenting my expectations, I’ve found it helpful to say things like, “For your three-minute presentation, you don’t know have to know everything about your topic, you just have to clearly explain your message, audience, and purpose, like we’ve talked about in class.”

This helps perfectionistic students not get into a panic, and it makes me clarify what I’m actually asking students to do for any given assignment.

4. Yearn for the vast and endless sea

Finally, there’s a quote often attributed to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry I try to keep in mind: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to gather wood, and don’t assign them tasks and work. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

For me, that means keeping my eyes on my bigger goals, like helping my students cultivate a lively interest in many different subjects and points of view, including one another’s—not just have them read four essays and complete two writing assignments.

Sometimes that “vast and endless sea” changes from day to day, and pursuing it can be hard, but I want to teach my students that it’s worth it.

Image courtesy of Kito32 at Pixabay.com

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Inez Tan

Inez Tan is a poet and fiction writer based in Irvine, CA and Singapore. She's currently pursuing an MFA in poetry and teaching at the University of California, Irvine. She also works with the Augustine Collective, a student-led movement of Christian journals on college campuses. https://ineztan.com/ http://augustinecollective.org/

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