Growing up, I assumed that sooner or later I would be a teacher. For someone with the ability to write, it seemed the easiest way to make a living. However, my first semester as an instructor was so disastrous that it was almost my last.
Part of the problem was that, like most people with a master’s degree in English, what I knew was literature – but the jobs available for newly-minted graduates were inevitably for teaching composition. The assumption was that anyone with a degree in English must be an expert in rhetoric, which only makes sense if you have never read an academic journal, and have somehow missed the fact that literature and rhetoric were two different subjects.
However, most of the blame belongs to me. While doing my degree, I had worked regularly as a teaching assistant, sometime without outstanding student evaluations. I was left with an exaggerated sense of my own competence, and no understanding whatsoever that leading a discussion did not prepare me in any way for designing a curriculum or taking responsibility for an entire class. In effect, I was like a corporal suddenly trying to doing a captain’s work without any idea of the shift in perspective that was needed.
To make matters worse, I had booked a full teaching load for the semester at two separate community colleges. One of these bookings required a two hour commute both ways twice a week. I barely had time to mark, let alone plan lessons, and I was soon lurching from class to class, struggling to have something ready to teach.
Another mistake I made was to start with the assumption that students would be in my classes in order to learn. I didn’t appreciate that community college was a continuation of high school by other means by teenagers still living in their parents’ house and not ready for full-time work.
Nor did I understand that, although I was interested in the subject of composition, I was usually a minority of one any time that I taught it. Composition is usually compulsory, and students imagine that, having passed high school, they already know how to write an essay. Consequently, they are so bored in class that, during one lesson when I segued from my lecture to reciting “Jabberwock,” it took nearly a minute for most of the class to notice.
Anyway, the result of all these circumstances was that I approached course design in the most clumsy way possible. My conception of what I was doing was so haphazard that I even scheduled one class to talk about sentences, their length, and how to vary them.
Almost immediately, I failed. What’s more, by halfway through the semester, the students and I both knew I was failing. Soon, I was entangled in a positive feedback loop, feeling I was a hopeless failure and desperately soldiering on while feeling I had no credibility. The other teachers at the two colleges seemed unapproachable, and the lingering tatters of pride kept me from asking for help from those who had been in graduate school with me.
The low point came with a final exam. The college had changed its time without telling me, but of course the English Department’s chair saw my non-appearance as yet another proof of my inadequacy. As she handed me the exams from my class, I didn’t even bother to ask about next semester. The disdain in her voice was so obvious that I knew what the answer would be. Also, I was afraid of what else she might say.
Miserably, I took the exams and cleared out my desk. Before I left the college for the last time, I went into the room where I had taught and wrote in block letters on the blackboard, “I AM NOT DAUNTED!” But it was an empty and melodramatic gesture, and didn’t make me feel much better.
My results at the other college were better, but only slightly so. The best comments on my teaching evaluations were that some of the students thought I was trying hard. After a pained discussion, the dean agreed to give me another semester to improve.
Given this reprieve, I knew I had to do something drastic. If I couldn’t teach, what else would I do? Work in a book store at minimum wage? That was the fate I had gone to grad school to avoid.
The next semester, I decided, I would throw myself directly into the snake pit. I spent extra hours sitting in on other instructors’ classes, asking them questions, and started reading on the subject I was supposed to be teaching, appalled at how little I actually knew. I set long office hours, and urged students to come to talk to me as they planned their essays and afterward to discuss the results.
In the class room, I concluded that teaching was performance, and set up conditions to remind myself constantly that I was always on stage. I had students circle their desks, with me in the middle, forcing myself to keep turning as I engaged, walking constantly back and forth as I spoke and kept an eye on how each student was doing. I channeled all my desperation into the performance, leaving me drained and hungry after each class, although I always took five minutes to critique myself immediately after. For three months, I lived teaching and thought about little else, determined I was going to do it right.
Somehow, miraculously, I did. Enrollment had dropped sharply by the end of the semester, mainly because the class was full of foreign students who should have been in remedial English and needed at least a pass to stay in the country. But the students who remained gave me all but perfect scores on the evaluations.
I continued working as an instructor semester by semester, for another seven years. Sometimes I was called in the night before the first class, but I had established myself as someone who could teach composition, and engage students’ attention.
True, I never tried teaching from inside a circle very again, but I had learned very thoroughly the dangers of complacency. A year after these events, and I was teaching upper level classes at Simon Fraser University, one of the few instructors without a doctorate permitted to do so.
When I finally left teaching, it was for my own reasons, not for any problem with my teaching. But I left with my personal mythology fully evolved from its earliest origins in the story of how my namesake Robert the Bruce had persevered in his war against the English because of a spider.
Yes, I was capable of failure – deep and wrenching, wretched failure. But I was also capable of coming back from it, a fact that I have never forgotten since.