Looking back on a year of teaching

By Deborah Mitchell Contributing Columnist

May 23, 2014

This past year, I taught two Introduction to Writing courses at State Fair Community College, one during the fall semester and one during the spring semester. The students in the fall class were, for the most part, enthusiastic and willing, and, also for the most part, participating in class discussions. Teaching the spring class, however, was somewhat like pulling teeth. It was enough to make me so discouraged as to wonder whether I should continue to try to teach writing at all.

I have noticed over the years that students in the fall are much more likely to apply the dedication required for college classes than are those in the spring. I have gone along for eight weeks in the spring semester, we have taken spring break, and then I have never seen some students again. It’s as if they can’t bring themselves to leave that long break from homework to come back to class and to jump in again. I have wondered why that is, coming to the conclusion that winter doldrums make spring break more like a jail break, and some students simply cannot bear leaving the freedom and presumably warmer weather behind for the rigor of the classroom.

Additionally, I think that fall simply feels like school should be in session. Even though we no longer have a primarily agrarian society and children aren’t generally needed to work at home on the farm, we are extremely used to having summers off and gearing back up for school in the fall. There is something familiar and comforting about the smell of new crayons, freshly sharpened pencils, and the school library — even though today, I’m not sure kids use pencils more than computers, and I think libraries contain as many technological tools as books.

Sometimes, I think that many students don’t really know what it takes to get through college. Getting a college degree is a worthy goal, and having a college degree can certainly have an impact on a person’s future, but obtaining that “sheepskin” requires a lot of hard work and dedication. That becomes difficult when a “non-traditional” student comes back to school after a long, sometimes decades-long, absence, with a job and family in tow, all of which need attention. Those people have to balance all those aspects of their lives, when often, one of them requires 100 percent of a student’s focus.

I had the luxury of going to college when I had nothing to take my attention away from my classes, except college social life, which, thankfully, was quite a bit calmer than that of some of my friends. I also had a part-time job for a couple of years, but I worked only a couple of days a week, and for only about three hours per day; many of my students, on the other hand, put in 20 to 30 hours of work per week. Some of them work 40 hours.

I suppose I am not ready to give up after all. Maybe next year I will impress upon my students at the very beginning of the class that while the rewards of a college education, which must include becoming a proficient writer, are great, the cost of it, in blood, sweat, and tears, is also great. Or maybe, I will teach only in the fall.