Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Joy of Teaching

I never imagined I would be an Adult Continuing Education and GED instructor when I was child in Houston. I had no desire to teach. My mind and heart were fixed on the bright lights of Broadway, and I thought I'd eventually relocate to Los Angeles and work in television and film. If anything, I would have probably taught acting workshops and once I felt qualified, I would directed and taught other directors. 

I think the best teachers are actors and directors, for no other reason could we lead and inspire various personalities, skill sets, and appease parents. Apart from helping classmates in school, younger siblings, and later their children with multiplication tables and personal essays, I didn't think of myself as a teacher. That changed when I relocated to New York and was between jobs as most actors and freelancers tend to be. I responded to an online ad for GED instructors in Spanish Harlem, and didn't know the first thing about formal instruction.

The job description called for a focused, dedicated, and energetic education professional. The only thing that wasn't on my resume was certified teaching gigs. I was accustomed to casting calls, cold readings, and convincing someone that I was right for the part. How different could this potential job be once I learned my role teaching inner city teens and adults?  

I was to prepare a fifteen-minute lesson, and if the students didn't like me, I'd be on my way. My former boss stood nervously in the door as I passed out handouts, loosened my tie, and set about my mock training and part two of the job interview. What felt like an hour, was in reality twenty minutes. We locked eyes and she gave the hand signal to continue because I had a captive audience. 

In a matter of a week I was to become an instructor, sensitive to high school dropouts and adults who had long since abandoned their education to marry, raise a family, and coincidentally put their children through school. 

Walking across town once a week with my three-ring binder in my backpack, I never knew what to expect, and which students would attend having understood and completed their assignments. Some students complained that the work was too difficult, while others didn't have resources to buy classroom supplies and were embarrassed to say so. 

I was getting an informal education not afforded me in the Houston suburbs. There were days I felt square and out completely out of touch, but I forged ahead with Shakespeare, Alice Munro, Chinua Achebe, The Elements of Style, and The Elements of Grammar. I was determined to expose my students, level the playing field, somehow. 

A few of my fondest memories. Being called Mister, which of course reminded me of Sidney Poitier. My female students, no big stretch there, embraced learning and oftentimes challenged the male students. The time some of my former students offered to walk me home after a disruptive student threatened to beat me up because he didn't understand an assignment, and felt by pommeling me into a pulp, would make it and me go away.

I miss my students and that first storefront GED workshop. I then moved on to two community centers and two nights a week when my former boss relocated to new educational nonprofits. I miss creating weekly lesson plans, the smell of the dry erase markers, and seeing the look on a student's face when the light bulb pops on. Teaching a class is different than being a writing workshop moderator, but I use a similar toolkit.

All isn't lost. I recently began teaching Stage II Fiction Workshop for writers ages thirty-nine to sixty. I look forward to hitting my stride again, but with fewer students who happen to have formal education.  

Who are your favorite teachers? What did they do to inspire you? What are your best school memories? 

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