Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Entertainer

Just before I began teaching for our local community college I ran across a quote that said something like, “teaching is 5 percent preparation and 95 percent performance.” I sent the quote along to my friend who, along with me, would be teaching History 101, but this would be her first teaching experience. In an effort to reassure her I felt the quote was apropos. I was trying to ease her nervousness about standing in front of a room full of students about a subject that was sure to bore, but that we, as historians, found fascinating.

Having had many opportunities to be in front of an audience myself in one capacity or another, I wasn’t too worried about my own stage-fright. What had me on edge was knowing I would have to be very knowledgeable on my subject if I was going to teach it. Little did I know how nerve-wracking the experience would end up being for me and how performance was indeed a huge part of my presentation, but that without preparation I would sink like a stone before this pool of eyes before me.

It’s not like I don’t know history. I went through the same classes these students have in my own quest for a college degree. I then immersed myself in history and anthropology graduate work so my knowledge base was intact. It’s just that along with my educational preparation, in order to teach it to someone else I need to know the subject matter really well. Scary prospect when the details have to share room with all the other mundane and important stuff that’s crowding my brain.

So my friend and I met before the semester began. In hindsight I realize how wise we were to prepare the outlines of every class in advance. We broke up the chapters and each class topic and spread them over the coming weeks with a little room for tweeking where necessary. After that, all we needed to do was read the new book the students would be using as their text, come up with creative ways to teach the subject matter, and inspire the students to learn it. Doesn’t sound too difficult, right?

It was that last part, the learning, that caused me so much distress over the past months. I said to my husband one late night as I furiously prepared for the next day’s lecture, “Pride sure is a motivating force.” I said that because I was literally knocking myself out making sure I knew everything I needed to know before I stood before the students. God forbid that one would ask a question that I didn’t know the answer to. The preparation, unlike that quote, was consuming me and I was paying the price for it. Sometimes I feel like a stand-up comedian working a very tough and resistant room. Creativity is key but sometimes, as I implored my students, history can’t always be fun – it consists of a lot of facts that have to be presented.

I am a few weeks shy of the end of the semester. Only two more chapters to go and the creation of the final exam.  I can see a relief on the horizon and I am anticipating the last day of teaching. I have laid the foundation for my class and will be much better prepared when classes resume this fall. But I am exhausted! Here’s an example of the white board after a recent class where I made the students contribute (a concept much harder than you’d think to accomplish).

I may have bitched and complained, even cried at times over the last few months wishing my only responsibilities involved getting out of bed and reading a book for fun. But the truth is I wouldn’t trade my current career activities for anything. I get make my own hours and my “boss” is a group of kids that I can bore or entertain at whim. The best part of all is that while I’m teaching them, I am also learning so it is a win-win situation.

“A good teacher is like a candle -
it consumes itself to light the way for others.”

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