Wednesday, February 18, 2015


What Was Your Proudest Teaching Moment?

What was your proudest teaching moment?

I’m working on an extended piece I hope to deliver later this Spring, and the piece led me to a reflection on my own proudest teaching moments.  They weren’t what I thought they would be when I went into higher ed.

I had assumed that my best moments would be either when I came up with the absolutely perfect metaphor or a devastatingly witty aside.  In other words, they would be when I got my words exactly right.  That was certainly how most of my graduate professors seemed to operate.

Once I started teaching, though, I figured out quickly that it wasn’t about me or my words.  

My proudest moments may not have looked spectacular from the outside, but I remember them vividly.  They were times when a student surprised herself in discovering how smart she was.  In one case, I remember an entire class muttering “ooooh” appreciatively after a usually-quiet student said something fabulously smart; after that, the student was off and running.  In a few cases, secretly bright students started to flourish after getting permission to be smart.  You’d think that would have been implied, but not for everybody.

The most fun, though, were students wrestling with Big Ideas in a serious way for the first time.  When an idea made it through the protective layer of cynicism and set the wheels turning, you could actually see it in their facial expressions.  That may reflect the political theory training, or it may be at the root of it.  

Wise and worldly readers, especially those of you who teach, what was your proudest teaching moment?

I was tutoring a student in my writing class and I used her sentences in her essay, but we rearranged sentences and organized them in a logical order. For the first time, she saw what a difference revising could make in writing a coherent essay. She said it was like a puzzle.
I teach music as my main job, but I also help advise the music majors as part of my "reasonable mix" and I usually get to know the students pretty well over the course of 2-3 years in the program. My favorite moments are when I help a student complete a degree audit and turn in their graduation application. I seriously feel like I just scored a touchdown when I put the departmental stamp on their degree audit. It's the best!!
About 20 years ago, I had a student in intro econ, who had a serious academic problem--he had attended IU-Bloomington for a year and had essentially just he had some huge number of hours of F on his transcript...and when he came to IU Northwest, they stayed on his transcript (this was about 5 years after his Bloomington experience).

One of the best students I ever had--always prepared, asked good questions, challenged me when he thought I was skating around an issue...He wound up taking 3 or 4 courses for me.

But what made me proud was when he received his PhD in economics from UCLA. For me, that was an amazing success story, and almost entirely his.
I have many teaching moments that I treasure--like Dean Dad's, most come from watching students work and flourish.

One of my favorite moments came at the end of a World Literature class, when a student excitedly told me that she had gone to the local library the day before and gotten her first ever library card. She even pulled the card out of her wallet to show me. This was the same student who had told me she hated reading and thought it was a waste of time at the beginning of the semester! Now, on the last day of class, she was talking about checking out books written by the writers we had covered in class because she wanted to read more of their work.

My English teacher heart was overflowing that day.

I had a student once in developmental English who, at the beginning of the semester, could barely write his name. He managed to pass the class with a D (barely), but he worked harder than anyone else in the class. I advised him to retake the class so that his skills would be stronger before he advanced and got over his head. He took my advice, retook my class, and became such a strong writer that he jumped two levels and went into English 101 the next term--which he was ready for. Two years later he invited me to his graduation.

In Peace Corps, students in my Eastern European country were fond of saying they had no racism in their country. While we were reading The Grapes of Wrath, one student asked me why no one would give the Joad family a job or a place to stay. I asked, "Are there people here who can't get a job because other people are afraid they will steal or commit crimes?" My students' eyes got big: "The Roma!" They finally understood how fear leads to prejudice, and how unnecessary that fear can be.

During our last break, a student emailed me, thanking me. He was being bullied by another student, who had threatened to out him as gay. After our lessons on carpe diem, on living life fearlessly, he found the courage to come out to his roommate and his family--all of whom supported him.

In all of these cases, the students did the work. The students made the connection. I am proud if I could help them see that our work in class was essential to helping them live better lives. Moments like this are why I teach.
My proudest moments generally came when a student who didn't view themselves as academically talented got the support they needed to excel and went on to do well in the program -- or helping a student through some insane life change, such as the student of mine whose parents were killed in a car accident mid-semester and who was determined to finish in their memory. That dude . . . I still admire him.

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