Today is Fall Commencement at Columbia College. As I watch our graduates revel and sigh in relief over their upcoming graduation I think, not only, about how much they’ve changed in the years since I first ‘met’ them, but in how I’ve changed as well.
The past 15 months have felt like a lifetime in regards to the way I view my teaching. In the fall of 2010 I was challenged like never before in a classroom. Daily I questioned how I would approach the next day of teaching. Sunday mornings were almost painful as I realized that in 24 hours I would need to go in to the lion’s den once more. The very next semester I had my first public speaking class in which no student earned an “A.” That same semester, however, I had the very best Film History class I’ve had to date. And this semester I have had the pleasure of enjoying the work of a few students who remind me why I got into this ‘teaching gig’ in the first place. What a short, strange journey it has been.
When I reread the teaching philosophy I so fervently believed in when I stood for tenure, I almost don’t recognize the person who wrote it. So resolute she was. So sure she was about teaching having a definitive formula for success. So certain she was about all things educational. I don’t know how my senior colleagues feel, but the more I teach the more I realize how ambiguous it all is. There is an ebb and flow, surely, in teaching, but the undertow is never visible and at a moment’s notice you can be freed from teaching’s uglier moments and race for the shoreline of bliss and satisfaction.
“On a more serious note I want to thank you for all you have done for me during this semester. I have really enjoyed this class. You are a great professor.”
I used to inwardly sigh at teachers who said it was their ‘calling’ to teach. Like the ministry, they would speak about our profession as if some divine hand had reached down and proclaimed, “Thou shalt instruct!” My opinion started to change this summer when I visited the Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend, Iowa. Originally, I visited the site because it had been a touchstone in a favorite film of mine. But as I traveled the pathways and read more about Fr. Paul Dobberstein, who began construction on the Grotto in 1912, I began to understand the ministry-teaching metaphor more. Dobberstein worked for 42 years on his hand-made creation. The reward for him had to be in the work itself, because external rewards for such tireless work are few and far between. Much like a bird expending so much energy to find a small seed to eat, we teachers often spend a lot of time and effort in thankless after-class meetings, office hours, and late night e-mails, only to get that small seed at the right time to sustain us until the next bit of sustenance comes along.
I received the above e-mail during the last week of classes this semester. It was the seed I needed and will, most likely, be the seed that sustains me through another semester. It was such a simple offering on his part, but the graciousness of my student’s words served as a reminder that students and teachers are united in the quest for knowledge. What we do really does matter.