When I was a junior in college, one of my professors—my undergraduate mentor—announced in class that she would deliver the December commencement address. Although I knew none of the students who would turn their tassels that afternoon, I attended the ceremony anyway, simply to hear her speak. Sitting in Memorial Hall, I hung on her every word, as I did in class. Now, more than thirty years later, many of those words have slipped from my mind, but I distinctly remember these: “The most important thing that we can give our students is encouragement.”
Those words of hers remained with me as I began my own teaching career just a year and a half later, as a graduate assistant aiming to encourage my own students. I soon discovered that determining how to encourage them while also holding them to high standards was one of my greatest challenges.
Attending a student’s poetry slam, announcing calls for manuscript submissions, guiding students toward other opportunities for their writing to have a life outside of the classroom: These are ways that I encourage my students while also holding them accountable, emphasizing the value of meeting deadlines and pushing them to write more when they believe they have nothing left to say.
I also encourage my students to look over my shoulder as I write with them, a practice that’s central to my teaching. I craft assignments that I complete myself with the goal of conveying that the work isn’t merely a means to an end but rather a step on the path of lifelong learning. Reflecting on her semester in English 111, one of my students wrote, “The work and readings given to us were experiences rather than just work.” Those words of hers express what I hope to achieve as a teacher.
Writing a letter to a potential pen pal at a nearby retirement community, composing a research reflection that includes elements of a literacy narrative, collaboratively creating a series of tableaux vivants, or living pictures, of scenes from nineteenth-century British literature: These are some of the “experiences rather than just work” that I have I developed, ones that enable students to see their course material, and perhaps themselves, in a new way.
For students who doubt that such work in the English classroom has value in the real world, I emphasize this: We are here not only to learn how to make a living, we are here also to learn how to make a life. With the jobs we hold, we earn our livings. With the words that we read and write, we learn to make sense of our lives, as well as the lives around us. That’s a vital skill in our time of uncertainty and one that can empower and inspire us to forge ahead.