Yep, that’s my Hannah, and yes, this is going to be one of those “why I’m thankful to be a teacher posts.” It’s Thanksgiving time. Bear with me and I’ll try and keep it short.
Hannah and I started at YC together in the fall of 2009. She was a wide-eyed freshman and I was a brand-new professor. She was trying to jumpstart her life, and I was trying to jumpstart my career. We didn’t know it at the time, but one day her march to pomp and circumstance, her well-earned cap and gown, would serve as supreme validation for us both. Before we can appreciate her journey, though, we must first examine my own.
Like most aspiring academics, I had entered graduate school with an eye on ivory towers. I knew that I would someday be teaching (really, what else does one do with an advanced degree in English), but, as a student enrolled at a research institution, I assumed that such work would be ancillary to the more important pursuit of my discipline. This mindset was shared by my classmates and encouraged by my professors. Thus, when offered a Graduate Teaching Fellowship, I adopted the prevailing outlook and viewed it, not as a valuable learning opportunity, but as a meal ticket and tuition waiver. I would attend class, and read, and study, and read, and write, and read some more, and teach on the side. This was how it was done; this was the once and present way.
Indeed, my mentor called it a mandate. Sitting in her dark and hallowed office, she looked at me and said, “Spend as little time teaching as possible. Don’t dwell on their papers. Your focus should be on your own classes and your own career.” I considered this valuable guidance. Obviously, it had worked for her; she had my dream job. However, I would have been a fool to think that she wasn’t applying the same advice to herself. As an associate professor at a research institution, her primary focus was not the two or three classes she taught but the articles and professional conferences that would bring prestige to the university and win her tenure. Thus, she would only spend a little time teaching me and certainly wouldn’t dwell on my papers. She wasn’t selfish, just invested -one more cog in a clock that’s been ticking since the 13th century. I could read the time and knew what I had to do.
There was just one problem: I discovered I liked teaching. After leaving a five-hour study session in the library, I was often bleary-eyed and resentful, but after teaching I was always energized and optimistic. At first, this newfound passion was my dirty little secret, but in my teacher training program I found a few likeminded souls. We gathered in the shadows to discuss pedagogy and scrawled out lesson plans on spare napkins. One can endure a double life for only so long, and eventually I had to make a decision. I could soon graduate with my MA and hopefully focus on teaching at a community college, or I could endure another three or four years of academic hazing, earn my PhD, and follow in my mentor’s footsteps. Surrounded by brick and ivy, it was a difficult decision.
Surprisingly (or perhaps not) the deciding factor came from outside academia. My wife’s career involved helping victims of abuse, especially children. Though this job was emotionally challenging, she could never question whether or not it was socially valuable and important. I was jealous of this assurance. My teaching was not without meaning or relevance, but when I looked around the room, I did not see a vulnerable population. Most of my students came from well-to-do families, with a number of safety nets, and even if I was Professor Keating in the classroom, my English 101 course would likely have little impact on whether or not they succeeded in life. However, I was a first generation college student myself and had once attended a community college. I well remembered that demographic and the challenges they faced. My decision was made.
I was soon hired at Yavapai, willing and eager to teach and contribute to the social good. Fortunately, validation was not long in coming. As stated above, Hannah arrived at the same time. She was a single mom with a troubled past, no child support, and plenty of people, including herself, telling her she couldn’t cut it in college. And they were almost right. That first semester there was late work, and tears, and forgotten weekends, but there was also intelligence and drive. A busy university professor with writing to publish would likely have had little time for this student, but I was in a wonderful environment that encouraged teaching and supported making connections. My office hours were for students and my primary purpose, really my sole raison d'être, was to help them succeed. Hannah was my demo and Yavapai gave me a chance to make a social difference, the opportunity to help a young woman climb into the middle class and forever change her life and the life of her daughter. I relished this chance and did the best I could to help.
Let me be clear though: Hannah did the work, Hannah suffered through the difficulties, and Hannah made the sacrifices. She deserves the credit. I was just lucky enough to have a job that helped make such dreams possible, and that’s certainly something to be thankful for.