There is something beautiful about being in an empty classroom; on the first day of school it’s the symbol of all the possibilities. It’s the beginning of new discoveries for both a teacher and her students. It’s the anticipation of what characters and ideas will be shared in the weeks to come.
I became a teacher accidentally. When I applied to graduate school, I learned that teaching is what grad students typically do. Of course, for students of creative writing, it’s very rare that we’re afforded the opportunity to teach what we’re interested in. Usually, we, like any other grad student of English, teach composition. If you don’t know, composition is what most people would consider the opposite of creative writing: there is specific structure, grading rubrics, assignments which ask students to illustrate, research, and persuade an audience (not that this doesn’t and can’t happen in creative writing). It is not poetry. It is prose which can sometimes take the shape of narrative, but generally requires students to learn about reputable sources, ways of researching, proper formatting of essays, and incorporating others’ ideas into their own writing. It’s not naturally fun. It’s a required course. It’s a classroom of 18 year olds learning how to college correctly. For the student, it feels like busy work and too much writing. For the teacher, it feels like being suffocated under a stack of papers while trying to explain that there are rules for comma usage and no, you can’t just write it the night before it’s due.
A lot of times, it feels like parenting.
Somehow the academy thinks it’s my job to teach them life and college skills. Professors in other departments think it’s my job to teach them how to be amazing writers in just one semester. In fact, we are blamed by universities if the students don’t write well when they get out of our courses.
Here’s what I teach:
1. Don’t email your professor and say, “Hey…”
2. Things have to be turned in on time
3. It’s rude to come to class late
4. Yes, it has to be turned in on time
5. Put the phone away.
6. Classical argument structure
7. MLA formatting (which they can google, but still fail to do correctly)
8. Close reading of texts
9. How to play rugby
10. How to have a meaningful discussion about literature
11. Where the library is
12. How to use a library
13. Yes, you have to go to the library and touch and read an actual book
And though you’ve probably heard me complain before about the awful papers, the hilarious sentences, begging for grades, the way they try to email things to me days after they’re due–I do love teaching. I love meeting new people. I love helping students understand new concepts. I’m touched when I see an evaluation that says, “I always hated English until I took this class.” Or “Christina really cared if I was learning.” That’s what it’s all about.
I love teaching. But teaching hasn’t loved me, exactly.
As a full time professor, there is more to teaching than just teaching. There is committee work, advising, curriculum redesign, hiring committees, class planning, GRADING, and, for some, their own research and grant writing. The teaching part of teaching is about 5% of how professors spend their time. Maybe less. I have been in that position. I taught as a real, full time professor for three years. Quickly, I realized the school didn’t quite care as much about the students as I thought. It was more about the numbers and money. I no longer wanted to be a part of that culture. So I left.
I’ve been teaching as an adjunct since then (and have held 8 other jobs in those two years). There is a lot less commitment to the university and more to the students. But there is still the planning and grading. When someone adjuncts in this part of the country, the pay is about 9 dollars an hour.
Yes. Some adjuncts earn less than minimum wage.
There are a lot of stories like mine. I have worked my ass off teaching for 9 years here in mid-Missouri. And somehow, I ended up where I started.
I tell you all of this because I think it’s important you are aware of what happens to most teachers you know. We burn out quickly and brightly.
Besides being a symbol of new possibility, an empty classroom can also mean relief. Finally, a break from grading, from poorly written emails, from excuses about late work.
Today was my last class for the semester.
Today was my last class.
Due to budget cuts and low enrollment, I don’t have a job at Mizzou after this semester. I was offered a job to teach two classes at William Woods (8$ an hour to what is basically 20 hours a week). Starting again in August. I don’t think it takes a degree in math to understand why that simply cannot happen.
I didn’t quite realize today was my last day until right before I walked into the classroom. I’ve been so busy with applying to jobs and trying to catch up on grading and laundry that I hadn’t taken the time to think. I brought my students candy and we talked about their final projects and due dates. I’d told them all my struggles of job searching and job finding. I’m open with my students. I show them that teachers are humans, too. One student realized what today was and said, “This is your last day teaching…forever.”
I’ve been teaching now for 11 years. If I’ve done the math correctly, I’ve had 900 students in my classroom. Which means I’ve read 4,500 essays. Which means I’ve commented on 13,500 pages.
I start my new job as a Research Specialist on May 9th. My new job has nothing to do with creative writing, teaching, or English. It does have everything to do with anthropology, skeletons, data, relearning what I once knew, and having two bosses to monitor my work. It is only 40 hours a week. With vacation, sick time, a salary, and insurance. It does not require that I grade papers while I’m waiting at Jiffy Lube, while I’m eating breakfast, while Cyrus is occupied with his Bat Cave, while I’m visiting my parents, while I’m on vacation, or when I’m in the bathroom. I am looking forward to coming home and not having a stack of work with me.
Today was my last class, though there is still a lot of grading to be done.
After the last student left, I paused and looked out into rows of empty chairs still warm from bodies. For four months, they sat there while I talked. They sat in my class for 11 years. Where I was in charge and finally knew what I was doing. Where I could make my own rules.
Today the empty chairs did not feel like relief; they did not feel like a fresh start.
When I walked out today, I turned one last time to look at those chairs, my classroom. It did not just feel empty, but completely abandoned.