Last week, I spent several hours in a van with some colleagues as we drove to and then from a class retreat that we were all chaperoning. (The students were on two big busses from a local bus company, but we always need to have a separate vehicle in case of emergencies -- taking a student to the doctor or something like that. And that was the vehicle that I and some fellow teachers were riding in.)
Conversation turned, as it often does, especially at the start of the year, to teaching. I still remember fondly a fabulous hours-long conversation about pedagogy that I had with colleagues last year on my way to the sophomore retreat. This year's conversation on the way to the junior retreat wasn't nearly as fabulous -- mostly because of who happened to be in the van -- but it did lead to a teacher's confessing that she was completely out of her depth in trying to teach writing. She's an art teacher who is now also teaching art history; it's a writing-intensive course, but she's never had any training in teaching writing, and she said she just didn't know what she was doing.
She asked me how I had learned to teach writing, but honestly I mostly learned by being thrown into composition classrooms with no preparation and talking with other grad students in the same situation, or a year or two ahead who had learned from mistakes. We had a class on teaching writing, but I don't recall actually learning anything useful from it (or maybe it was useful and I just don't remember because I was so overwhelmed that first year especially). The most helpful part of my first year of teaching writing was that I was paired with a mentor, an actual composition lecturer, who observed my class a couple of times and who went over a set of papers with me as I was grading them.
I told my colleague all of this on the bus, and she said, "wow, it would be wonderful to have such a mentor," and without even thinking about it, I said, "I'll do it."
And sure enough, on Wednesday morning she sent me an email to say that she'd gotten her first set of art history essays, and had I really meant it when I said I'd go through a set of essays with her? She gave me an option to bail on the project, which was nice of her, but teaching writing is something that I'm actually passionate about, so I said I'd be happy to do it. And that's how I found myself marking up and grading ten art history essays (short -- only a couple of pages each) this week, even though I had my own grading to be doing as well.
I'll confess that I totally neglected my own grading for my own students to read her essays, because they were more interesting to me! They were descriptions, analysis, and interpretations of a work of art they'd looked at closely that summer, so each one was different; also, her students were seniors, whereas I was supposed to be grading paragraphs from my freshmen. It was also interesting to me to be watching myself grade and thinking about what it was that I was doing so that I could tell my colleague about my process.
I gave her the set of commented-up essays on Friday morning, and then we got together for about 40 minutes over lunch and talked about the kinds of things I'd said on the student essays. She told me that, across the board, I'd suggested lower grades than she would have given the students. Partly she and the other art teachers have basically no experience in giving grades; I don't think I've ever seen an art grade lower than a B+ at FGS, other than for AP Studio Art. Partly she sees her job as being a cheerleader for students and rewarding them for what they do well -- as do I! -- but she hasn't experienced the other side of teaching, which is holding students to a high standard and giving them the resources and help they need to achieve that standard. She certainly found that idea compelling, but the thought of actually doing it seemed to be making her feel a bit squeamish, even after I recommended giving her students the low grades on the first essay (ranging from one B+ to mostly B-'s and C+'s or C's, and then one C-) and having them rewrite the essays for a new grade. It will be interesting to see what she actually winds up doing. I've offered to meet again at least a few times this term.
I worked hard on her essays (in part because I had to look up each piece of art and examine it myself before I read the student essay on it) and in my meeting with her, and I thoroughly enjoyed the process. It felt good to do something metacognitive and intellectually stimulating that I hope is going to help a colleague and our students.
The whole experience made me think again about the possibilities of someday being an academic dean. Our own dean is probably going to retire in a year or two ... and thank goodness, since she's a really nice human being but really not very good at her job, at least in the ways that the faculty would like an academic dean to be. She seems to do a lot more writing of reports (and demanding that others write reports) than actually improving the academics at our school. I'd never want to be academic dean the way that she is, but I'd love to be in a position where it was my job to help people become better teachers, as I was doing with my colleague this week.
I came home yesterday and told D. about the whole experience and my thinking about academic dean positions for some time in the future ... and she pointed out that any management role wasn't just about helping eager people to do better but also dealing with people who are happy not doing their jobs well and who would resent any interference. True. And I do really hate open conflict, and that has to be part of any managerial situation.
Plus, my colleague asked me some questions specifically because I'm NOT in a position of authority over her, so I was a safe person to confide some of her fears in. Plus, this colleague and I have a particular relationship as co-workers that goes back years (we were for six years co-advisors of the arts/literature magazine), which obviously wouldn't be the case with most people. I can think of more than one colleague off the top of my head who would tell me to go jump in a lake if I made any suggestion about pedagogy!
So, okay, maybe being an academic dean is not in my future after all. But I do wish that there were some role at FGS that had the specific job of helping people become better teachers if they were interested in doing so. Something like I imagine this to be, without so much hoopla. (Also, I dislike the word "innovation" in such circumstances, as though only something new can be good, when we might sometimes be better off returning to or reimagining something older. In this case, I imagine that "innovation" is code for technology, which also annoys me.)
When I was talking about all of this with D., she said that it sounded to her like what I wanted to be was not an academic dean but rather a consultant, someone who gets invited into a school to help people figure something out. That actually sounds kind of appealing to me, and in fact it's something that my department head has suggested to me more than once, but I have no idea at all what a consultant does and how one sets up to be one. I think being a consultant requires a strong dash of entrepreneurial spirit, and I have about zero of such spirit.
Finally, I kind of like the idea of writing a book called "How to Teach Writing" ... except that I don't really know how to articulate how I teach writing. I'm not sure I've got enough meta-awareness of my own pedagogy to be able to say anything useful.
Anyway, it's ridiculously like me to be swamped in the first week, teaching an overload, and to be thinking, "Hey, what else could I do?" as though I didn't already have plenty on my plate.
No matter what else happens, I'm glad I did a good deed this past week, and I hope that my colleague is feeling more confident about the teaching she's doing.