Learning from One’s Students

My maestra Edith has hit on a new method for getting me to profit from my Spanish homework. She’d learned the hard way that having me memorize verb conjugations and such just didn’t work.

“Nothing sticks!” I’d complain to her, tapping my right temple.

No te preocupes” (don’t worry), she’d respond soothingly. She is the soul of patience and tolerance.

Now she has me writing stories and translating them into Spanish, something I’m enjoying doing. (Thank you, Google Translate.) I love stories. Don’t we all?

Last week, for example, she asked for a story about a strange (extraño) occurrence (see my previous post, “Strange”), which she did indeed find as suficientemente extraño as I’d hoped.

Her eyes grew wide when I read the story to her in Spanish, and she demanded to know what happened when the Gabonese mother finally reached the Vatican. Did her daughter have the exorcism after all? (I had to admit I never found out.)

This week Edith wants me to write about my experience teaching English at the college level in New Mexico, before I retired to old Mexico. I imagine she wants to learn more about the system of higher education in the States.

So I’ve been dredging my mind for memories of the decade I was an adjunct college instructor – a time, it turns out, I haven’t written much about. Perhaps the reason for my reticence has been that these memories are so muddy and mixed – as mixed as a large class of diverse students can be. And trying to get through to them all, simultaneously, was so immensely challenging and exhausting.

The first hurdle I faced, as a person new to the profession and new to the territory, was that many of my students – freshmen at this community college and the first in their families to attend any kind of college – saw me, an “Anglo” (the term they used for a white person) from the East Coast, as the enemy.

These students, mostly Hispanic and Native American, viewed me through angry eyes as the hated Other, who taught their least favorite subject, English, the language of their forebears’ ultimate conquerors.

It took some doing – and time – to teach these young people about the dangers of stereotyping, of painting whole groups of people with the same broad brush, out of fear and ignorance. I told them true stories about the years I’d spent in Africa before settling in northern New Mexico and all that I’d learned from my African friends, neighbors, and colleagues.

Discrimination, in all its bitter flavors, became a worthwhile topic for class discussion. And in the process of getting to know and trust each other, I liked to think, we all learned some valuable life lessons.

Another hurdle I encountered was that so many of these students were woefully unprepared for college-level English coursework. Had they skipped out on their high school English classes? Had they not bothered to take the remedial courses this community college offered? Had they never (as I suspected) read a whole book from cover to cover? Did they even know how to read – much less write?

While the few better-educated students bore with the rest of us, we began at the beginning with the parts of speech and the important roles they play. I drew pictures of nouns (tree, house, dog…). I acted out verbs (punch, climb, jump…). I made a fool of myself. I didn’t care if they thought I was being ridiculous, as long as I kept their attention.

Some though, sad to say, seemed beyond redemption. They were there, I discovered, because they’d found a way to game the system. Their financial aid, designed of course to help them get an education and advance in their lives, was their temporary ticket out of the work force.

Easy-peasy: Just come to class as infrequently as possible, half asleep, arms folded in front of them, feet sticking straight out (with ankle bracelets on display), and don’t bother to participate or do any homework. Then threaten to go to the Dean and report me if I didn’t give them the required passing grade to ensure the continuation of their financial aid.

“Please go ahead and report me,” I said. “You haven’t earned a passing grade.”

The Dean told me that the Hispanic student who’d threatened me had accused me of racism.

On the plus side, however, I have good memories, too. To see the lights go on behind some students’ eyes in class was an incomparable thrill. To read students’ personal essays about their lives — so different from my own — written from their hearts made my heart nearly burst. To win an award one year, “Most Inspirational Instructor,” was an indescribable honor.

Some lyrics from the song, “Getting to Know You,” from the Broadway musical The King and I have been swirling in my mind:

“It’s a very ancient saying, but a true and honest thought, that if you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.”

“Getting to Know You” from The King and I

I learned a lot, both positive and otherwise, as a college instructor. And I wouldn’t trade that learning for anything.



10 thoughts on “Learning from One’s Students”

  1. Your posting reminded me of my time in Athens teaching English to refugees — mostly Arabic speakers. 2017. They lived in the “squats,” which are abandoned buildings, often dangerous and filthy but better than the streets. Most had little hope of a stable life or education or a job and yet they found joy and meaning in learning and in each other. I am hoping to return next year! Thanks for this week’s meditation Bonnie!

  2. While somewhat outside of your main theme, I have to say, your story about teaching English in New Mexico to a population unlike yourself brought back memories. It reminded me of how glad I’m an “expat” in old Mexico and not an “Anglo” in New Mexico. How glad I am that Spain and not the US conquered Mexico (if it had to be conquered at all) – although US conquests are not as obvious. How well I remember those entitled college students (Anglos every last one of them) who howled and ran to the dean if they received anything lower than an A. How satisfying it was to give two well-deserved B minuses just as I quit. And the students DID run to the dean.

    However, no one in my classes wore ankle bracelets…..

  3. Dear Bon,
    All teachers have to negotiate with their students from whatever place each student is functioning from. Some see teachers as the part of the system they can be rude to with impunity.
    I am sure that there were those in your class who learned and evolved from their association with you. They may not have shown you that. They may not even have realized it themselves at the time. Your empathy, wisdom, and goodness touched more people than you may think.
    The picture from The King and I made me laugh out loud. Imagine how much harder your job would have been had you done it in crinolines and a skirt that’s eight feet in diameter.

    1. Thank you, as ever, for your sweet and wise words, dear Paul. Yes, I’m still in contact with some of my former students (as I’m sure you always will be with yours), and that is a joy to me. As you well know, we can’t win all of them over! As for teaching in a huge skirt — that might have helped maintain their attention! — xx

  4. Wonderful ! I, too, was a community college teacher for a few years.
    The kids were just as you describe even here in Tennessee.
    I remember on young man as a real challenge. He was a huge very black guy hardly fitting in the desk. He talked through lecture and so I said to him,”I can hardly think while I am talking and surely can’t while you are!” He stopped and believe it or not picked up on a concept of “developmental niche” for his final report. He came that day bringing his toddler son because he didn’t have a baby sitter!
    He did the report with the toddler on his hip! And, yes, I learned sooo much from him!
    I have hundred of stories from those years…….I taught Early Childhood Development and education. My Head Start Teacher classes were especially challenging but a joy!

    1. Shari, thank you SO much for sharing your experience with that challenging student and how you learned from him. You’ve made me think that if there isn’t a book about what community college instructors have learned from their challenging students, there should be one!

  5. I could contribute to such a book, after 17 years in the Maricopa Community College system in the Phoenix area. One young woman shared that a highlight of her life was taking classes, one at a time, because as a person with fetal alcohol symptoms, she could only struggle for academic progress. She shared the alcohol damage to her brain that we could not see. Such bravery.

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