Friday, February 12, 2010

Why at least I'm getting better at something (ok, two things)

Life as a teacher isn't always easy for the sometimes-less-than-confident among us. If you are a worrier by nature (who, moi?), your students always give you something to second-guess or fret over. Was I clear enough when I explained double object pronouns? If they fail the test is it their fault or mine? Could I have done more, taught better? Do they respect me as a teacher? And, (at the risk of coming off too Michael-Scott-in-the-office-ish) do they like me? I mean, of course they like me - right??? And, while in most situations you never have to know what your co-workers and/or subordinates think about you (or say about you behind your back), when you teach at the college level your students are encouraged to fill out evaluations of your performance, answering all of these questions and more. With the shield of anonymity to hide behind, these can be a brutal assessment of your performance, and depending on the student in question's current grade in the class, sometimes devolve into a no-holds-barred grudge match.

Three years ago, I finished my first semester as a grad student and teaching assistant in Boston. It was the first time I had taught at the college level, and the first time I had taught French at all, actually. I had done my very best: planning lessons that I hoped would be interesting and fun, teaching four days a week, meeting with my students for extra help outside of class, and all the while doing all the work of a full-time student for three of my own classes. I struggled, I was sleep-deprived, and I spent the entire end of the semester wanting to rip out my ponytail by the roots, but I did it. By god, I really did it. And so it was in this frame of mind that I opened my first set of course evaluations, and read comments like:

"The instructor did not have answers readily available for common questions."

"Occasionally a bit vague."

"Gets overwhelmed easily, nervous too."

"Sometimes gets flustered under pressure."

"Great fashion! I want to go shopping with her. :)"

I mean, that one made me smile, and I'm sure my supervisors were duly impressed by my "fashion," but couldn't she have at least mentioned my teaching? (On second thought, it's probably a good thing she didn't.)

Things have smoothed themselves out a bit over the years, and as I finished my first semester teaching at Mythaca College a couple months ago, I realized how much more comfortable I felt in front of the class now. It was even--dear god, was it?--a little bit fun. The biggest change that I noticed in myself was that I finally learned to Calm The Fuck Down. Speak slowly. Enunciate. Repeat. Pause. Ask for questions. A question you can't answer? No worries. Don't turn red. Say, "That's a good question." Don't get flustered and start talking too fast. Say, "Let's think about that." Or, "Let's look that up." Or, for god's sake, just say "I don't know." (Why are New Jersey and New Hampshire le New Jersey and le New Hampshire, but New Mexico is le Nouveau Méxique? And for that matter, why is le Méxique masculine even though every single other country ending with an e is feminine? I don't know. I don't know, ok??? And stop asking me questions. Or better yet--it's to fuck with you. Yeah. Every single time something in French doesn't make sense, it's just to fuck with you. Yes, you specifically. Ok? Now let's move on.)

And so, what with the Calming The Fuck Down and the new found spirit of joy and fun I found myself discovering every day even within the minutiae of French grammar, I had the impression that my first semester had gone pretty well. But would the students agree? And thus it was with more than a little trepidation that I found myself ripping open my course evaluations to find comments like these:

"Rachel Why = fabulous. Very intelligent, good handle on the material and the needs of the students. Very endearing demeanor, enthusiastic, fun to listen to."

"I very much enjoyed the course. Keep on rockin'."

"I really think Rachel is the best French professor I have ever had. She has a great accent and every time we learn something new it feels natural. I can't really explain it but it works really well for me and I dig it."

"I really enjoyed having Rachel as an instructor. I've really enjoyed being in her class and can say that it was one of the most fun classes I've ever had."

One of the most fun classes s/he has ever had, people. In a course teaching the proper use of reflexive verbs and indirect object pronouns. I know, I don't get it either. But it does make me a little bit giddy.

And you know, I don't usually toot my own horn, and normally I probably wouldn't post something like this, but with Valentine's Day coming up and once again having absolutely no hope for flowers, or chocolate, or the feeling of being special and/or cared about by someone, or by anyone, anyone at all--wait, where was I? Oh, right. Anyway, with that in mind I decided to brush modesty aside in favor of self love and the tooting of my own horn. Which, coincidentally enough, also happen to be my plans for Valentine's Day. If you know what I mean.

So, if you have already found your special someone, then I wish you a halfway decent Valentine's Day full of mediocre pleasures. (Sorry, but that's the best this hardened heart can do.) And if you're single like me--then happy horn tooting, everybody.


  1. I teach French too, but in a French Immersion program in an elementary school. I frequently tell the kids that I don't know why French has a particular grammar rule, and they are completely accepting of that. We practice our Gallic shrugs and say, "Le français est simplement comme ça" whenever we come up against some exception to the regularities of the language.

  2. I am learning French right now and it's so hard going! Out of curiosity, how long did it take you to become competent in French? I am getting impatient! Hah.

  3. I don't know what you mean. Please explain.

  4. I just wanted to say "bravo" - that is seriously awesome. I taught English for two years and it was definitely not something that came naturally to me, so I really admire teachers who can engage their students and help them progress. Just think - everyone has that *one* teacher that inspired them to do X or Y - and you could be her! How crazy would that be?

  5. I laughed so hard through this and then read it aloud to my husband, with inflection. Fantastic! Oh, and I have a significant other (obviously) but tomorrow, Sunday, this entire week he's going to be in class for 12 hours a day due to a fucktastic snow storm that hit us here in the Baltimore/D.C. area and the Air Force apparently isn't willing to move back his stupid graduation by a week. So Valentine's Day (that I think is a dumb ass holiday anyways) will be spent pretty much alone....with my dogs....who I am sure will consider eating me as I don't like to walk the two flights down to let them out to play frequently enough for their tastes.

  6. Good for you! At least you won't be spending Vday with your semi-new husband who you are debating leaving because as good of a man as he is, you just don't want to screw him. I, too practice a lot of self love.

  7. I also wish I could edit my previous comment. :(

  8. Clouds - Um, going on 21 years now? Patience, grasshopper. :)

    Ksam - I seriously think it's harder to teach English than French. For some reason teaching your own native language doesn't come "naturally" for most people, I think. It's so much easier to teach a language that you have learned yourself, you know?

  9. bravo Rachel! Those are some great reviews and I'm sure duly deserved. As I read this, I was thinking "I wish I had met her in person and heard her speak French :)" I can't imagine teaching French when I don't consider myself bilingual yet, but teaching English is something I appear to be good at, although I hate it.

    Oh, and when I was an assistant in the high school near Lille, the students filled out comment cards at the end of the year about me. The only one I still remember is:

    "Canadian girls have big boobs !!"

    Thank you, 15 year-old boy, for such an astute comment on my teaching abilities.

  10. Crystal - I am sort of of the opinion that I will never be *truly* bilingual, and that's ok. I knew someone once who said that you can only be truly bilingual if you are born speaking two languages. I don't know if I agree with that but I do get the spirit of it. The good news is, when you're teaching beginning French the subtleties don't really matter. :)

    And sadly, I will never get such an awesome comment as that. Lucky girl. :)

  11. Hooray for being an awesome French teacher!!! I would write that comment in French but mine is still fairly bad (especially written! Ouf!)

    Also? Hooray for tooting our own horns!! I know EXACTLY what you mean. (I say add a bottle of fizzy wine and call it a date!) We're the best company to ourselves ANYWAY.

  12. Those are some amazing comments!! And so well deserved. I love reading anything you write, but SO LOVE when good things happen to you.

  13. Happy Valentine's Day! I wish I'd had a French teacher like you in college. :)

  14. At least you know what you like!

    and you're clearly a kick ass teacher, so well done!

  15. Congrats!! Those are fab comments and I can only aspire to get ones half as good when I start teaching english for the first time in 2 weeks.

    Also, I asked the resident French speaker (my husband) about the le Mexique thing and apparently there are other masculine countries ending with e (le Mozambique, le Zimbabwe)

    Happy tooting, by the way! I've become an expert since that wonderful day I said "I do". :p