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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of Dec 31, 2003 - Jan 6, 2004

Opinion Columns

A teacher is taught

Commentary by JoEllen Collins


Whenever Iím asked what I do for a living, I hedge my bets. "Well," I usually say, "I am an assistant to a school administrator, and I write." But then I invariably add, "Iím really a teacher." I donít know what compels me to say that. It has been awhile since I have taught full-time, and my other pursuits certainly fill up most of my working hours. Nonetheless, something in my soul says I am a teacher, have always been, and feel more at home doing that than almost anything else in the world. And for so many years the pride of my identity came with that appellation "teacher." It made me feel worthwhile.

Life changes, and so do circumstances, but I still hold on to that thought. Something wars in me at not being able to say thatís what I do.

This past September I was once again given the chance to be in front of a classroom. Over the years I have taught many classes for the College of Southern Idaho. In fact, I was on the first roster of teachers when the campus in Twin Falls decided to have an outreach program in Blaine County. Over the years I have taught both semesters of Freshman Composition, American Literature and many other required for-credit classes. Iíve also taught classes of my own creation, like "Hemingway in Idaho," "Poetry for Enjoyment," writing workshops, and even a seminar called "Brush up Your Basics," an intensive grammar review for business people. Every time I have worried that the task was so daunting. However, over the years I have not experienced one hour teaching for CSI that I havenít found rewarding and fulfilling.

So when I was asked at a fairly last minute to be the instructor for a Communications 101 class, I was a little surprised that I didnít jump with glee. But I am very involved in a big writing project, work full time, want to see friends and have some time left over for my doggies and a personal life, and I knew this would require a great deal of work, both in research for the required curriculum and in energy expended. I almost said no. But then the old lure of chalkboard, books and students pulled at me and I signed on.

This little review is just so you will understand the depth of my surprise when I first confronted my 16 wonderful pupils. Not only did they seem eager, but I found myself in the first five minutes knowing on some level that I had come home.

The rest of the 15 weeks didnít disappoint me at all. From the very first spontaneous speech, in spite of "stage fright," my students were willing to reveal themselves and to be vulnerable to up-close analysis. From all different stages of life, (recent high school graduates to women of almost my age), they were one of the most receptive and positive groups of students I have ever encountered. In short, we had a wonderful time, and it reminded me not to say Ďno" before I think things through. Not only was I thrilled to be able to teach again, but I learned a lesson I had overlooked recently: often one learns more from students than one imparts.

While public speaking was a major part of the course, there were units on other aspects of communication, such as listening, non-verbal behavior, and gender and cultural uses of language. I found myself translating the lessons I was teaching into my daily life in surprising ways, learning to, for example, make "perception checks" before assuming othersí motives in communicating with me. It was more helpful than I could have imagined. I consider myself generally unassertive, but since I often serve as a communicator in my job, I should be more adept at facing certain issues squarely. This class helped me be more forthright in approaching my colleagues. I will continue to use the techniques I relearned through trying to explain them to my class.

The final positive aspect of being an adjunct professor for CSI is not listed in any staff manual, the bonus of making new friends. Over the years I have met people through teaching that I would otherwise never have known. I can still see the faces of students I taught in the then junior high in 1982-83 who chose later to study poetry with me as adults. One friend, the most avid reader I have ever met, took several classes with me and still remains an inspiration. Many months ago a vibrant woman in my journal writing class finally put down some recollections of her days as a young mother. She died unexpectedly a few weeks later. Her family was able to find her words on her laptop and share a memory that epitomized the bright spirit she possessed. Saying "no" to the responsibilities of that class would have denied me the experience of knowing her in a way that just saying "hello" from time to time would never have given me.

So, "Happy New Year" to all the students out there. You teach us teachers more than you will ever know. Learning together is one of the true pleasures of life. Knowing that reminds me that I am a teacher, even if not full-time!

 

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The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.