Wednesday, May 22, 2013

End of Semester and Start of Summer: The Reflections of a Teacher

It is that first week of summer when the grades are in, the faculty workshop is over and the dreaded and excruciating student evaluations have been read and are slowly being digested.  I want to be a great teacher.  Most semesters I am a good one, and I am getting better.  The process of learning to earn students' respect and to inspire their imaginations is slow.  I am impatient.

Today I picked up my kids after school aware that for a few days, my time belongs mostly to them. I grocery shopped, nursed the baby, and then boiled pasta, made guacamole, supervised the making of fruit salad, heated vegetables from the Mexican market and a few fresh organic spinach leaves from the backyard garden which just produced its first-fruits on Pentecost. I felt a twinge of guilt when we sat down at the table hearing, "Mommy!! Thank you so much for cooking this food for us!" (My own mom baked her bread from scratch every week. I was 16 when I went to a Chinese restaurant for the first time. In stark contrast, we have eaten many quick meals this past month. This is not the good wife my mama raised me to be).

There are days when it feels to a working mother that she does nothing well. Laundry piles up. Corners are cut. People are neglected. Foods are scarfed down and thrown haphazardly into lunch boxes. Babies cry. Compost rots on the counter. Gas tanks run dry. Deadlines are missed despite sleepless nights.

It is on these days when I want to spend everything in the bank on a 300-square-foot Tumbleweed tiny house on wheels, buy a couple homing pigeons and a dozen chickens, and to go park the whole lot of us for a while in the middle of my favorite moss-covered campground, to dig a big garden around it, buy a goat, and settle in for the long haul of surviving on the land.

"The world is too much with us, late and soon / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers....(William Wordsworth). It is hard to keep everyone happy, to keep the fridge full, the papers graded, and the bills paid. A decade ago, our first pediatrician told me, "Women are pulled into motherhood by the nipples." Some days, we go kicking and screaming. You cannot hear it in our voices because we all have the gene for courage, but if you look closely, you can see the panic in our eyes.

Evaluations of teaching and mothering are necessary - room for improvement is healthy. Mostly the students were gentle, appreciative, and kind. Only a few comments hurt, but they stung. One of my students said I speak too much Spanish in a Spanish language class.  Did I not convince her of the value of being bilingual, with my pep talks about the gift of language? Another thinks the university's cultural diversity requirement is not worth an undergrad's time and money, and she says that language is not culture. One student said the novel by Sandra Cisneros was okay but she hates literature, another said to cut out poetry entirely (even though we spent only two days reading poems in a language course). Expecting eight hours a week of study time is unrealistic, says one. Another wants grades posted online in a spreadsheet within two days. There were grateful comments also, but I did not see those on the first read-through.  Grading is grueling.  I need some distance in order for the criticism to have a constructive effect---because I take evaluations seriously and I adapt and learn every semester from what has been effective for my students.  They know themselves, and they know what they want (even when that is not what I think they really need).  I pour such effort into teaching language within real life, imparting culture, and inviting students to peer over fences, to open doors, and to build bridges. I recognize that a language requirement is a challenge for some, as physics remains very hard for me. It should neither surprise nor burden me that despite the lovely weather and good company, some students really want to stay home on the couch.

We are limited by enrollment numbers, by budgets, and by a healthy respect for safety and liability. I would like to teach my students to grow their own food and to describe and prepare it in Spanish, to make salsa verde and mole from scratch, to turn masa into fresh tortillas, to grow tomatillos in a little tree, to roast poblano peppers over an open fire, to season pozole with home grown epazote and pápalo, as my community has taught me. To complement grammar, I want to bring my guitar and sing hymns and songs of the fight for freedom and justice. I do this occasionally, but I would do more. I would put "hiking boots" on the syllabus along with the required materials, and immerse them a global experience of pilgrimage. I would walk with them 500 miles along the Camino de Santiago so they could experience the role of global translator, a modern-day medieval traveler on a well-worn trail. I would cheer them on back at home to listen and relate when a migrant in their own nation says to them, "I thought I was going to die when I walked through the desert." Then they would nod and agree, having spent time walking a mile in well-worn shoes. This is what I have done to learn language through culture, and it is what every global citizen deserves.

I would ask them to write a letter in Spanish to a person in prison on death row and then to reflect on the letter they got back, to ask what freedom means. I would invite them to send out and try to publish a personal essay or poem in their first or second language, to experience fear of rejection, and to know how to share like life depends on it.

On days like today, there is a disconnect between school and real life, between the calling of motherhood, the angst of writing, and the vocation of teaching. There are gifts I cannot give my students that I can still offer my own children, if it is not too late. I need to sink their hands into the garden, make some bonfires, build a bigger clothesline together, and sit on the front stoop sipping lemonade and watching the cars go by. My four becoming-bilingual children need to sleep under the stars, fly a kite, and see a movie at the drive-in. We need to sing our favorite songs and talk about our plans and dreams. 

Summer break comes at a very good time.  

What are your summer plans for recreation, renovation, renewal, and rest?  Please share in the comments!

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