A Teacher’s Testament

  Jerome Shea       February 23, 2010      Weekend Wonk

I first stood on the other side of the lectern, the teacher’s side, close to a half-century ago. You will agree, I hope, that that constitutes a long ride—Lord knows how much chalk I have gone through in almost five decades—and it ain’t over yet. So, with your indulgence, perhaps the time has come for old Shea to wax profound and expansive, at least for one wonk.

In all that time, what have I learned?

But first, some background. I am a writing teacher and have taught it all: from developmental writing (a no-no to say “remedial writing”) to freshman composition to grammar to more sophisticated composition courses to classical tropes to prose style (with a change of pace stop-off at the history of the English language). But I sometimes joke with my students that it is all the same course (Shea 401?) because all of my courses are in service to the word, to this wonderful language that we have been vouchsafed. My mantra, always, is “Rub your nose in the prose.” I want my students to be excited, passionate, about the word, about language. And judging by the students who give me very high marks year after year on the course evaluations, who sign up for two, three, or even four of my courses, and who have, over the years, nominated me for teaching awards (In 1991 I was named a Teacher of the Year at UNM), I am doing something right, I am making a difference.

If I had to put my philosophy in a nutshell, it would be this: the best teaching is not teaching at all. This is really just a rephrased half-truism, but it is worth thinking on. What I mean is that the best teacher is not so much a teacher as he or she is, still and profoundly, a student of the subject. My dictionary happily translates the Latin studium as, among other things, “zeal,” and the truly great teacher is the truly great lover/student of the subject. The more we can make the other students realize that, the better off we are and they will be.

Let me quickly add that the best teacher/student should be just as expert as possible, should know the subject inside and out. But that learning should be worn lightly and never used to intimidate. I used to tell my freshman students that if I could not write a good impromptu essay in ten minutes (more on this below), then I really didn’t belong on the teacher’s side of the lectern. Nor does that mean that one’s expertise should be trivialized or denigrated. It should be advertised for what it is, a wonderful tool for learning more, for doing better, and for appreciating more fully. Unless you intend to make a living on quiz shows, expertise should not be an end in itself.

To come at it another way, and a way that affirms a broader application, I hope it goes without saying that a good teacher will make the (other) students work hard. But it is equally important that those students get the chance, often, to see the teacher/student at work, to see him actually working something out in front of them, be it a knotty sentence diagram or a good example of bdelygmia. One day many years ago I made a desperate leap into the obvious. My writing students were all in a funk, resentful of my nagging and, even more, of my fatuous cheerleading. A mutinous mutter began to bloom darkly. “Ok,” I said,” Somebody give me a topic and somebody clock me.” Thus was born what I came to call “Put Your Chalk Where Your Mouth Is” and I have been refining it ever since. Sometimes I would race the clock and try to turn in a virtuoso performance, preening and strutting. Sometimes I would accept shouted criticisms and suggestions. Sometimes I would chatter incessantly to myself. But always, to their great glee, I would be putting myself on the spot, showing that I could take it as well as dish it out.

And it was not just in front of the class. I used to—I have fallen a bit from grace here—do every writing assignment myself (i.e., if Shea assigned seven hundred words on shoes or ships or sealing wax, he would write the same essay himself). At any rate, I am always writing for my students (“Throwing Xerox at the problem,” a student once said). When a question comes up in class, be it on causative verbs or metadiscourse , I will quickstep back to my office and pound out a single-spaced gloss—and write it as well as I can. A writing teacher should be a writing practitioner, in other words.

Reading over this, I realize that I do have more to say (the old being notoriously garrulous) than I realized at the start. I see, too, that I am coming up on my usual two pages, so I will take a break for now and hope that you are sufficiently curious to come back next week. See you then.

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