I recently took a leave of absence after teaching for over ten years from kindergarten to the university level in New York City. I also taught abroad and left teaching entirely, in order to pursue my dreams as I taught my students to pursue theirs. In order to even step foot into a classroom of pre-teens, I had to receive my Master's in Education. Teachers are subjected to a minimum of three yearly observations and unlimited informal observations, that can make or break our career until tenure, and constant curricular professional developments, in order to serve our students. Of course, public education is free, my MFA, the most expensive in the nation, costs $500 per class.
I've had a handful of teachers whose work has changed my life before my MFA. The vast majority of my professors were hardworking, thoughtful writers, devoted to their craft of writing who taught despite minimal or sometimes no training in education methodology. They showed up to teach class, despite having nothing interesting to express and no engaging way to express it. Sometimes they talked about the weather, or sports. Sometimes they'd overuse hand idioms, like "handful," or "count on one hand." My hope for them was that they would become better teachers. And then there were the professors whose teaching was so awful it would literally put me to sleep, or into a writing rage. Here are some things I learned from these experiences:
Teachers are born to teach.
Either you have a propensity for empathy as an instructor or you don't. Some people have more talent than others. That's not to say a professor with minimal talent can't work her ass off and maximize it and become an awesome classroom leader, or that a teacher born with great talent can't squander it and get burnt out and ultimately quit. It's simply that teachers are not all born equal. Teachers are born with teacher's hearts. The Real Deal MFA professor is exceedingly rare, and nothing excites a student more than discovering one. I can count my "Real Deal" mentors on one hand with fingers to spare.
If you didn't decide to take teaching seriously by the time you were a teenager, you're probably not going to make it.
There are no exceptions to this rule, but becoming a good teacher can be taught. A required Masters in Education for all MFA instructors might be a good start. But for most people deciding to begin pursuing adjunct teaching in their 30s or 40s it is probably too late. Becoming a teacher means developing a lifelong intimacy with people. You have to be crazy about imparting knowledge as a kid to establish the neutral architecture and compassion required to become a good MFA instructor.
If you complain about not having time to teach, please do us both a favor and don't become a professor.
One MFA Instructor left class 45 minutes early three times during our short ten-week semester. She boasted that she did not write at all while teaching at our most expensive MFA program in writing. When I was obtaining my first master's in education, my professors showed up to teach after their day jobs teaching Elementary and Secondary school all day. I also had a day job teaching at a high needs urban school. My experience tells me this: teachers who ask a lot of questions about time management, blow deadlines, and whine about how complicated their lives are, should just give up and do something else. Their complaints are an insult to the students, who manage to produce great work under far more difficult conditions than their 21st-century MFA professors. On a related note: Professors who ask if they're "real teachers," simply by asking that question, prove that they are not.
If you aren't a serious professor, don't expect anyone to listen or read what you teach.
Without exception, my best professors were the ones who took the greatest interest in their students and took time to read their student's work and listen intently during conferences. One professor--a "Real Deal"--took time out of her days to give me insight into my writing and reading.
One teacher, after looking at my 20-page draft, responded "I am a teacher, not an editor." It was as if she preferred to read work "that didn't make her work so hard to understand the words." I almost quit my MFA program on the spot.
No one cares about your problems if you're a shitty teacher.
I worked with a number of professors who were monolinguist memoirists in the classroom. One of my "Real Deal" teachers had an excuse involving alternate side parking for being late to class that actually made me cry. He was a rare exception. For the most part, writers who choose to teach are narcissists using the classroom as a forum for their therapy, an outlet for their thwarted thespian desires and to acquire a six-figure day job to support themselves with second homes, nannies, and shopping excursions to Whole Foods.They want someone to feel sorry for them, and they believe that their confessional lectures compensate for a real lack of instruction. Just because you have tenure does not make your inability to show up to teach more than two classes in a row excusable. In fact, having to sit through those two hostage held stand- up acts in class makes me wish they had suffered more.
Students absolutely need their teachers' help to get published.
My greatest mentor taught me one thing: It's all about who you know. And every author I know has relied on this axiom. Contacts and names are how we get published at all. So if your teacher refuses to help you in this way, or tells you that her agent has since died or their contacts at The New Yorker are from the 80's run the other way. This is what you are paying them for. If they tell you to self-publish, or their name is Ryan Boudinot, do not pay to take their course.
It's important that students think you are smart, but our course reviews mean nothing if you are tenured.
After ten years of teaching at the secondary and graduate level, I grew increasingly intolerant of teaching designed to make the instructor look smart, clever, or edgy. I know this teaching when I see it; you can't bullshit a bullshitter. But teaching that is motivated by the desire to give the student a pleasurable experience really is best. I told a few teachers over the years that their only job was to keep me entertained, and the ones who got it started to enjoy themselves and their teaching got better. In MFA programs writing is just a tool designed to procure the professor's validation. The funny thing is, if you can put your ego on the back burner as a professor, and focus on giving someone a wonderful in-class experience that's the cleverest teaching.
Never use the word "woodshed" as a verb.
Occasionally my students asked me how I got published before my MFA, and I answered them honestly. I had kind and generous mentors devoted to helping me succeed. As a teacher, the instant validation of publishing a burn rant, might provide some flames to the writer and professor's ego. That's why I advise anyone serious about teaching to spend at least a few years learning that craft. If you're able to continue teaching while embracing the assumption that no one will ever appreciate your work it will reward you in ways you never imagined.
Note: This post is a parody of Ryan Boudinot's post.
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