Student teaching taught me to view the Writing Center as a place to interact with human beings, and not just fix papers.
Student teaching is, as they say, a once in a lifetime experience. A single semester of trying to teach a class that’s not your own—designing and teaching lessons for someone else’s students, grading homework and projects for someone else’s class, writing tests for students you will soon leave. It is the limbo between being a student and being a teacher: a time to make mistakes, a place to be corrected.
For me, student teaching was a lot of making mistakes and a lot of being corrected.
Two months into my student teaching, my cooperating teacher received an email from a parent regarding my performance in the classroom. In the email, she explained how I was failing the students, how they were failing because of me, how everyone was stressed and unhappy because of my poor stewardship. Though my cooperating teacher was unrattled by the email, I was mortified and shocked. I hold student feedback in the highest esteem, and here it was, student feedback in the form of a parent email, telling me how horrible I was.
What had I done wrong? And how could someone be so critical of another person?
It didn’t take me long to realize what was happening. To this student’s mom, I was not a person. To her, I was a part of the system, meant to work a certain way, like a broken part that needed fixing. Her email was like one from a tenant to a landlord, complaining that the water wasn’t working in the sink, or that the showers were too cold. To her, I was a drippy faucet.
What took me longer to see was that her perception of me wasn’t the only problem. It’s true that she didn’t view me as a person, but I realized that I didn’t view her daughter as much of a person either. I saw her as a part of my learning experience, like a smartboard pen that I could never seem to get to work. To me, she was like a prop in my performance, an extra in my movie, a caricature of a human to help me feel like I was learning to teach. If I wasn’t a person to her, she was much less of a person to me.
When we don’t see each other as human beings, as living persons, complex and thoughtful and valuable and worthy of the utmost respect and dignity, criticism becomes much easier and grace seems out of place. We don’t give grace to drippy faucets or broken smartboard pens.
All too often in our transactional culture, relationships between people become focused around the give-and-take: my teacher gives me a good lesson, I give him my homework and my attention in class. The waitress brings the food out on time, and the family leaves a nice tip. You walk into the Writing Center, and the consultant fixes your paper.
You can easily see what happens when these transactions are not fulfilled. My teacher doesn’t give a very good lesson, so I turn in low-quality homework and I don’t pay attention in class. The food isn’t on time, and the tip is lower.
So often, we talk about tips and tricks for improving our transactions. How do we make a lesson better? How do we get the food to the table more quickly? How do we do a better job fixing papers? In my student teaching, that meant I asked again and again “how do I become a better teacher? How do I do a good job? How do I write a better test?” These are all good and fine questions. But student teaching taught me how to ask a different question, a more humanizing question: How do I move from transaction to relationship?
When the Writing Center is a transaction, the focus is the paper. How does the consultant make my paper successful? How do I get an A on this essay? But when the Writing Center is a relationship, the focus is the writers in the room. One writer meets another, and together, they pore over a work of simple art. They each seek to improve as writers as they study a piece of writing. Where there is failure, there is grace. Where there is success, there is delight.
In this paradigm, the consultant has grace for the mistakes of the client. She reads his paper as a gift and is not concerned with how “good” it is. Additionally, the client has grace for the consultant. He takes her recommendations into careful consideration, viewing them as thoughtful suggestions rather than evaluating their usefulness. In the end, it is not about whether the consultant is a drippy faucet or the client a well-working smartboard pen. Instead, they are both concerned with their mutual learning as people—humble human beings learning to write together.