Ten days before teaching assistant workshop began, my wife and I got on a plane for Beijing. Reading books and workshop materials, and sleeping, occupied me over the thirteen-hour flight. Anxious about teaching, I studied the sheets closely, making notes.
In China, we visited the Lama Temple, where visitors lit incense, despite the stifling heat, and prayed to Buddhas at the red, green, and gold structures with orange tile roofs. At the furthest pagoda stands a sixty-foot-tall statue, not counting its base below ground, carved from a single sandalwood tree. Standing nearby, my friend Zefeng told me to make a wish. “It’s not a religious thing,” he said when I hesitated.
The issue, though, was deciding what to wish for. I am not hungry or homeless, uneducated or unloved. But my wish came to mind, stemming from my anxiety about TA workshop. I wished at the towering Buddha’s feet to be a good teacher. Or at least, I thought, not to screw it up.
The workshop came and went like a whirlwind, and all of the sudden, I was standing in front of twenty-five students who expected me to say things. Smart things.
The first task was figuring out their names and then figuring out how to remember them, both of which I failed. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but what I realized is: It is a big deal to them. This very basic slip-up told them whether I cared enough to know who they are. I made a point to write down the ones that tripped me up and memorize where they sat.
Thankfully, they choose their chairs forever. Even if the semester lasted a decade, not a one would consider switching locations.
One crisis averted, I moved on to the next: creating engaging activities. Some activities I thought would be engaging fell flat, while others I was unsure about were roaring successes. They either succeeded or did not based on whether they engaged the students. Did the students become invested in the activity? Did they find it fun? Did they feel like they learned something as well? For successful activities, the answer to all of these would be yes. However, it is still unclear why some activities did not meet some of these criteria.
I wondered why the Twitter rhetoric activity was not as fun as it could have been. I wondered why students were so distracted during an audience activity in which they had to write about their favorite movie, then write about it to convince me and a classmate that it was a great movie based on what they know about us. Most of the time, it came down to a lack of structure. I had not thought through all of the tiny details about the activity, and that made it stressful, and maybe a little bit annoying, for the students.
My biggest successes were the Logical Fallacies Theatre and teaching sentence patterns activities I created. Logical Fallacies Theatre required six groups of four students to act out a short skit that illustrated a logical fallacy. One part always chimed in with: “This is a classic example of the [fill in the blank] fallacy…” The students were not sold at first, but at the end, I overheard one student tell another, “That was actually fun.”
For the sentence patterns activity, I divided the students into groups and had them create a short lesson based on materials I provided them about common sentence patterns. One of the reasons it succeeded, I believe, is that I modeled a micro lesson for them first. This was one thing my TA mentor advised I do more of after her observation. The students did a great job of coming up with their own examples, and afterward, I uploaded a document to D2L that contained examples from the class. It seems that doing this gives value to their work and makes them more confident in their composition acumen.
The final day of class, we put together what I called The English 101 Bible. Students worked in groups of two or three, which I randomly created to prevent cliquish work avoidance, to write a page about an important composition concept. This seemed to be an appropriate test of their knowledge in lieu of a final exam. I was not sure how well it would work, or if I really wanted to know how much they had learned over the semester, but they all did very well. Some of them even surprised me by writing things from their notes that I had said in class but had not posted on D2L. I compiled the work with everyone’s names and sent the PDF as a reference for future courses but also as a way to show them that they do know how to write.
We had a party in another room after writing the Bible. Each student shared what they improved at over the semester and which skills still need work. The final student to share, an international student who had expressed his anxiety about the class early on, answered, “Everything.” I asked if that meant he got better at everything or needed to improve at everything. “Both,” he said. He laughed and everyone joined him. With a smile, he added, “I didn’t know any of this stuff before—thesis statements or APA.” It made me feel like I had done something good and important. Which is what I’d been striving toward since I first applied for a teaching assistantship.
To close, I thanked the students, whom I could name at a glance, for such a great semester. I gave my Mr. Feeney speech, saying that they learned many things over the semester, but the two most important are how to organize their thoughts and how to craft a rational argument.
“You’ve learned how to look at other people’s viewpoints and agree or disagree using research and actual factual information,” I said. “And those two things, I believe, are the signs of an educated person.”
They applauded, as if it really were an episode of Boy Meets World, and then filed out, and my first last day of teaching ended.
Did I get my wish then? Though there were struggles, I didn’t screw up—well, not everything. Much of this came from hard work, not any cosmic forces or the alignment of stars. So I will continue to work on activities and assignments and to build a catalogue of both. However, my anxiety about not having anything to say to the students has faded, a little bit, at least.
My wish did have some strings attached. Striding through the stone courtyard, Ben said that if your wish comes true, you are supposed to visit the temple again to return the good fortune. That way, you do not hog all the luck, and someone else can share in the good fortune. While I will keep working to become the best teacher I can be, I can’t help daydreaming about maybe, one day, revisiting the tall, tall Buddha.