Soap Ducks, Sore Backs, & Succotash
by Randy DeVillez
I was an education major for a while in undergraduate school. Several situations led to my switching to a B.A. in English. The first event occurred when my Ed. Psych. teacher, delivering the same lecture two days in a row (not intentionally), while excitedly flapping his arms, spitting (due to his lisp) and drawing an imaginary bell curve in the air, executed a perfect face plant from the podium in front of the lecture hall, landing nose and chin into the lap of the pretty brunette sitting in front of me. Although I was envious, I was not impressed. I also knew I would have to endure other courses with him. The next week, my Introduction to Education instructor told us to bring a new bar of Ivory Soap for carving soap ducks the next class period. He also assigned me (an English-teacher-to-be) to shadow a physical education teacher at one of the local grade schools for my “field experience.” While I enjoyed my time with the coach and really liked him, I can’t say I was learning anything to help me teach college English.
When I thought of the tuition I was paying at a small private college to monitor kickball and carve soap ducks, I decided to switch to a liberal arts degree and double up on courses in my major. I skipped education classes and certification, figuring all the extra course work in my major and minor would help me get into graduate school and give me a better background for college teaching. In retrospect, the decision was a correct one, but my lack of training in education often surfaced during my thirty years in the classroom. I learned lessons experientially from my students and colleagues that I wish to pass on to anyone else following in my academic footsteps, anyone who is considering becoming a teacher.
ONE: Avoid giving your students a headache or backache.
Some students will find it necessary to complain about something. The saying “You can’t please everyone” is not a cliché; it is an accurate observation. One Monday morning (when else?), the Dean of Liberal Arts called to inform me a student had stopped in her office to file a complaint against me. This hurt coming during the last semester of my career; it was the first time I had the dubious honor of a student formally complaining about my teaching.
“What did I do?” I asked, bracing myself for her response.
“She said you make her think,” the Dean laughed.
“I’m sorry. I am so sorry. I promise that I won’t ever do it again. Never. Not only her, but none of them. No more thinking will be required in my classes.”
“Naaa, just continue to be you, please. This student has been in my office several times this semester to complain about a number of issues and teachers. Don’t think you’re special.”
“Well, I hope the accreditation folks don’t find out we encourage thinking around here. It will screw up our academic standing.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll bury the evidence,” she said. “She also added, “Your class gave her a headache because she had to write and express herself instead of filling in ovals on a Scantron exam.”
“Would it help if I bought her a coloring book?”
“I’m really going to miss you next year,” she laughed. “Are you certain you want to retire?”
“Already signed the papers,” I said. “I’m sorry this incident took up your time and mine.”
It was only a few weeks later when the Dean called again and said the same student had been in her office to complain about me a second time.
“My most-recent sin against higher education?” I asked.
“She says the textbook, the one you wrote, is too heavy and makes her back ache to carry it. I told her you would remedy the situation for her.”
“Hmmmm, I’ll have to think on this one. I guess I’ll know who she is when she approaches me, unless you care to give me a name.”
“Nope. I think I will just let this work its way to a conclusion.”
“Always glad to help. Bye.” And she hung up.
When my Thursday night class rolled around, the student approached me as I walked into the classroom and complained all the way to the lectern about her back, the heavy paperback textbook, her chiropractor bill, how she had been to the Dean and received no satisfaction, and on and on. I was aware all the usual pre-class chatter had stopped; all eyes and ears were focused on us as we walked toward the front of the room. Finally, I put down my briefcase, took the offending book out of her hands, which stopped her rant mid-sentence. I took a deep breath, found the page I wanted, ripped the book into two sections, and then handed her the larger section.
“We have covered all this. Leave it at home. Study it for the final. Bring to class this smaller section that we still have to cover. You can tear out one chapter at a time, or I can do it for you if it is too strenuous or you don’t want to risk the paper cut.”
She stood staring at me. I turned and began to address the other thirty students, the majority of them laughing, smiling, and whispering among themselves.
TWO: “We are people, not just students. As you (a person, not just a teacher) get to know us, you will become attached to us and we to you.”
I had subbed in a literature class for a colleague one day; after class, a student approached me, introduced herself as the sister of an acquaintance of mine. She said she so thoroughly enjoyed our class session, she intended to withdraw from her current course and enroll with me in the same course the following semester. I was truly complimented but urged her to stick with her class and her teacher. She was not to be persuaded.
The following semester, first day and every day thereafter, she was front and center. As one week became another, she went from dreading literature to loving it. She went from hating writing to loving it. She went from never participating to being an active force in class discussions. Everyone in the class knew her, respected her, and liked her. Her grades were excellent.
One afternoon, on a day our class did not meet, I was coming out of my office heading to a committee meeting. She came out of a classroom around the corner, gave a brief wave as she walked by, and then stopped a few steps later. She literally backed up, turned to face me, said, “I came back to give you a real goodbye, not a wave. I just want you to know I really enjoy our class together and am glad I decided to take it with you.”
I smiled, thanked her, told her to enjoy the rest of her day, and said I would see her in the morning. She asked if she could hug me, and I said I never turned down a hug. We hugged, and then she walked down the hallway and went out the back door. I remember I stood and delayed leaving, deliberately watched her walk across the parking lot until she was out of view. As I walked to my meeting, I had the strangest sensation about our goodbye. When I arrived home a few hours later, my wife told me I had received a call informing me one of my students had been killed in a car wreck. My wife had not yet spoken a name, but I knew. The wreck occurred shortly after she left campus, literally right down the road in a beautiful wooded area, where her car left the road on a slight curve, and struck a large tree.
I still remember how difficult it was to walk into that classroom the next morning. I faced the class, staring at the empty chair front row center. None of them knew until I announced it. We cried, told some stories, talked about life and death, and laughed at a few of her comments recalled by classmates, and shared thoughts and feelings. Finally, I passed out cards from our counseling staff if anyone wanted to meet with a professional. Many of us, before leaving the room, made plans to attend the wake as a group. That class session was an experience I was not prepared for, one I will never forget. On my way home later that day, I went down the road she had driven, and paused at the curve to say goodbye. I passed that location often in the years to come; I never failed to think of her, greet her, wonder where her life might have taken her. Her chair remained vacant the rest of the term.
THREE: If you want to learn, nothing will stop you. If you don’t want to learn, everything becomes an impediment.
One of my office partners commuted from suburban Milwaukee to southwest suburban Chicago (about two hours, ideally). I always loved it on harsh winter days when he would arrive in our office at sevenish in the morning in near-blizzard conditions. Before we downed our first cup of coffee, our office phone would ring, one of Bob’s students from a few miles down the road phoning, unable to make it to an exam because of the inclement weather, the bad roads.
Over my thirty years in the classroom, I taught a lot of students who I, unpolitically, referred to as more-visibly handicapped than the rest of us. My approach was always direct: “You tell me what you need from me to help you learn and succeed in our course together. You have had more teachers than I have had students with your special needs, so tell me how to help you. Then, I will get out of your way, pick on you, and just abuse you as I do your classmates.” I never had a complaint, but over the years I taught a lot of students with special needs. They networked better than any academic committee on our campus.
Some of them were better teachers than I was. I recall a day when one of my beginning composition classes was scheduled to do a departmentally required in-class essay. A young woman in the class was whining endlessly before the period began about how unfair it was, how she could not compose her thoughts on paper (this was pre-computer lab), and how she needed more time than the allotted two hours.
About that time, one of my wheelchair students rolled in the door. A friend of his in the class positioned, locked into place on his wheelchair an angled “shelf,” placed on the shelf the student’s special writing device he “typed” on using a pencil held between his teeth. He looked up at me, said, “OK, Chalk head, give me a topic. I am ready to rock and roll.”
I laughed, replied, “Let’s dance, my man.” As I navigated the aisles passing out topics and directions, I noticed the young woman who was whining had tears in her eyes. Both students, and most of their classmates, did very well on the in-class essay.
FOUR: Academic committees are the tenth circle of Dante’s Hell.
After I had been teaching a few years, I recalled a scene in a novel about college life written by one of my undergraduate teachers. In one of the chapters, the president of the fictional college comments he kept the faculty from harassing him by assigning faculty to meaningless committees where they would instead burn all their energy to harass one another, such as the What-Vegetable-to-Serve-at-the-Spring-Faculty-Dinner Committee. As I sat in meetings, that novel’s scene often moved from the realm of the absurd to reality. Honestly, I sat through meetings where people voted to form a sub-committee to see if forming the committee was necessary. By the time I retired, I had drawers full of notes and minutes. They served a dual purpose: (1) they documented how many hours of my life had been wasted, and (2) they documented that the same issues leading to the same conclusions, requiring countless hours of man and woman power, would recycle approximately every ten to fifteen years, but with new buzz words and labels.
“Do we have any volunteers for this committee? Don’t be shy.”
My favorite committee meeting was one focused on cutting paper usage on campus. At our first meeting, the chairperson distributed a massive handout to each member, printed on colored paper. The handout presented the focus for the committee, a detailed report of paper usage and costs since the college’s inception, our charges and objectives, our timeline for making suggestions, and a number of pretty flow charts and graphs. One or two good slides projected on the wall (this was pre-technology, pre-PowerPoint days) would have sufficed. One of the few suggestions I recall from the document: we need to cut down on use of more-expensive colored paper. I referred to the committee meeting and its handout the next day when teaching the concepts of irony and dramatic irony to the students in my fiction writing class.
Over the three decades of my teaching career, I frequently made the comment I learned more as a teacher than I ever did as a student, but I thought it appropriate to share at this time only a few lessons. There are others, but you will have to wait for the release of the blockbuster autobiographical film that reveals much more than its working title: Suggesting Succotash Solves Vegetable Selection Subcommittee Stalemate.
I must admit, however, there is one skill I never did master that I hope retirement provides the time and the patience to learn: turning a bar of Ivory into a duck. If enough fingers survive the carving process to permit typing, I’ll update you on my progress.