Here’s a secret: Most first-time college instructors, like their students, can’t wait for finals to be done. I know this because my first semester teaching at a local community college this fall was a frantic haze of creating lesson plans, grading papers, and writing lectures. There were late-night phone calls with other profs to lament painful night classes, and e-mail exchanges revealing our students’ funniest test answers (Question: Listen to Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament.” What is Dido lamenting? Answer: Baroque opera.) There was only one thing helping me get through: I would get a redo starting this month, when the second semester begins, with a brand new batch of students—and a chance to correct my mistakes.
Originally, my idea of professorship was based on conventional wisdom—even cliches. I shopped for “teacher clothes” and bought my first blazer, which rolled up casually at the sleeves. I was convinced I would not have to discipline my college students, unlike the rambunctious elementary and high school students I had taught in the past. I thought teaching music classes would make me the “fun” professor; we’d listen to jazz and chat about Count Basie’s delicate, articulate piano sound. Even if my students didn’t love my class, they were paying tuition so they’d come to class prepared, right?
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Wrong. Two months in, I gave an open-book, open-note online quiz that was ignored by two-thirds of my class. Then students sent me e-mails (with five exclamation points in the subject line) to tell me why they deserved good grades on the quiz they hadn’t bothered to take. In class, I played Beethoven’s ninth symphony—a piece I thought was an easy sell to get them emotionally engaged—and found one of my students openly listening to his own music on his iPod earbuds. Then, with two weeks left in the semester, I found out most of my class had yet to buy the textbook.
I wish I could say I was cool-headed about this, but one night I had to use the sleeves of my fancy professor blazer to mop up my tears of frustration. But instead of continuing my “kids-these-days” pity party, I thought about where my students were coming from. These weren’t traditional college students, the kinds bounding off at 18 to study philosophy amidst century-old buildings and manicured lawns. No, community college is a diverse petri dish. Many of my female students were juggling child care with studying. Nearly everyone had one job, if not two. Many had never been taught how to be students. The more I thought about them, the more clear it became that they weren’t lazy and disrespectful; they were just tired and trying to get a degree to better their lives.
So I changed my approach. Instead of just lecturing on music I loved, I asked the students about their favorites. (Turns out they would rather hear heavy metal, so we found a few metal bands with string instruments.) When I did play classical pieces, I asked the students to rate the music on a scale of one to 10. After a few twos and threes, I found that more modern, complex pieces like Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” scored sevens and eights. I taught them how to study by quizzing them in class. As I did this one day, a student in the back called out: “What is this?” “This is studying,” I replied. He got an A on the next test. The students weren’t just participating; they were actually learning.
Changing my approach didn’t make me feel like I was losing my sense of place as a college instructor; it made me realize that adapting in the classroom was my job. Fortunately, I love this job. I love thinking on my feet. I love changing plans and figuring out how other people learn. I love toughing out a two-hour night class for a flicker of interest when I play a mournful Chopin étude. I love my blazer. And I can’t wait for my second first day of school.