Category Archives: Academic Achievement

And So It Begins…

Students in Writ 095 are currently working on their blogs. The first assignment is an “About Me” piece. Simple, right? Maybe not. “Pay attention to length,” said I, “and grammar and mechanics matter. This is a writing class, after all…”

What about you, Teach? (Spoken in a true, Vinnie Barbarino accent…look it up, you young’uns). Yeah, so I have been teaching at Helena College for five and a half years now, was tenured this last May, and plan to die in my heels. In other words, I’m pretty sure this is my last professional stop, despite my young age…and I have no plans to permanently retire. At some point, I’ll cut back to 3/4 time or part time…but teaching runs through my blood as much as merlot. Not gonna get loose of me in the immediate future.

So, teaching, English, writing, literature, learning, all these are some of my priorities in life. Student success is my biggest celebration, and I would not quit teaching if I were rich, but I’d like to try rich for a while…

I live alone, but I do have a cockatiel who’s my companion. His name is Leo, short for Leonardo, and he and I have weathered 20 plus years together. I have a son who’s 30 years old, and an ex-husband who I don’t write about but who was an important part of 25-plus years of my life. My other passions are hiking, kayaking, music, reading, and teaching, not in that order.

Fall semester 2017 is a new experience for me: it’s the first fall semester, ever, that I’ve entered college with the status of “single.” It’s the first fall semester that I’ve entered college without my dad. It’s not that my dad was especially critical to my teaching, but he was critical to my sense of self: I always had a mom and dad (lucky, I know). He died last October 31st. Every day since then has been, “the first _____ since Dad died.” November 1st will change that, but October 31st will be a tough day for me to survive.

You want to know “about me”? I was a mediocre high school student who grew into a pretty darn smart mom, who became a really smart college student who excelled, who became a competent, committed, caring college teacher, who lives her life to the best of her abilities without regret. Let’s get to work.

The Things We Never Say

In just over three weeks, I’ll be back to work full time. I know there won’t be a lot of sympathy for me based on that, but it does make me feel a little panicky. I’m not managing summer very well; how will I manage a fall semester I’m not yet ready for?

Now that I’m moving back into “teaching mode,” as opposed to summer slacker mode, I’m thinking about my upcoming classes and things I hope to do again and things I hope I won’t do ever again (yeah, no need to start a list for me, students), and I’m thinking about all those times when I should have told someone something but didn’t. I’m thinking of those many times when someone did something nice for me, and I thought about telling them how much I appreciated it or how much some little thing meant, but I didn’t. Time moves on, gets away from us, and after a while it seems silly to send someone a thank you card, especially after three years. But you should; I should. And since I’m moving back into “teacher mode,” this will be about teachers, but it could be anyone a person encounters, including teachers. It could be a coworker, a boss, a stranger or even a police officer or a judge! It could be any person who makes any kind of impact on your life. From a teacher’s perspective, here’s what it looks like:

Kaitlin’s not coming back; she is transferring to another school, and I’m quite sad about that. I was looking forward to having her in class again this fall, along with her pal, Nikki. Nikki, too, will not be in my class as scheduled, and I’m not sure why, but I hope it’s because she was accepted into the nursing program: that damn nursing program. I really like those two women, and the fact that they took classes from me, more than once…the same class…is a testament to them and to me: to them for facing a demon (College Writing) and taking it on…with the SAME instructor, and me, for being that instructor they chose to take again. Here’s the thing: I know they like me, too, because they told me. I’m so grateful they told me.

Last May, Nikki and Kaitlin showed up unexpectedly in my office, one holding a white orchid plant and one a bottle of wine (how’d they know????). They sheepishly explained that they wanted to spare me the embarrassment of tears in class (and how’d they know that?) by bringing them to my office, privately, with a card I did not immediately open. To say I was touched by the gesture is an understatement, of course, and I filed it all away “to process later,” and the three of us went to class.

It was the card, more than the flower or the wine (believe it or not) that touched the core of my soul, and I’d love to write the sentiment here, but somehow that feels like it would be a violation of the intensely personal messages the women wrote for me. I can say that I was surprised, had not realized the impact I’d had on those two women who had to repeat my class. When I finally did sit down and read the card, there were tears galore, all mine, some happy but some a little sad, what I could have done better had I known more…

Both were registered for Creative Writing this fall, and I was so excited to work with them in an entirely different genre, one much more relaxed than academic writing. I know them both so much better now; I could really enjoy them, I thought, and we all could make grand, academic strides, but now that won’t happen. In fact, I don’t know if I will ever see either of them again. What I do know, however, is the way that I touched them and how they touched me. The gifts, but especially the card with the long, handwritten messages, one on the inside left and the other on the inside right, remind me that what I do every day matters, both good and not-so-good. One of them wrote that my consistent support kept her going at times…and I wondered how many times I had not been as supportive as I could have been. In the future, I’ll think about her comments when I’m dealing with other students, and I’ll remember that I don’t always see reflected to me—at the time—my efforts and impact. Sometimes, I see a blank stare.

I’m pretty good about telling people they’ve been important in my life; I love sending handwritten “thank you” cards (old fashioned as that is), and I enjoy giving people the thanks they deserve, but there have been those times when it’s seemed not as important or a little excessively sentimental (oh, yeah, that’s me for sure…) and I didn’t do it. I regret that now. My life’s work is teaching, and it’s only through my interactions with students that I really know how I’m doing and whether I should keep doing it or whether I should apply to be…I don’t know…a meter-reader. Nikki and Kaitlin reassured me that I should give the old teaching gig another year or two, and I’m excited to do that and eager to up my game and see how much better I might be this year, to see how many students like them I might meet.

So, do it. Whether a teacher, a spiritual leader, a parole officer, a neighbor, or a stranger, there’s never a negative outcome when we express our gratitude and affection for each other, and sometimes it inspires those people to try even harder, to give a little more. I know I will, and if any of you know Nikki or Kaitlin, tell them I’ll miss them a lot this year. I won’t be the same without them.

The End

Tomorrow is a new beginning; that means that today was an end. I feel like this whole past year has been one succession of ends in my life, and frankly, I’m over it.

Trigger Warning! (for Brad or any of the students from my honors class—they’re a sensitive bunch—there will likely be some very bad language in this post, so if you’re easily triggered, you might want to skip this…)

Today, I sat through several hours of an end-of-semester planning meeting for our 5-year strategic plan. Yeah, so you know what that was like. However, I tried to pay attention, and a couple things really stood out to me. For example, we were reminded that the brain has basically two regions: one is the decision-making part, and one is the language, or emotional, part. Wanna guess which part dominates my life? I don’t know why it was a eureka moment for me. It makes perfect sense. I love language and everything related, and I am completely dominated by my emotions, to the point that rational judgment is often impaired.

We did some good work today, but I was distracted by the fact that there are so many ends in my life now. The end of the semester is a good thing, but it’s also a time of reflection. People who work in education get to do that twice a year, once at the end of the calendar year and again at the end of the academic year, and I was thinking about the past year and wishing I had done it better and wishing it wasn’t the end.

I’m coming off a very good year, professionally. It seemed like I had the Midas Touch though my pal Nathan said it was due to the year of the “Hen”derson (the Chinese year of the Rooster). I had great students, as always, and my special courses, Creative Writing and Ways of Knowing were innovative and successful; The Rocket!!! This is still incomplete as of this writing, but by all accounts, The Rocket project will go down in history at Helena College, and my name will be attached to it; TENURE!! Yes, friends! It was officially announced yesterday, so I feel confident in announcing that I have received tenure and will spend the rest of my working life at Helena College (unless the President needs a new press secretary, which could happen…).

Let me add the new clubs that so kindly asked me to advise them: TRiO Students 2 Scholars and Newspaper Club, the Helena Helm. These students made me look like a rock star this year. Everyone is talking about the successes of TRiO S2S and the first-ever student newspaper, and I was the lucky person they asked to put the oky-doky on the slip. Just wait though…this is NOT the end of these guys. TRiO S2S is still working on memorial trees and is going into the fall semester with a full leadership team on board. They recruited successfully and have been pioneers in club organization within a two-year college. Plans are in place for a fun run in the fall and a huge orientation presence, along with sponsoring the Rocket book, currently in the making. The Helena Helm plans to be in place to record all the good works of all the clubs beginning early in August and has also highlighted some of our faculty and staff who really deserve some credit (Helenahelm.blogspot.com). It really did seem, at times, as if I could not make a bad move professionally. Never fear…I very competently managed that personally.

How someone can be so successful professionally and so unsuccessful personally is something that Bill Clinton and I apparently share. My personal life, over the past year, has been a succession of ends: the end of my marriage (and because my ex-husband is reading this and will object to my pandering, let me just say it was all my fault), the end of my relationship with my dad (at least my ability to impact that relationship at all), the end of my long stint as a dog-mama (I miss my Lancelot more than I can bear to think about at times), and the end of Karen as I knew her, before.

I lost friends from my former life, people who somehow had to “choose” a side; I lost people I considered family because they, too, had to choose, and I wasn’t really family; I lost some self-respect because I wasn’t able to be the person, the teacher, the friend, the woman that I know I should be. Despite the fact that I initiated our divorce, I lost myself in the process; the past year is a blur of just moving forward because I had to.

More than anything, as I come off a very successful year professionally, I wish I had been a better teacher. I wonder how good I could have been if I would have been “on.” I think about the times I went to class on two hours of sleep…how inept I must have been to facilitate discussions. I think about how distracted I was, really, all year, how my emotional state detracted from my ability to foster learning. I’ve been fortunate to bask in the glow of the Rocket (and it really is an amazing project), to receive the accolades of the work the clubs have accomplished, to relish the feeling of earned (?) tenure, but today, when my beloved friend Tammy said to me during a pensive moment, “A Penny for your thoughts,” my response was one she surely did not expect: tears of regret bubbled up in my eyes: How I wish I’d done things differently, and I wish this wasn’t the end.

Oh yeah, the trigger warning? Fuck.

Seven More Days

Almost always, at midterm of the semester, I develop a bad attitude: I start grousing about students, complaining that they’re not performing to caliber, noting the many who are not attending class, wondering what other kind of work I’m qualified to do (?) because I’m so tired of this teaching gig. Like the monthly cycle I used to dread, I can almost predict it to the day, but then before I realize it, we’re about two weeks away from the end, and miraculously, the rainbow appears.

Y’all have my permission to slap me silly the next time I start; I mean it.

Today, a good day, I remembered why I do this work. It isn’t for everyone; let me be clear, but for me, I cannot imagine how I could possibly love an occupation more, and it’s not just those damn students who make it so great.

I woke at 5:45 a.m., the usual time when my alarm sounds. It annoys me, usually, but I rise and start my day. By 6:30, earbuds in, gloves on, and well-worn sneakers laced up, I’m on my way up the hill with a little Lynyrd Skynyrd on Pandora. I hike up the asphalt trail, warming up and breathing hard. About 20 minutes into the hike, I turn around and pick up the pace. Downhill is not quite a sprint but neither a jog, somewhere in between as I try to keep the pace slow enough that I don’t jar anything too drastically or trip over my own feet. At about the 30-minute mark, I turn around and walk/jog the last few minutes back to my house, and when I arrive, I feel energized and ready to take on the world. After showering and dressing for work, I eat breakfast and visit with Leo the bird, filling his water and food dish, giving him a special piece of lettuce or some millet. Then, I leave for work.

The best thing about that whole scenario is that I don’t have to worry about the time. Sometimes I leave home at 8:05 a.m., other times 8:30. Sometimes I’m really slow and it might be 8:45, but rarely is it later than that. The flexibility that my job offers is incredibly valuable to me; it gives me great peace-of-mind to have the leisure in the morning to treat my body the way I should and attend to Leo. After all, he is 20 years old.

My colleagues: you’d have to experience it to completely understand, but I’ll try to put it in perspective. We’re something like a family. We bicker and barter and sometimes we really step up in support of each other but more often we’re commiserating or teasing each other. Most of the faculty share one huge office divided by cubicles. The lack of privacy, especially when working with students, can be problematic, but the camaraderie at other times reminds me of the television show The Waltons and their nightly ritual of saying good-night. Good night, John-boy. Add to that a group of highly educated stand-up wannabes, and we have some really hilarious pseudo-conversations sometimes, so funny that I’ll be laughing about it hours later. Yeah, and I’m being paid for that, sort of.

Make no mistake: I make up for the late arrivals and collegiality during evenings and weekends, and I haven’t had a true lunch break in a couple years, but those things are important in my life, to the quality of my life, and really help me wake up at 5:45 with a little less crankiness.

Nonetheless, it’s the students (you knew this was coming) who remind me why I love this job. It’s not all students and it’s not even some students all the time, but it’s most of the students, and sometimes it doesn’t even have much to do with school work. You’ve heard, I’m sure, that we’re headed to hell in a handbasket? Ask any teacher who’s been doing this work for any number of years, and you’ll find out that’s not true. Teachers who teach, those who love their work and their students, will be the first to tell you that students haven’t really changed over the years. Society changes, and culture changes, and sometimes it does seem that values weaken some, but I can say with complete certainty that we are in good, capable hands. Here’s why:

Meet “M”. I met him last semester in my class, a young man who struggles with mental illness, who lives with a woman who also struggles with mental illness. They support each other and both contribute to the conversation about mental illness, going so far as to be participants on panels and informational venues. “M” is in my class, again, this semester and told me about his early mornings, 4:00 or 4:30, when he rides his bicycle to work several miles, riding home later to prepare for school. This is all in addition to school. But what struck me most about “M” was last semester when he and his partner were both in my class. I knew the challenges they were facing, and one day, I felt compelled to hug his girlfriend; I felt she needed some support. It wasn’t her response that surprised me, but his: he came to me later and thanked me for the gesture. It was important to her, he said, and the love in his voice, the tenderness and concern for her, touched me deeply. More concerned with her suffering than his own, his empathy for her responded to my hug. See what I mean? No hell in his future, none other than mental illness and the costs of healthcare.

Then there’s “B.” I met him last semester, too, and I was impressed immediately. A nontraditional student and irrepressible perfectionist, he soon stood out as a class leader, and I sought his advice and help. This semester, he’s in two of my classes, so I see him every day; I remind him, frequently, of his good luck, and he responds that he had no other choice, or something equally dismissive, but our friendship has grown this semester and my respect for him is immense. A committed father and husband, his priorities in life are clear, but he’s involved in many groups and activities beyond school. His humor, his leadership among students, his stellar academic work, and his kind heart endear him to me more all the time. The only questionable association he has is his personal friendship with Donald Jr., and I’m going to cut him some slack there. He also doesn’t drink, and that might be his problem, for I have found that a couple glasses of wine will take the edges off.

There’s so many students like these; I could write about them, each one, and people would think I was making it up, but I’m not. These are our students: they are parents, children, spouses, employees, friends, veterans, young, old, male, female and confused. They struggle, and they’re trying their best to better their lives while working and managing dysfunctional vehicles and relationships. If you want to see and experience the best that Montana has to offer, I invite you to visit your local community college, where you will find instructors who are doing their best to help students, citizens, who are also doing their best.

But take my advice: don’t do it at midterm.

The (Almost) End

Tomorrow, we will be two weeks away from the last day of classes for spring semester 2017. Students are anxious during this time of year; they’re anxious about the final assignments that are usually heavy point assignments; they are anxious about their grades; they are anxious to be done. Teachers, too. It’s the time of year when I’m not surprised if a student breaks down in tears in my office. Sometimes, I join them. The stress can be unbearable, and it’s not always bad stress. All the different stressing agents—teachers, assignments, children, jobs, applications to special programs, money, future semesters, graduation—all contribute to students’ stress levels, and we’re all a bit anxious and on edge. It hasn’t been that long for me; I remember what it’s like, and I spent my fair share of time in my professors’ offices in tears, so I’m sympathetic.

For me, though, this is one of my most favorite times. Tonight, Robyn and I held the Phi Theta Kappa induction of new members. What a rush! One of our new members was a student in my class during my first or second year at Helena College. After the ceremony, he and his mother asked if they could take a photo with me. What? As if that wasn’t enough, they went on to tell me that though I was one of his first teachers, I was one of the most influential. Let me just say, hearing that caused me to step back a moment. It’s been four or five years since that young scholar was in my class, and to be remembered in such a way reminds me of the severe responsibility of my position. What might have happened if he would have had a negative experience in my class?

Beyond that, there were two students inducted who are current students of mine, and several others whom I’ve had in class previously. I own no credit for those students’ achievements, but it certainly feels fabulous to recognize and congratulate them publicly for their academic success. I remember my own honor society inductions; there’s little recognition of the commitment and many hours it requires to earn a 3.5 or higher GPA. Ceremonies and notices on the Dean’s list are about it, so I like to make the most of it. I’m so proud of our students.

For me, too, this is a stressful time. I worry about those students on the bubble…will they pull it together at the end, or will I reluctantly have to assign a failing grade? I worry about my high-achieving students: will they successfully manage the stress or will they bail before it’s all done? I worry about getting things graded in a timely manner, and with this semester’s “Rocket Project,” I’ve not been very good about that. And frankly, I worry about crying in front of my students. It doesn’t take much; ask anyone who knows me. Monday night was a night to cry. Tonight was a night of celebration. We still have two weeks left, and we could see any and all combinations between now and then, from me.

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Did I mention my clubs? I currently advise two clubs: Helena Helm student newspaper and TRiO Students 2 Scholars. I could.not.possibly.be.more.proud of these students. Believe me when I say that I have been the straggler in these organizations, but despite that, the students have achieved really great things. The newspaper has published two, soon to be three, editions, the first ever for Helena College. We have never had a student-voiced medium, but we do now, and thanks to Joy, Kiera, Dalton, Angela, and others, we will in the future, too. And then there’s TRiO S2S. That group of students deserves a post all their own, and I’m sure at some point, I’ll devote one to them. They have achieved more in one academic year than I could have ever hoped, most especially close to my heart is the memorial tree project for students who have died too soon. This, for me, is personal and another reason I just might cry. Dalton and Kat, especially, deserve great credit for the success of this club, and I am so excited that we have current students willing to step up and take on leadership roles for the next year. They asked me today, at a meeting, if I would stay on as advisor, and though they might have been trying to get rid of me, it ain’t happening. They are stuck with me.

Fourteen years ago, I began my college education, hoping to become an English teacher. I had great aspirations of what a great teacher I could be, and I thought I had a lot to offer students in my care. I had no freakin’ idea, just sayin’. What I did not know was how much the many students in my care had to teach me, how much I would come to love them and how much of my identity and personal success would be tied to theirs; what I did not know was how lucky I would be to find my “home” at Helena College and Helena city. I’m not sure my heart could have stood the fullness, had I known then, where I would be today. I’m pretty damn sure, I would have cried.