Category Archives: Academic Achievement

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.