My first semester of teaching has reached its end. I have spent the last week in something of a fog of mindless activities, largely coming off of such a mindful few months. I have learned, and will continue to learn, that new chapters in the books of our lives hardly turn out to be what they seem while in anticipation of their arrival. When I began graduate school I was overwhelmed by the amount of time it took to read all that was expected of me, and that says nothing of the amount of time it took to process and synthesize such complex information. The same thing happened with teaching. I am not unintelligent, but I am inexperienced. I sure learned through a trial by fire! My final analysis is that there were challenging and rewarding moments and students, and many lessons learned.
College has changed quite a bit since I was a student, and I am not sure I was prepared for how much it has changed, but I am now and have learned ways to work with these changes next time. During the semester, I changed methods, tried new approaches, and opened my mind. Then, near the end during massive grading, I made notes of all kinds of things to do differently to (hopefully) facilitate more engaged learning in the future. And, overall, my students did well, and I learned the concepts that appeared most difficult for them so that I can focus more on those (because they are rather important concepts) next time. Oh, and I griped some too, because what is a new and challenging experience without some griping to the people who care?
In the end, though, I cannot help but smile when I remember the students who read about people with disabilities and changed how they viewed us, or changed the language they use, or looked at new perspectives and grappled with long held opinions, or simply related what we learned in class to their own lives, understanding that knowledge is life. This course is not just another course; it is about our lives, whether my students were human services majors or not, they learned many new ways of looking at their lives and the world around them. At least that is what they wrote in their last essay when I asked about the most important things they learned during the semester!
Now the holiday season is upon us, and I write this blog while listening to my favorite Christmas songs and avoiding slogging through TONS of emails that have gone unread during the past couple of months. I have learned another thing this semester: I have horrible time management skills…or too many interests! Or maybe the demands of my disabled body take away some of the time I would otherwise spend on those tasks that the able folks take for granted. It is most likely a lovely combination of all three! Anyhow, I must return to some semblance of a schedule soon if for no other reason than to have that inbox number stop climbing to the highest heights. I will not teach next semester but will spend that time writing, writing, reading, writing, and reading…and hopefully a little speaking to keep me in the habit before I return to teaching in the summer if all goes according to plan.
When I look back on what the semester and year have meant to me though, outside of the technicalities of teaching, I recall a few special memories and lessons. My overarching theme this year has been thriving. Indeed, I can only hope that is my overarching theme for many years to come. I have spent this year reaching out, from writing, to reading, to teaching. One of the many themes common to life lived with disability is that of struggling to feel like an adult when the world deems our lives and needs as those of children. When I took the class that I taught, I had my first work-related experience in the form of an internship at a local hospital. I recall being surprised when visitors would ask me for directions to an area of the hospital, surprised that they deemed me worthy of providing an answer to their question, however simple. So often, we as disabled folks are the recipients of services and information. Being on the other end of such an exchange was a small moment of empowerment that has stayed with me for many years.
That feeling followed me this semester into teaching. Yes, the semester was filled with missteps, just as that internship was, but it was also filled with first steps and empowering moments. These students were not – at least not obviously – daunted by my disability status. I gave examples of disability-related issues, both personal and otherwise, and they appeared interested. When we got to the final chapter on social movements, there was a graphic in the text depicting different cultural frames (slogans) for social movements. A student asked what “Piss on Pity” meant. I discussed the problems surrounding the Jerry Lewis and MDA telethon! It just might be one of my favorite moments. Better yet, then they were able to understand some of this in a historical context such that Jerry Lewis is not exactly keeping up with the times, so to speak!
Another favorite moment occurred in the elevator one day on the way to class. I got in with two other people. They asked what floor I wanted, I answered, and one of them asked if I was going to Professor so-and-so’s class, to which I smilingly replied, “No, I’m going to Professor Overstreet’s class, my class.” The gentleman smiled and asked what I was teaching, and I told him I was teaching a class on human behavior, at which point we arrived at our floor and I rolled out as he said, laughingly, “You don’t look old enough!” I laughed as well, and said, “Thanks!” The subtext of this discussion was that he never pictured a professor who was also a wheelchair user. It was funny and fun. I imagine he never would have guessed I was 30 either, or drove a vehicle, or had sex, or any number of other “normal” activities. I was not offended but flattered and glad that I changed the picture in his head that day, even if he really did simply think I looked too young.
These examples and points, then, are the subtext of my first semester teaching – the times when I changed the pictures in my head and others changed the pictures in their heads. They are also the subtext of my year outside of teaching, the time I have spent moving on from the mere survival and mess of late 2006 through late 2009 to the thriving and emergence of a new and improved me throughout 2010. The next year is sure to bring new lessons and more ways to continue on the new and improved path, and while I will undoubtedly falter along the way, I will keep trying.
Happy Holidays to all!