If I can put aside my oh-so-fragile ego, I can learn a great deal from my students. I am trying to listen more to what they say. One way I am learning from my students is by requiring my first semester freshman English composition students to write a short researched persuasive essay on a topic that is relevant to our college specifically or to one of the communities it serves.
Students can choose from a list of research questions I brainstormed, or they can submit their own questions for approval. Most of the time, the students pick one of my groups of questions. One set that became much more popular during the pandemic has been about online learning:
What is our college doing to help retain online students? Is it enough? Why? or Why not? What are some things that other schools are doing that our college might do to help retain online students? Is our college doing any of these things?
This short summer semester, without any prompting from me, two of my best students chose the same group of questions. After research, including separate personal interviews with the college’s Director of Teaching and Learning, my students argued two different, but similar, theses. Happily, both recognized the students’ role in their own success and offered suggestions for what students could do to help themselves complete online courses with the desired results.
However, one student emphasized the faculty’s role in improving online retention, and the other argued that the administration could take steps to help more students achieve success. I found both viewpoints interesting and insightful.
So, what did I learn?
The two big takeaways–Faculty should interact more with students, and administrators need to lighten instructors loads so that students can do so. Wow! I mean, my students didn’t teach me anything I didn’t know already. I’ve been saying it for years; however, what is new is hearing about the importance of interaction and building a personal relationship from online students themselves, one who has had six semesters of online classes at my institution.
Both students indicated how helpful it is when instructors quickly respond to inquires and return graded material as soon as possible. This is the first time, however, that I have had a student discuss the administration’s responsibility to be sure that faculty do not have an overload.
Their arguments are well-taken.
A case in point was my schedule this summer. I had three classes and a shortened semester of ten weeks instead of sixteen. Since I have been teaching sixteen-week English composition in eight weeks the past couple of years, ten weeks seemed like a summer vacation. With the lighter load, I was not only able to communicate more often and with more detail but also had time to develop my courses and further refine them for our mutual benefit. In addition, I was able to hold more live virtual sessions and record them for the sake of students who could not attend the sessions. Students mentioned how helpful these sessions were.
Both students mentioned the need for proper advisement when students are registering for online classes. Sometimes, they said, students are ill-prepared for the rigor of online classes and may not possess the time-management skills to be successful. I have found that some of my eight-week online students are not even aware that they are taking an accelerated English course and quickly drop out.
One student mentioned in their essay the problem of recruitment taking precedence over retention. This point resonated with me. For example, on more than a few occassions, I have had developmental and other ill-prepared or otherwise weak students placed in my eight-week courses, or even worse, with advising restrictions removed since the pandemic, students are signing themselves up for classes, which can easily lead to misplacement. Most of these students withdraw; the expectations and pace are simply too much.
The hope is that administration will return to advising restrictions, but the lure of classes filled beyond capacity, and the funds that generates, so far seems to be too strong. As long as enrollment numbers are considered above all other considerations, including limiting the number of students in online classes, hiring more instructors, and better preparing them, I, and two of my most talented students, recognize that we will most likely continue to have low retention and success rates in online classes despite the efforts of even the most dedicated and talented faculty.
One of the great joys for any teacher is celebrating the successes of her students. On Saturday, July 9, at Hendersonville Theatre in Hendersonville, NC, I was so happy to attend a reading of my former student’s short play that she wrote while in my creative writing class last spring. It was her last semester, and although she is not planning to study English as she continues her academic career, she told her advisor, my colleague and friend, that she always wanted to be a writer, so my colleague suggested Creative Writing I, a course that I was teaching for the first time as an eight-week course–completely online.
It wasn’t an easy course to teach or to take–fitting in sixteen weeks of material in half the time was going to be a challenge, but my student consistently turned in quality, polished work in all of the genres we studied. About the time we got to the drama unit, I found out that the local community theater was conducting a play reading series to help local playwrights workshop their plays. Then, my student submitted the ten-minute play, “Book Club,” to fulfill the playwriting assignment.
The play was good, very good–it had solid structure, strong characters with distinct voices, humor, and most importantly, something to say about the foibles of our society. Almost on a whim, I suggested that Amber submit the play for the reading series and gave her the information, not really thinking that she would have the time with her busy schedule to submit the play, but a few weeks later, she e-mailed me that her play had been accepted.
So, there I was on that Saturday, in the audience, listening to six fine local actors read my student’s little play and then hearing the audience members–actors, directors, family members, and patrons of the theater offer words of encouragement to the young writer and give suggestions for taking the play further, maybe expanding it. Afterwards, I was able to meet her parents and grandmother who were there in support of her achievement
To make the day even better, my good friend and fellow playwright Pat’s play, “Amanda” was also read. It, too, was a fine play and also featured great actors–A short play about a woman’s whose house cat suddenly and inexplicably miraculously changes form to the great delight and laughter of the audience. Like all good comedies, however, it had its poignant and touching moments as well.
On Wednesday of the next week, Pat and I talked about writing ten-minute plays at the fantastic little watering hole called the Brandy Bar in Hendersonville on historic 7th Avenue for the “In the Company of Writers” series sponsored by the North Carolina Writers’ Network–Henderson County. After sipping on brandy cocktails and listening to some cool, jazzy blues, we read our own little play about writing plays before talking about plays, among other literary things, especially the non-pecuniary value of our art.
It was a great evening in the mid-week after classes to follow a wonderful afternoon on the weekend, spending quality time with writers and immersing myself in one of my great loves–the theater.
I haven’t been writing like I should this summer since I’ve been working. It’s hard to read and analyze student writing all day and then come home and write. However, I do still find the time to read and have enjoyed an eclectic bunch of books.
I read Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren back in early spring–a high-stress time for me like so many educators, so this was a good find, loaned to me by the faculty advisor of our college’s Christian student group. It proved to be a good choice.
Being reminded of the value of appreciating the everyday events in my life and how these moments can become times of meditation and preparation for an increasingly tense working environment was the literary comfort food I needed, like the PB&J sandwich on the cover.
Warren takes us through a typical day with eleven chapters like “Waking,” “Losing Keys,” “Sitting in Traffic,” and “Sleeping.” Each one includes ways to not only appreciate the ordinary but also to find the spiritual force within it.
I especially liked Chapter 7: Checking Email because it discusses the value in our everyday work lives. One of the frustrations after almost 30 years of teaching is the sameness of my work. I still find joy in teaching, but I must admit to growing weary of answering so many of the same questions, marking the same errors over and over again.
Gratefully, my students do improve, but too soon they move on, and a whole new batch come in who need the same instruction. I’m not blaming them or anybody–nature of the beast. I’m just getting kinda sick of it, you know? I know, I know, I need to retire, and I’m going to–soon, but I don’t want to simply survive this upcoming year; I want to be a good, compassionate, not-burned-out composition teacher.
Having read this book will help me.
I also liked the chapter called Making the Bed. I hate to admit it, but for a long time, even though my mama taught me better, I wasn’t making up the bed. Then, I read this book about forming good habits (I blogged about it), and I started making my bed each morning. In the years since then, I’ve rarely missed a day, and it has indeed helped me to appreciate the value of routine–and the joy of it, even. Making the bed, preparing my desk for work, cooking, so many things I am finding pleasure in again.
Being 62 may have something to do with it.
For example, the opening chapter of Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca begins with the unnamed protagonist describing her quiet life now that all the drama is over, and she is far away from Manderly, the sprawling estate that she and her husband Max had loved so dearly:
“In reality I lay many hundred miles away in an alien land, and would wake, before many seconds had passed, in the bare little hotel bedroom, comforting in its very lack of atmosphere. I would sigh a moment, stretch myself and turn, and opening my eyes, be bewildered at that glittering sun, that hard, clean sky, so different from the soft moonlight of my dream. The day would lie before us both, long no doubt, and uneventful, but fraught with a certain stillness, a dear tranquillity we had not known before.”
I remember thinking when I was a girl and reading Rebecca for the first time how utterly boring it must have been and had no idea how an uneventful day “fraught with a certain stillness” could possibly be either dear or tranquil.
Now, I understand, and reading Warren’s book just solidified that understanding. She writes: “Without realizing it, I had slowly built a habit: a steady resistance to and dread of boredom.”
That’s it. That’s what I had been doing.
Now, I can’t say that I welcome boredom, but I am learning how to make peace with it and use it more as “me” time. Sometimes, I, a person who in the past always had to be doing something and “feeling productive,” just sit on the front deck with a cold beverage and (gasp) think!
It’s becoming my liturgy, but you know, it’s not really ordinary at all.
I’m behind keeping up with my summer loves, especially reading and writing, because I’m working this summer. It’s not too bad a gig–Monday through Thursday schedule, three classes instead of five or six, ten weeks instead of sixteen with a two-week vacation at the end. I can handle it this summer and the next because I have something to look forward to–permanent summer break.
Yes, retirement begins on August 1, 2023. I’m a little excited. Can you tell?
In the meantime, I make the best of things in my temporary office in the library at our college as we await the final touches being put on the new multi-million dollar building that replaces two of the oldest buildings on campus. One of those buildings was my work home for 26 years, so as the building is being torn down, I admit I have become nostalgic. Who wouldn’t?
However, I am not too sorry to see it go. It served us all well over the years, but it was built during a different time and doesn’t meet the needs of a 21st-century student body or its faculty. My students being able to access the WI-FI from my office will be a nice change. I hear the adjustable stand-up desks are really rad as well. Do people still say “rad”?
So, I watch the goings-on across the lake, answer numerous messages and emails, occasionally chat with colleagues, teach one small seated class, and grade, grade, grade the assignments and essays of my mere 43 composition and developmental students. During regular semesters, English faculty usually teach six classes and have 100 or more students. To earn an overload, an instructor must have over 110 students or more than six courses, so this “leisurely” pace helps a little.
Despite the tedious nature of grading essays, I know from long experience that working directly with student writing through grading and conferencing and therefore establishing a relationship with students as individuals is the most important work I do as a composition teacher. I do not think there is any substitute for it.
Hence the dilemma.
The demand for English instructors to deliver online instruction is higher than ever, but course loads that already did not consider how much time an English professor needs to deliver meaningful writing instruction online have not been altered to reflect the nature of effective andragogy in the English classroom and how it has been affected by the increasing number of online students.
In addition, the number of students desiring accelerated online English instruction has increased. If you take the already heavy grading load of a 16-week semester and cut it in half, something’s got to give. Often times that is the student, who may or may not have been advised that the course must cover 16 weeks of material in 8 weeks’ time.
Currently, I am the only instructor at my institution who is crazy enough to attempt teaching eight-week online freshman composition classes. I must say, now that I have taught them for several semesters, the accelerated classes work extremely well for a certain type of student, especially those who are working towards degrees to gain a promotion at work. Highly motivated students like those in our pre-nursing, emergency medical services, and law-enforcement programs also tend to do well.
Students who are not good candidates for online learning, are not prepared for the workload, are not willing to make changes to their schedules to make room for the extra time they will need to spend, or those who do not manage their time well, along with those who are weak students or writers in general, simply should not take the accelerated course.
But they do.
So what is an English teacher who cares about learning for ALL students, whether they should be there or not, supposed to do? Furthermore, what does an instructor do if she wants to infuse her own personality into her course and resists the impersonal “canned” classes that so often do not fit her institution’s student body and do not help build the vital personal relationships that are required for good teaching of any kind?
Find a way.
With all that extra time (guffaw) I have this summer, I am continuing to make changes in hopes that the Mad English Person who, after my retirement, steps into the perilous land of acceleration will have an easier time of it. Here are a few things I have done and am doing to help that poor soul:
Adding lessons–In my learning management system (LMS), I can create multi-media lessons that help guide the students through the essential material. My own simple questions can be embedded throughout each lesson that is automatically graded by the computer, allowing an easy low-stakes grade for the student and zero work for me. Of course, I must take considerable time to build the lessons, but remember, I have all that extra time this summer.
Early in the course, assigning paragraphs instead of full-length essays–Having students write paragraphs of seven to ten sentences instead of full essays has been a game-changer. I can still teach multiple rhetorical modes as required by the state, including illustration, process analysis, classification, and definition, but now I have more time to focus on the basic elements of any good writing–thesis, support, conclusion, organization, transitions, sentence structure, diction, grammar, and mechanics. In addition, I can grade closely without overwhelming the students. My constructive criticism seems easier for them to digest. Best of all–it’s doable for even the weakest of my students.
Fewer and shorter essays–Beyond a doubt, less is more. In an accelerated class, I must limit what students write for both our sakes, but I have found that the writing is stronger because I have more preliminary work leading up to the final draft that is low stakes for them and little work for me. Win. Win.
Require rough drafts but give little direct feedback. If one of the learning objectives is for students to revise and edit more effectively, why in the world am I going to revise and edit for them? How does that help anybody learn? I am handicapping students if I give too much feedback on a rough draft. I require them because they help students with time management, and I have an earlier draft to judge students’ revising and editing skills. Because I give mainly completion grades for drafts (and make sure students are aware of this), there is little work for me.
Line editing less–In the “old” days, I felt like I owed it to students to mark every single error I could find. No more. I save time, energy, and my sanity, by line editing the first paragraph of an essay, and then marking and making comments occasionally after that. I used to spend 45 minutes to an hour grading one researched essay, but now I can effectively grade one in half that time.
Make use of the LMS advanced grading system–I am not a fan of Turnitin (subject for another day), and I’m too close to retirement to want to pursue a change in our relationship, but I do make use of the LMS’s built-in advanced grading system. I can easily build new rubrics and checklists. I also have access to a “quicklist” when I am marking an essay. I choose from a long, long drop-down menu of common comments. Over the years, I have added links to webpages that give students more information or offer exercises to help them with various writing issues. It has really helped me save time.
Adding more required online sessions and conferences–I am able to record the sessions, so even though few students can attend live, one or two usually do, and the other students are required to view the sessions. Logs on the computer allow me to verify if the student downloaded and viewed the recording. The conferences are even better because I can speak in person to each student, which helps to form those all-important relationships between us through discussing the student’s writing and listening to their concerns.
I may be old and worn out, and some people can’t seem to wait to put me out to pasture, but I’ve been at this work a long time, and I am not afraid to say it–I’m damn good at it. I know what works, and letting some AI, no matter how sophisticated, do the instruction, may lead to better data in the short term, but it won’t lead to better writing–only holding students to a standard, then compassionately working directly with them and their writing can achieve that.
The last time I wrote a blog post was back on April 9, so it is high time I write another. I suppose.
I’m not sure what writing this blog means to me anymore. No one is forcing me to do it. I rather think there may be some who would be perfectly happy if I never wrote another word. Ah, who am I kidding? Mrs. Winkler, do not think of yourself more highly than you ought. I mean, what are you doing? You muse and mutter about this life work you do that may be important to you and possibly to some of your students but the essence of which seems to be of little importance to the “people who count,” those who seem to measure success through the uptick of certain numbers and the downward trend of others.
But enough of this muttering, I say to myself. Buck up, Buttercup! You aren’t long for the world of decreasing academic freedom and shrinking shared governance. You, my dear Mrs. Winkler, are bound for retirement!! Ah, yes, many blissful days with absolutely no grading of freshmen essays laden with 1st and 2nd person pronouns, unnecessary repetition, and comma splices. You will only write and read what you wish as you sit on the front deck with your feet propped up, a cup of steaming coffee or glass of iced tea in your hand. Your daughter will give you more and more gift books like The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows to fill the lazy days. And you will like it very much.
How’s that for a segue into my next book review?
Yes, for Christmas, my daughter gave me this unusual, incredible book called The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig. She had a hard time finding a copy when she went Christmas shopping because she considers the book more like poetry or creative non-fiction than anything else. She found it finally in the reference section of the bookstore. Someone with a literal mind shelved it there, I suppose.
The book is as hard to describe as it was for her to find. It is indeed a dictionary because it has a series of words along with their parts of speech, definitions, and etymologies, but that is about all this book has in common with a dictionary. The invented or reinterpreted words are not in alphabetical order, but they are separated into categories that are equally as obscure as the words, such as “Between Living and Dreaming” (1) and “Montage of Attractions” (81)
Each entry defines a word that describes an emotion, feeling, or action that eludes denotation, but somehow, the author, through his poetic prose, puts words to what seems undefinable. Following each definition is the word’s etymology, so clever and accurate that it leaves readers nodding their heads and saying, “Yeah, that’s right. I know that feeling.”
Some of the definitions are short but others, my favorites, are essay length, often accompanied by a photograph or some other illustration. One of my favorite examples is the definition of Lumus, which comes from the Latin lumen, meaning light or brightness and humus–dark, rich soil. The brief definition of the word is “the poignant humanness beneath the spectacle of society” (127).
Pretty obscure, right? Until Koenig writes about what it means–to get away from society’s expectations and rediscover our humanity only to be swept back up into the rat race again. Then, his meaning becomes clear: “We know it’s all so silly and meaningless, and yet we’re still here, holding our breath together, waiting to see what happens next. And tomorrow, we’ll put ourselves out there and do it all again. The show must go on” (129)
Yeah, I say. That’s right. I know that feeling.
I know it right now. And am inspired to write my own word to name this current malaise.
The word is Meloncholied, which comes from the German Melancholie (melancholy)+Lied (song)
And so goes the old teacher’s song:
I’m not sure I even know what it is I do anymore. It seems like more and more, pardon the sports metaphor, I’m playing some evasive game with definite, elusive rules that are only made clear once they are broken and penalties are imposed. How do I score if I don’t know where the goal line, post, net, or basket is?
And the chorus:
You are simply more trouble than you are worth, Mrs. Winkler. We won’t even bother trying to rein you in since your pasture has been seeded and will soon sprout its winter grass. But these young content experts, whose subject knowledge exceeds that of anyone else at our college, whose enthusiasm for teaching has not been beaten down by political pandering and bureaucratic busyness, let’s pour all our condescension and patronizing onto them while we passively aggressively work on the lowering of the industry standards we claim to uphold.
Oh, the blessed “and yet” — the turn of my sonnet–the sestet to the glum octave.
And yet, there is hope. Our educational felix culpa. It is coming. It is. I don’t know if I will live to see it, but the fire is coming that will burn down all of these false constructs that have plagued the educational institutions of our country for so long. After the destruction, we can build anew and again lay a foundation of learning for learning’s sake.
That is my hope anyway.
Therefore, despite feeling lost at times in this specious world, where upholding academic standards for the eventual betterment of students’ lives and society at large is no longer the apparent goal of our colleges and universities, I am nevertheless optimistic about the future of higher education in America. A dread, mixed with excitement is growing in me as I sense that we are on the cusp of major change–painful, soul-wrenching, horrible, miraculous, life-giving change.
For that, I wait.
And tomorrow I teach.
Koenig, John. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. Simon & Schuster, 2021.
Once again, I thank all of the fine contributors to this edition. I am so very grateful to them for entrusting me with their work.
I know I give myself so much more to do by publishing this journal, and my teaching, writing, and editing deadlines often collide, but I love editing Teach. Write. It allows me to be autonomous in my creativity. I don’t have to please anyone except myself in the end.
But, of course, I do hope this edition pleases you, too.
Here is the link to the online version if you missed it!
I am happy to present the Spring~Summer 2022 edition of Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal. It continues to amaze me how things come together despite my fumbling and failing in the midst of all the planning, teaching, and grading, grading, grading. Oh, my, the grading.
Don’t get me wrong. I still love my work, but editing my fellow writers’ stories, poems, and essays isn’t the same. These writers have made the process a joy–a source of pleasure and relief from the daily routine of over 30 years. I only hope that my efforts do justice to my contributors’ work.
So here it is! Enjoy! And thank you so much, dear contributors!
FYI–A link where those who are interested can purchase a print version will be available soon, usually takes me about a week.
Unfortunately, this is not an April Fool’s Day message.
I have been working hard on the Spring~Summer 2022 edition of Teach. Write.. However, the journal is a one-woman show, and this woman is a full-time composition instructor at a community college. My first obligations are to my students and the college, so although the journal is near completion, I need the weekend to concentrate on the final edit before I feel it is ready to see the light of day. Therefore, the new expected publication date is Monday, April 4. I apologize for the delay.
Episode 13 of my podel (podcasted novel) is now available. Why not take a listen to it and the other twelve as well? I hope it won’t be so long between episodes again. Episode 13: Mrs. Whittakers 7,360th Class
I stated in my last blog that I would review the book my daughter gave me for Christmas, but I’m going to put that off. Recent events at work have caused me to revisit some “teachable moments” in my past that have shaped me as an educator and a human. But come back for the review. The Dictionary of ObscureSorrows is a little book packed full of wistful wisdom.
And now, here’s a little bit more about Mrs. Winkler back when she was Ms. Whitlock.
I was born in 1960, towards the end of the Baby Boomer generation. Kinda awkward I’m finding, especially as a woman. Unlike some women born in the ’40s and ’50s, I inherited some of the privileges that had been denied them but still had, and have, a long way to go, baby.
At least I could open a bank account.
Yes, that’s right.
Writing for the financial website Spiral, LeBach Pham writes that although women had been financiers in America throughout its history, it was not until the ’60s that banks could no longer legally keep a woman from opening an account. (Pham). I was 14 when women obtained the right to open a credit card account or to take out a mortgage on their own thanks to the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, although I wasn’t ready to have a credit card until I was well into my 20’s.
I suppose in my early years, I took for granted some of the privileges that many women, especially college-educated women, had fought so hard for. Part of the reason, I suppose, is because my wonderful parents were both fierce supporters of education. I remember one of my favorite family pictures before my younger brother was born is my father, smiling, seated in the middle of the picture with me, the youngest at the time, about two or three I think, on his knee, then, my gap-toothed brother and my sister, the oldest, standing on either side of him. Behind my father, arms reaching out and resting on her children’s shoulders as if to cover her whole family, is my mother, in her full regalia, having just graduated with her BA in English from Auburn University.
After graduating from Lanett High School in Lanett, AL, my mother, who wanted to see a bit more of the world than the little cotton mill town where she was widely known as the principal’s daughter, headed out to Shawnee, OK, to attend Oklahoma Baptist University. For her day, it was a bold move, I think, to attend a university over 800 miles west of her protective home.
My mother tells the story of how she arrived by train that first year and walked with her bag toward the campus to see it covered in black. As she got closer she realized what she was seeing a giant swarm of locusts. Big black and gold locusts. She said she couldn’t move without stepping on one. I couldn’t imagine anyone staying after that introduction, but mom did and went back the next year, even after falling in love with my dad, whom she had known all through school but never dated until that summer after her first year in college.
She had promised my grandparents she would go back one more year and she did. But it wasn’t until after marriage and the birth of her first three children that my mother finished her degree at Auburn University, with my dad’s full support and encouragement
I remember going far away from home, too, when I was right out of undergraduate school. I went to Oral Roberts University during the 900-foot Jesus years. You had to be there. Nevertheless, I feel I got a good education at ORU. Yes, I had to take a course called Holy Spirit in the Now, but I also took Survey of the Old Testament and Survey of the New Testament. Those two courses have served me well as a student and teacher of literature, especially at a community college in the buckle of the Bible belt.
My first teaching assignment was at a small church-affiliated school in Aliquippa, PA, outside of Pittsburg. Until I was flown up to the school for an interview, I had never been anywhere near Pittsburg, had no relatives there, and knew no one, but, just like my mother, I saw it all as a grand adventure. The school was small, and I taught three levels of English and two levels of German.
Turned out it was rather out of the mainstream theologically, but I did not become aware of this until after I took the job, even though I asked specifically about the church’s and school’s doctrine during the interviews. For example, although I had hauled all my German Christmas materials with me and moved them into my little attic apartment, I wasn’t able to use them because the church was vehemently anti-Catholic and did not believe in practicing any of the “pagan” holidays, so I just kept my copies of “Stille Nacht” in my files at home.
At the very first faculty meeting I attended, soon after I was introduced, our principal announced that he wanted all of the teachers to incorporate into our curriculum the support of prayer in public schools. He looked at me and the one other English teacher and said, “You will have your students write letters to their congressmen in support of prayer in schools. I will give you a sample letter I want them to follow”
Without hesitation, I said, “No, I won’t be able to do that.” He looked shocked. I looked around the room and the other teachers, especially the women, seemed shocked as well. I felt that I needed to explain. “I will discuss writing persuasive letters to our congressmen and create an assignment, but I want my students to write about the issues that are important to them and formulate their own letters.”
Everyone seemed still surprised.
“Of course, if they want to write and send letters to their congressmen about prayer in schools, then I will assist them in editing the letters, but I can’t require them to write those letters.”
A silence that spelled trouble for me from then on.
And yet, several of my fellow teachers, all women, came up to me after that faculty meeting and thanked me. They called me brave. It was my turn to be surprised. I didn’t feel particularly brave, just strong in my convictions that teaching writing didn’t have anything to do with religion or politics, no matter where I was teaching.
I remember speaking up again a few months later when I found out that the single male music teacher was making more money than I was. He had let it slip when he was hitting on me. I was appalled (at both) He had less education, fewer responsibilities–I had five preps in two disciplines, morning duty, lunchroom and afternoon duty as well as serving as assistant soccer coach and theater director. He had his classes, four I think, including band and choir practice.
I marched down to the principal’s office and just asked him–Why is so-and-so making more money than me? The answer–“Some day he will have a family to provide for.”
My turn to be shocked.
I may have been able to open a bank account when I taught in PA at that small private school, but I certainly didn’t make much money to put into one.
I did go back another year, believe it or not, partly because I had been promised a raise (although it never materialized), and partly because I had a long talk with my very wise daddy who had seen growth in me that first year and just felt I should go back. He wasn’t sure why. Always trust the instincts of someone who loves you, I thought then and still do. But the biggest reason I went back was pure orneriness, I reckon. Yeah, I thought, you fellers are going to have to deal with an uppity southern woman one more year.
At the end of that year, after I faced the fact that I couldn’t afford to live on the salary I was making, I began to enjoy the fruits of my labors. I started dating, Mr. Winkler–the best man that I know and as wise as my sweet daddy.
I came back South to get my second degree at Auburn University. Mr. Winkler, followed me down South a year later, and after I finished my degree and started working for Floyd County Schools in Rome, GA, I became Mrs. Winkler and have never regretted it one bit almost thirty-three years later.
However, while I was still Ms. Whitlock, teaching English and German at two high schools in the county, I still felt that “in-between” feeling, although I did enjoy some privileges denied me at the private school –being paid on a state teaching salary schedule at least. This meant I was supposed to be paid as much as a man, but I noticed that most of the male teachers also had paid coaching positions at the school, while I was assigned assistant soccer coach as one of my regular duties–no extra paycheck came with that.
But, I was making a decent salary at least, enough to even open a credit card account and take out my first loan to buy a new car. This time the inequities were more subtle, but very much there. For example, at one of the high schools where I taught, I had the star football player in my class–he was the kicker for the team. Now, I am no football expert, but my father had played football for Auburn and been a football coach so I knew enough to know, after watching a couple of games, that this kid was, well, not very good.
However, he and the administration felt differently about his abilities I guess.
One day in class, the students were working on an assignment, and I looked up to see that our star football player was putting a small paper cup under his desk. I walked toward him, and the cup fell over, spilling out a disgusting black liquid. Tobacco usage of any kind, including chew, even in that rural part of a Georgia county, was strictly forbidden; the faculty had been strongly reminded of that in a recent memo from the principal. So, I called the kid on it. He claimed it wasn’t his cup. “I saw you put the cup under your desk,” I said and wrote him up for detention.
Later that day, I was summoned to the principal’s office. The principal had barely spoken to me before that day. “You’re new here,” he said, “so you may not know that so-and-so is our starting kicker and an important member of the team.”
“Oh, I’m aware that he’s on the team, but I saw him put a cup full of tobacco spit under the desk. It fell over, and he refused to clean it up, so I wrote him up for a detention.”
“Did you actually see so-and-so spit in the cup?”
“No, I suppose I didn’t.”
“He says he didn’t spit in that cup. That he was covering for his buddy.” I tried to continue my argument but was cut short. The principal said, “I’m going to rescind this detention because you didn’t actually see so-and-so spit in the cup, and if he gets one more detention, he will have to sit out a game, and he’s too important to the team.”
I knew it would be better for me to say nothing, and I knew it probably would do no good at all to say anything, but just like in PA, I couldn’t help it, I spoke out. “Okay, I suppose you are going to do this no matter what I think, but I will tell you that word is going to get around quickly that I have no authority in my own classroom, and I am going to have more and more trouble.”
That my prediction came true has never given me any comfort.
And yet, over thirty years later, I am still speaking out about the dangers of administrators ignoring the ramifications of taking authority away from the teacher in the classroom. I’m still predicting how that loss of authority is chipping away at the academic integrity of our schools, colleges, and universities.
But who am I? A little, mouthy Southern woman–just another boomer on the verge of retirement.