I’ve been in Atlanta all week attending an AP Institute. This training is for a new class I am teaching next year, and the subject- Language and Composition – is my favorite strand of the English curriculum. I’ve been looking forward to this week for a few months and I expected it to be interesting, intellectually stimulating, and fun. It was.
It was also challenging and humbling. I walked into a roomful of strangers Monday morning at 8:00, many of whom had more education and teaching experience than I, though they are younger people. At noon, four hours into knowing these people, we headed to the cafeteria on the campus where our training was held. I thought of my freshman students who every year write about the social terrors of the lunchroom the first week of high school. As I filled my water glass while trying to balance my plate, I wondered where I was going to sit, which table would have a space for me. I felt my freshmen’s pain.
Without realizing initially what was happening to me, I was being put through the paces my students go through each time they start a new class at a new level. Our instructor, Valerie Stevenson of San Diego, CA, a master teacher, wasn’t about to just show us course material and how to construct a syllabus for this class. Oh no! She had us taking the sample multiple choice test, writing a synthesis essay, a rhetorical analysis, and an argument. If that wasn’t enough, she handed us sample student papers, instructed us in the scoring guide, and told us to score them “the AP way.” My first attempt at that was unnerving. Let’s just say I didn’t have a clue what I was doing and it showed the next morning when I brought my homework to class.
When I whispered to her during the break that I had given the “9” paper a “5” and that I felt I might not be cut out for this work, she laughed. “So you are not good at it yet,” she said. She and I had previously discussed Carol Dweck’s The Growth Mindset, required summer reading for teachers at my school and on Valerie’s recommended resources list. I’d read that book last fall thinking about all the parents I knew who should rear their children to have this ‘growth mindset’ instead of instantly thinking they should make A’s in everything from the beginning of a course. I’d read that book with my nose in the air, never once seeing myself as that student. “I bet you were that student who was usually good at things the first time and when you hit something hard, you lost confidence and backed away,” Valerie said. Bingo! Ouch! Was this woman a psychologist, too?
“It’s the growth mindset,” she said. “You’ll get better with practice. Can you see, now that I have explained it, why it was a 9?” I answered ‘Yes’. “Then you are going to be fine,” she said, “If you are seeing, then you are learning.” She was so breezily confident in me and unworried about my future in her profession that I decided maybe I was taking myself and my performance in the moment entirely too seriously. Then she went on to confess that she made a “D” in seventh grade English. This woman, this master teacher who has made a name for herself across the country as an English teacher and AP Consultant, made a D in seventh grade English. Another teacher standing nearby, a seasoned AP teacher attending her second institute as a refresher course, confessed to failing Freshman Comp as a college freshman. Carol Dweck’s book was standing in front of me.
I’d bought into Dweck’s arguments when I read it, but I hadn’t really experienced it personally in recent memory. I’d used the concepts with my students, ninth graders beginning high school, repeatedly telling them it was OK not to be good at something the first time you try. I had not put myself into a situation where that was possible.
Empathy and humility. Who doesn’t want to have those virtues? Yet acquiring them is another thing entirely. We don’t just ‘muster up’ humility or empathize by an act of our wills. Rather, these qualities are worked into us as human beings by the circumstances of our lives. At every turn, though, we will unconsciously avoid the very situations designed to make us humble and empathetic creatures because the situations are uncomfortable and unpleasant.
My ‘going back to school’ this week met my expectations as interesting, intellectually stimulating and fun. It exceeded my expectations by being challenging, and humbling. I’m practicing to become a good AP Lang teacher and grader and more importantly, an empathetic teacher and human being. I can see it; but as Valerie said, “Not yet.”