The month of June has been the roller coaster ride from hell – filled with extremes – that have left me off balance and out of sorts. It began on a high note with my first-ever THATCamp (every techno-teacher-geek dream) and rolled directly into a blizzard of non-stop National Writing Project action including our traditional Summer Institute and our second Online Summer Institute peppered with some Google+ NWP Community activity.
The second week in June the fun ratcheted up with our fourth Summer Writing Camp which is the ultimate in fun to watch for the techno-teacher-geek and the joy heightened as I watched teachers (off- and on-line) tap into their writing veins and share those triumphant, heart-wrenching, soul-searching lines of poetry and prose. Each day was threaded with shining ribbons of conversation, debate, and insight about writing and teaching and teaching writing as teachers collaborated on lessons and shared their finely crafted tools they pulled from their battered teaching boxes.
I was in heaven watching my teacher leaders execute their finely choreographed dances – sometimes performing front and center and other times shuffling backstage to push others into the spotlight or to join the chorus line. This wonderful mixture of writing, teaching, leadership, and celebrating writers of all ages is why I love this work and the month of June especially when the work of our site comes together into these amazing programs.
But in the midst of this joyous celebration of technology and teaching with writing always at the center, it happened – for the first time in my post-secondary career which spans more than a dozen years – a student filed a grievance against me. The student accused me of grading malfeasance and just plain being mean.
I was stricken and felt naked and exposed as I feared my entire career had been called into question. I feared having to defend not only the grade the student had earned but every pedagogical choice I had made that semester. I spent agonizing hours collected evidence (emails, Blackboard posts and reports, etc.) and framing my response. The next two weeks were marred by sleepless nights, headaches, and a never-ending twisting in my gut.
There were still days filled with amazing NWP activities as teachers discovered and explored hidden corners of their soul and young writers blogged, created, and discovered the joy of writing unmarred by any hint of an on-demand prompt. There was the miraculous day when I sat with my teachers listening to the master storyteller George Ella Lyon tell the story behind her books (we heard about Which Side Are You On and Mother To Tigers in different sessions) while our writing campers (including my 12-year-old son) asked questions and heard from a real writer about the joys and challenges of writing.
But always there was the nagging toothache reminding me that I was a failure. I felt like Charlie Brown’s friend Pigpen. Only I wasn’t enveloped in a cloud of dust, but rather a cloud of failure. Finally, after two weeks of self-torture I read Kate Roberts’ blog post “On Having Faith” and realized that this one student’s twisted version of her experience in my class is not an accurate reflection. Up until the moment this student filed the grievance I had believed that class was perhaps the most successful (certainly in the top three) of my career. It was not perfect but student evaluations confirm my belief that we had built a community, that my students grew as writers, and that my students had become more reflective and self-regulating writers and learners. The tools and strategies I used to engage and inspire my students worked and I heard from many that they enjoyed a class that they had only taken to fulfill a requirement.
Kate Roberts writes that teaching is a lesson in having faith. While she is speaking primarily about faith in our students and the teaching/learning process, I think it is important for us all to remember to have faith in ourselves as educators. It took some work to wrench myself out of my well of self-pity to remember that there are far more reasons to have faith in myself as a teacher than this one failure. I don’t expect to see a happy ending to my story like the one Kate experienced. My student has cast me in the role of villain and I doubt will ever take responsibility for individual actions (especially as that student did not spend enough time engaging in the class to be an accurate judge now or in the future). But the other students who did engage feel differently about themselves as writers. I can’t see the change in all of them and in most cases I can’t even see the change in their writing, but I have faith it is there. And so now I can return to my final week of Summer Institute activities with a lighter (if slightly bruised) heart without worrying that my cloud of failure will taint the other teachers. Every class we design, every lesson we teach, every piece of feedback we give is an act of faith. Even when fate takes us on a gravity-defying roller coaster ride, we have to have faith that in the end we will make a difference.