Teaching is Teaching

By Erika Hoffman

At 22, I took the teacher examination, received my certificate and sought a job in public schools. For ten years, I plied my trade in suburban New Jersey; urban Atlanta; and rural North Carolina.

Whether the kids were rich or poor, from educated parents or high school dropouts, white or black, I found certain types in each class: the rebel, the teacher pleaser, the attention grabber, the cynic, the clown and the conscientious learner.

Decades later, I returned to the classroom teaching older adults. My course? “Writing the Personal Essay.” What’s surprised me about this gig? I’ve discovered the exact same types!

Like in yesteryear, that first day I dressed for success, wearing heels and a skirt. I remembered how teens gave teachers the once-over, scrutinizing a pendant’s gemstones or a shirt’s miniature logo while not heeding a word said about homework, grades or exams. I didn’t want to sabotage a first impression by dressing too casually. Yet, when the senior adults sauntered in wearing jeans and sneakers, like teens, I felt I’d overdressed.

To gauge the class, I asked questions. By a show of hands, they’d answer me. I inquired if anyone had ever submitted to Chicken Soup for the Soul or other anthologies. No hands. I asked if anyone had ever been paid for something they’d written. No hands. Had anybody published anything, at all? Of twelve students, one lone palm rose haltingly up. “No money for it,” she said. Next, I urged them to introduce themselves by telling us something about their careers or families and by relating one quirky fact that no one would guess. Some surprised me with answers like: “I do Improv.” Or “I was born in a town called Possum Neck.” After each disclosure, I commented: “Wow!” or “I’d never guess that!” I smilingly gave my rejoinders until one perfectly ordinary woman revealed she was a nudist on weekends, hanging out at nudist camps. “I’d never guess that!” didn’t seem appropriate. My jaw fell open as I nodded, trying not to picture it.

My students were of that age when your mailbox receives multiple warnings from the government about signing up for Medicare. Yet, two, un-creased, fresh faces beamed at me. The fact that they were in their mid- twenties was pretty dang quirky in itself. Both were Asian, married to grad students and taking my class to improve their writing skills. When I told the baby boomers I needed an assistant to take attendance, it was the young Korean gal whose hand shot up.

By the second class, two elders had dropped, including the nudist. I was disappointed. I was certain her tales about tails would be eye-opening.  Because my blurb in the bulletin stated they’d be scribbling their mini-memoirs each week, I didn’t feel bad giving them an assignment that first class, which might have caused the exodus of the two. Caveat emptor! They’d been warned! On the other hand, I felt bewildered adults hadn’t read the curriculum synopsis before plunking down their money. So, I mused once more about how much older folks resemble teens – teens never believe the teacher either when she promises homework!

The third meeting we received a new student, who switched classes because she didn’t like the instructor in the class she’d enrolled in first; I thought, “Uh oh!” When I called out the names of partners I’d paired together to critique each other’s work, she questioned, “Why can’t we choose our own partner?” Like in days of yore, I’d reasons for my pairings. I wasn’t going to place the married couple together nor was I going to put the foreign students together. I’d thought through who could help whom the most and matched them accordingly. Addressing my balking student, I said Sinatra-like, “Because I want to do it my way.”

She persisted, “I am a teacher and…”

I smiled. “I can tell.” Then, I advised it was time for a break, and I exited for a gulp of water. Again, I reminded myself every class has a know-it-all who wants to challenge a teacher’s authority, no matter how aged the mentor and how long-in-the-tooth the trainee!

Each week, I prepared a lesson. Each week, I had them review each other’s work. Each week, I requested they email me their drafts, which I edited and returned with suggestions. As the classes continued, they grew in confidence as writers and grew in their warmth toward me. We jelled as a class with a unified mission after a lesson on humor. Each brought in a column they deemed funny; we laughed as we discussed why it amused us.

I lent them books, like Bird by Bird, On Writing, or Chicken Soup for the Soul’s Inspiration for Writers. Their assignment: To read, analyze and present their findings to the class. Now, they were discussing, participating and having a voice in making the class their own.

Moreover, they were submitting their personal essays to publications.

After ten weeks, my students expressed gratitude for the class, an interest in continuing to write, and a request to keep in touch with me and each other.

My rebel, my class clown, my bucky student, my slacker, my teacher’s pet, my conscientious valedictorian had become part of my life. You cross paths on this temporary strut across the stage, as Willy Shakespeare put it, and sometimes you continue with them like pilgrims on a quest, and other times you part. Yet after learning together, you always take something of that person’s life with you – in your memory, and sometimes they change you. Students may be in a teacher’s debt. Yet, teachers owe them too because a class of eager learners, no matter their age, makes a difference in a teacher’s joie de vivre. Instead of spiraling into one of Dante’s nightmarish circles, she finds a skip in her pedagogical step when en route to an enthusiastic classroom. With the right atmosphere created, learning will take place, satisfaction will occur, and achievement will become a byproduct of the happy situation of the motivating teacher leading a motivated group of all types hitched to the same star.

About this writer

  • Erika Hoffman

    Erika Hoffman

    Erika Hoffman is a wife to one, a best friend to about six or seven, a past teacher to hundreds, a mother to four, a mother-in-law to three, a grandma to four under four, and a writer to thousands – hopefully!

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16 Responses to “Teaching is Teaching”

  1. Rose Ann says:

    Teaching–one of the most difficult but rewarding professions. I’ll bet you are the teacher whose students remember with gratitude and fond memories.

  2. Eileen T Williams says:

    As a retired teacher I recognize your class members. I can remember first days of school standing in front wondering what I would find. I do agree that you give as a teacher, but you also gain from your students. I enjoyed my career and the for the most part the students that I worked with. Thank you for making me remember!

  3. Robert Golden says:

    As a former teacher, I find myself in full agreement with Erika’s comments. Teaching can be the most frustrating but also the most rewarding job in the world. I suspect I got more from my students than they ever got from me, but at least some told me how much I helped them. There isn’t much that is more gratifying than that, as Erika well knows.

  4. Ann says:

    Terrific analysis of classroom types. As a former first grade teacher, I recognized them all. It makes sense that age would not alter them.

  5. Sally Wehmueller says:

    A fun read. Loved the classroom analysis of student personalities. Funny how people never
    change with time and age. I believe that I was all of the classroom types with different teachers.
    How embarrassing.

  6. Dallas Swan says:

    Great story, it made me want to take the class, be a part of the class and expand my horizons, good job Erika Hoffman

  7. Barbara Margolis says:

    As a retired teacher, I also experienced the various types of classroom characters that Erika describes in my classes. I never taught a nudist however (to my knowledge)!

  8. Sally M Moore says:

    Amusing and charming! Erika must be a very good teacher, as well as a good writer!

  9. Theadis Damewood says:

    Erkia, you knocked it out of the park! What a fun article! As a retired teacher, I , too, have had those same types of students. I sometimes wonder what I did for them, but sometimes I hear from my former students and find out I did make a difference, however small it might be. I saw “A Christmas Carol” performance this year and was reminded of the hundreds of times I taught that play over the 31 years. I loved my career. I wish I could take one of your classes!! It would be so enlightening!!

  10. Theadis Damewood says:

    Erkia, you knocked it out of the park! What a fun article! As a retired teacher, I , too, have had those same types of students. I sometimes wonder what I did for them, but sometimes I hear from my former students and find out I did make a difference, however small it might be. I saw “A Christmas Carol” performance this year and was reminded of the hundreds of times I taught that play over the 31 years. I loved my career. I wish I could take one of your classes!! It would be so enlightening!!

  11. margaret says:

    What a fun article! I’m sure we could all see our “type” and have suffered through classes with some of more tiresome ones. Thanks for another fun read!!

  12. Linda O'Connell says:

    Love this one! I taught for almost forty years. Then I offered a memoir writing class to senior adults. I had every student that fit your descriptions!

  13. Claudia M. Frost says:

    So True. I like the idea of the students being the same no matter whether they are teenagers or senior citizens. I’ve found similar characters in churches…..they all have a role to play. If one character leaves or moves away, seems as though that persona shows up again later…It could be a man or woman fulfilling that role in the life of the congregation. different people but same descriptions. Enjoyed your ideas.

  14. Joan Leotta says:

    Really enjoyed this essay!

  15. Ann says:

    I’d love to be in your class, Erika.

  16. Cheri says:

    Teaching is rarely appreciated in the moment, but in hindsight, teachers do make a difference.
    Glad you took the risk to get back involved Erika!
    A good story to inspire others or encourage those already in the field!

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