When I am not immersed in my corporate career, I teach college-level composition, literature, and creative writing courses, and have done so for the past 11 years. I take it seriously. Teaching is an opportunity for me to be innovative – one has to be to get twenty-five or so 18 to 22 year olds excited and invested at 8 am. The first class of each semester, I confess to my students that I teach because I love it – because I want to be there, in the classroom, with them. When I tell them that I have a corporate gig, that the minute class ends I need to dash to my other life, they are a bit perplexed. Why would anyone want to teach? To them, if I earn a living, why would I choose to spend a few hours a week in a classroom? By mid-semester, the majority of them get it – and get me as well – and I would dare to say that many of them enjoy the time we spend together. I am clear from the get-go that I want to help them, that their success matters to me, and more than that, that we, society, are indebted to their success, as they are our future leaders.
For anyone who has taught, perhaps you will agree that a classroom is a world unto itself. In an ideal situation, it is an atmosphere in which ideas bloom, comprehension occurs, and truths are exchanged. Sometimes, though, in reality, it’s a bit of mayhem. But I persevere in my goal to share what I believe are the two key components for their future success: the ability to employ critical thinking, and to be an effective communicator. I provide endless examples that writing clearly, effectively, learning to use words and language as a way to get others to hear them, see them, know them, is possibly one of the most valuable skills they will ever possess. Many of them don’t like to write; papers are a drag; they get writer’s block. The reason that writing is so difficult, I often tell them, is because before you can write clearly, you have to think clearly, which requires turning off all other stimuli and tuning in to one’s thoughts , feelings, desires, and dreams.
Which brings us to critical thinking: the ability to gather and assess relevant information and to explore meaning – to ask oneself why? As in, why do I feel this way? Why do I think this way? Why do I believe this? Why do I care, or not? I strive to instill in students an accountability factor, which requires introspection and self-awareness. If they don’t like something, if they love something, if something makes them feel uncomfortable, they need to be able to communicate why, how, when it all started. If we discuss a current events topic or read a short story and it gets the thumbs up or down, my students can’t get away with bland it’s okay, or I don’t care– they need to explain and communicate how something makes them feel and ponder why it made them feel that way. Critical thinking is a critical skill and it takes time to excel in it. Asking why leads to unwinding their thoughts, which requires pausing and breaking things down, which often results in clarity and understanding.
I promise my students that learning how to think critically will rescue them from why me syndrome – sometimes known as nothing ever works out for me syndrome, which is the inevitable result of not taking stock of one’s life, not paying attention, going with the flow, following others. If they learn to ask themselves why throughout each day, then at least they will be aware of what is going on in their lives, which is the first step to taking charge, to making changes. Once students do gain clarity regarding their emotions, thoughts, actions, and patterns, an amazing thing happens: they begin to think more clearly and their words, the endless papers I get to read, are full of meaning, depth, ideas, and truth. I challenge them to write about topics that are interesting to them, that they wish to explore and learn about, and a shift begins—suddenly, their creativity emerges and they begin to unearth their own unique voices.
What I don’t tell my students is that I teach because I like to laugh and have fun. No matter what mood I am in on a given day, the angst I sometimes have of all that needs to get done ASAP in my corporate life, the minute those students walk in to the classroom, each of them a world unto themselves, I feel happy, excited to have intersected their paths. I am thrilled to be there with them and to get to share life with them for that brief span of morning. I love to see the world through their eyes, which to me, is a window into the present, a promise of the future – our future. Teaching is a chance for me to connect, create meaning, inspire, share, help these young minds to question and wonder and steer them, however slightly, in their journey. The rewards of teaching are endless, but most of all, it reminds me that I am a perpetual student as I plunge forward in my own career path.