To myself and others, they are fire carrying legends: Ms. Jindra, Mr. Tempe, Mrs. Ignatiev, Ms. Berterello, Mr. Streff, Dr. Klemp, and Prof. Gemin. All of them had a hand in bestowing me the fire of writing. Each of them a different style, each of them the same passion. They were students as well as teachers, humbling themselves when they learned something new, or talking to students like they were seasoned colleagues.When we were students, someone gave us fire. Someone granted us access to new information. A new tool. A new philosophy. A new author. At that moment in life we felt what the Ancient Greeks felt when Prometheus handed them fire. Inspired, confident, focused. Most importantly, we felt the same passion and will never forget that teacher, mentor, friend. And every moment we invest our passion into our teaching, we contribute to our students’ dreams, and continue to stoke the fires of our mentors’ legacies. We, as teachers, wield this passion when we cross the threshold of our classroom for the first time.
On the first day, like an Olympic torch carrier, I am energized and excited, sharing with students my passion for literature. Whether I read aloud Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal to a rhetoric/composition class, an excerpt from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead to a literature class, or poetic and prose examples to a creative writing class, I like to find something engaging, entertaining, and accessible for the students, speaking curiosity and intrigue. The combination of creating clear guidelines and performing allows the students to see that they can construct the box, then immediately color outside the lines.
To create that box I establish clear, high, and reasonable expectations to help focus the class and provide consistency to the course. My syllabus contains clear information and major assignment deadlines for reference. Each supporting assignment hand-out always has course objectives and specific instructions. Policies, whether assignment, attendance, or grading, are fair, and have enough permeability to deal with exceptional situations. Upon covering the syllabus I even take time to explain some of my personal methodology to them, to demystify my role as teacher.
This fire is built weeks before that first day. It starts out as quiet study, planning out materials, assignments, and readings for the semester. At every institution I make time to be aware of departmental and university guidelines concerning the specific course I am teaching and form my learning objectives to meet those needs. I also talk with instructional peers about the student aggregate to gain a general idea of some potential, regular occurrences. Yet, I stay firm, regardless of any norms of student culture, and ensure my classroom is a safe space for learning where all students, regardless of experience or ability, have the opportunity to excel.
Of course, carrying the torch of passion requires a marathon mentality as well. The first day can set the tone of the semester, yet a positive and flexible attitude helps stay the course. My ability to manage time efficiently along with adapting to sudden shifts in classroom abilities is aided by self-constructed teaching tools. I create weekly ‘plus one’ lesson plans to enable me to work with current class challenges and be prepped through the weekend (since I also plan for the first class of the next week). Keeping track of those weeks on a spreadsheet also allows me to map out what has been covered and where to head next. As a visual learner, seeing the week at a glance also ensures I will balance lecture, discussion, and activity.
Running back from Mt. Olympus isn’t easy, and along the way, any educator must deal with obstacles which can occur. The class discussion that crawls. Attendance conflicts. Homework quality lags. As a fire carrier I must make sure to recognize when something’s not working and be mentally ready to change course. I utilize the review and grading of papers to assess what the class does not ‘get’ or struggled to achieve. I stagger different stages of the major writing assignments to allow plenty of class time to review and remind students of assignment guidelines and focus on the specific areas the class struggles to attain. I must remain humble during this assessment and willing to make changes. I mix this humility with a combination of informal in-class and official university evaluations. Working with the students, I inform them that assessment can empower them to be honest with constructive criticism.
The exchange of ongoing feedback is essential to keep the fire burning within the classroom. I return graded papers within a reasonable turnaround so students are aware of their academic progress throughout the semester. I assign routine assignments, like daily written responses, to create an opportunity for me to check in with them one on one. My feedback on smaller, building block assignments (outlines, rough drafts) provides a balance of praise and suggestion. Weeks before a major assignment is due students see a rubric, allowing them to ask questions and ensure that I have covered all that is required. While the current Millennial generation tends to cling to specificity, I mix in creative, personable requirements to challenge them to work beyond the basics.
Since my teaching philosophy is all about personal passion, I always make opportunities to share and demonstrate my love for storytelling and self-reflection through writing. The personal joy of writing and teaching writing is to see students put themselves into their work; witness how they will grow through writing. One of my assigned research papers contains an opinion section. A rhetorical analysis assignment includes a section on how the student would improve the text’s argument. Daily in-class written reflections give the student a chance to write without concern over lower-order writing functions. I find that individualized prompts in writing projects aids in avoiding plagiarism, challenging the student to think for themselves and providing a deluge of writing for me to recognize individual writing styles.
During my path to achieve tenure, and long after, I need to remember the exhilaration of running up that mountain and snatching that first torch of passion. I need to remember all the obstacles I’ve faced with running down the mountain toward those I serve, the students. I need to keep that fire burning, and share it with those students, helping them to succeed in inspiring and educating a future society. Finally, in honor and tradition of those who carried the torch before me, I will empower and inspire students to one day take their own positive risks, obtain fire, and share it with others.
• Peter Brooks, English