There comes a moment in every teacher's career when he (or she) realizes that he (or she) is a spectacular failure - when he (or she) stares into the black, gaping maw of eternity and sees that his (or her) every effort at making a positive difference in his (or her) students' lives has been a sham.
But I'm being rash. Most teachers really do make a positive difference in their students' lives, and chances are they rarely experience soul-crushing epiphanies about their cosmic insignificance.
I should have said that there comes a moment in my teaching career when I realize that I'm a spectacular failure - when I stare into the black, gaping maw of eternity and see that my every effort at making a positive difference in my students' lives has been a sham. And - just like Christmas and the Fourth of July - that moment comes three times a year, when I read my students' course evaluations from the previous quarter.
A little background, for those not in what theologians call "the know": I teach freshman composition at a Midwestern university approximately six times the size of Portugal. My official title is "graduate teaching associate," which means that I'm not a teacher in the conventional sense of the word. Frankly, I lack the educational credentials to so much as read Green Eggs and Ham to preschoolers.
So how did I wind up teaching college students to write research papers on pressing topics like the hit teen drama One Tree Hill and the "music" of talentless Canadian hacks Nickelback? It's like this: roughly 280,000 kids register for freshman composition at my university each year, and - in order to meet this insatiable demand - the higher-ups let anybody with a tweed jacket and the ability to do a halfway decent cockney accent teach a section of the class.
And guess what, governor? Not only do I have me a killer cockney accent, I also own three (3) tweed jackets, one of which even has leather elbow patches. Needless to say, I got the job, and I've been failing to provide freshmen with the kind of high-quality educational experience they deserve and their parents expect ever since.
I know I'm a failure because of those student evaluations I mentioned a few paragraphs back. It's not that my students criticize me. On the contrary, they praise me effusively. For instance, when asked to list my class's weaknesses, one student responded that "there were no weaknesses - Dan Leonidas made everything great." At first, I congratulated myself for being so awesome. I did make everything great, I thought, because I'm a great man, and - much like the Pizza Hut of yesteryear - great men make things great.
But then I read the next part of the evaluation, which asked the student to explain how the course had made her a better writer:
"Through attention to detail," she responded, "and thorough analyzation."
This wiped the self-congratulatory smirk off my face. Had George W. Bush snuck into my class and filled out an evaluation form without my noticing, or had I really allowed a student to pass a college English course under the impression that "analyzation" was a word?
It got worse. When asked to evaluate my effectiveness as a teacher, another student wrote that "Leonidas was flawless! 10/10!" as if he were judging my figure-skating performance rather than my teaching performance. Yet this same student claimed that the class had made him a better writer "by teaching [him] to write." If that was all this young man could come up with, I clearly wasn't a 10/10 - at best, I might've been a 2.5/10.
In any case, my students' evaluation forms - with their combination of over-the-top kudos and grammatically questionable nonsense - have led me to conclude that 1) my positive reviews have nothing to do with pedagogical skill and everything to do with the fact that I let my students do whatever they want in class (fiddle with their phones, discuss sports, nap) so that they'll give me positive reviews, and 2) I need to stop staring into the black, gaping maw of eternity so much.
Dan Leonidas makes shallow observations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or myspace.com/lastminuteconcerns.