I’ve been thinking about pizza and how it relates to teaching, mostly because they are both things that are constantly on my mind. My metabolism is as disappointing to me as my eating habits are to the rest of my body. I want to be able to perfectly transform a 4,000 calorie pizza into two days of uninterrupted energy, and my body wants me not to think that cheese is a vegetable. Nobody is perfect here, but no matter what, my body is no longer at the point in which I can even hope to take down an entire cheesy grease plane without some help. Pizza is stronger than me. The older and more vegetable-wise I get, the more pizza becomes less a source of shiny foreheads and poorly-fitting clothes and more an opportunity for collaboration.
Students are pizzas. We can get that extended metaphor out of the way quickly. I originally was planning on a long, winding explanation about how my class poses only one slice of the student’s overall education, that together with all the student’s other experiences at university, we can make one cohesive pizza unit, that not every slice is equal but they are all important, but that’s work, and I’m tired. Obviously, the metaphor starts to decay when you realize that nobody cooks a pizza one slice at a time because that’d just be weird, but again, I’m tired so I’ll just say students are pizzas, and today I saw one of my pizzas graduate.
Good pizza is largely subjective, but to me that entails something with lots of mushrooms and bell peppers, so that’s what this student was. He was a big cheesy mound of fungus, grease, and guilt-free snacking, and it was weird to see all the work he had done in my class be put into the context of the university at large and his goals within it. He wanted to graduate. He took my class so he could do that. He took a lot of other classes too. Then he graduated. My class was important, but it was only as important as every other step was in getting him to the goal. Any other meaning he takes from his work in my class is up to him to decide, but the only measurable change I can say I made in this person’s life is that I did what was expected of me. I taught my class, made sure the ideas were accessible and worth paying attention to, and I didn’t demand more than I should have.
Learning to make what is expected of you worthwhile and interesting is one of the more important things for any teacher to practice, but it is especially important for new teachers like me. In the days leading up to my first semester teaching, I spent a lot of time imagining myself in dark rooms. I’d set the scene in my head. It would be 10 minutes before my first class. The lights would be dim to create a sense of foreboding intellect at work in the room. Students would slowly trickle into the class. They would take their seats. A few might chat, but the conversation would never stray beyond a few terse exchanges. 5 minutes before it’s time to start, and I’d make my entrance. I would stride into the room, a bag slung over my shoulder. Maybe the bag is canvas, maybe it’s leather. Who knows? Either way, some part of my apparel will be canvas or leather, depending on whether I’m the soulful academic or the brilliant badass. The bell tolls the hour, and I turn to face my students for the first time. I scan the room, predatory yet paternal: I’ll protect you by breaking you. I do not introduce myself. I do not let the students introduce themselves. Instead, I turn without a word and begin scrawling in elegant, impressive script what the day’s lesson will be. I will take the class through a series of rigorous, intensely introspective writing activities that will leave them broken and their souls bare. Then, in the last 5 minutes or so, we will we finally write our names and hobbies on notecards and talk about the syllabus.
Yeah, I didn’t do that. I imagined myself as some Romantic style Educator, but I’m just a teacher. My job isn’t to lead these students to become the next great poets or philosophers or playwrights. And now that I’ve got a few years behind me, I realize I’m quite glad I’ve never tried to burden myself with every student’s future. I am not responsible for the full pizza. Every student has a huge network or other teachers, and they’ve learned amazing things from them, or they’ve hated them, or they did great work, or it kind of sucked, or they forgot they even had those teachers at all but they still got something out of the class that they don’t even notice. If I had tried to be the sole architect of my student’s education, I’d probably have been pretty miffed that he didn’t seem to notice when I waved at him from my own seat during the graduation ceremony, but I don’t really care. I did what he expected of me. I was an obstacle, but I wasn’t an obstacle that was arbitrarily difficult or tried to impart some profound lesson where none was asked for or available. Being the teacher that tries to make a personal and life-long impact on every student sounds exhausting. I’d much rather be the teacher that was useful but didn’t get in the way trying to make themselves feel important.