Three Thoughts About…Teaching

I have been teaching writing for over 25 years, and during my 17 years in Portland State University’s creative writing program, the students chose me to receive the English department’s John Eliot Allen Outstanding Teacher Award five times–almost every year I was eligible. (You had to sit out two years each time you won it.) I mention this only to suggest I know a little bit about teaching writing. Or maybe just teaching in general.

Whenever I received one of the Allen awards, people would ask me the secret to good teaching. My answer was always that you have to love your students, caring about them as individuals. Beyond that, every teacher has to teach in her own way, according to her own personality and vision. Here are three basic principles that have worked for me:

  1. Challenge students to achieve beyond what they think they’re capable of doing by setting high goals and high standards.
  2. Actively and persistently help each student to achieve those goals and maintain those standards, without relenting.
  3. Work harder than your students work.

And one more thing: Encourage your students in every possible way at every possible moment.

The most consistent thing students have said about my teaching is that I’m tough but fair. If you aren’t tough, you aren’t helping students do anything more than they could do on their own, in which case they don’t need a teacher. If you aren’t fair, they’re going to stop listening to you no matter how right you are about what you’re trying to teach them.

A Professor No More

On Monday of this week, I cleaned out my office in Portland State University’s Neuberger Hall.  On Tuesday, I filed my last set of grades.  On December 31, 2017, my retirement will be official.  After 22 years of university teaching and 17 years at PSU (during which I was fortunate to receive five student-selected teaching awards, one in almost every year I was eligible), I’ll soon be a writer only.  That should mean more time to post on this somewhat-neglected site.

I will continue to lead summer workshops at the Collegeville Institute and the Manhattanville College MFA’s Summer Writers’ Week–for information on either of these, including how to apply, go to my Talks page.

A big thank you to all of the students I’ve had the pleasure of teaching as a college professor.  I figure that over my 22 years at universities, I’ve critiqued more than 4,000 papers.  I’m happy to say that a fair number made it into print here or there.  I hope my comments on the others were at least somewhat edifying.

Look for more thoughts on teaching on this site in the weeks ahead, including some of the things I’ve taught and learned.

On to new pastures…