Monday, September 15, 2014

Teaching English Composition

My first experience with teaching happened while I was driving down Alligator Alley late one afternoon. I was giving a very detailed lecture on Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, rewording scholar Stephen Price’s Marxist angle on the commentary track to my highly enthralled (oh, and completely imaginary) class of Film Appreciation students. I was trapped in the fantasy caused by a long, lonely drive down a long, boring road, but the passion was real. Real enough for me to mime my points of interest in grand hand gestures that earned looks from every passing minivan. Real enough for to miss my exit. And real enough for it to take me twenty minutes to notice. Some part of me (perhaps the not quite sane part) wanted to teach or, at least, saw myself being able to.  
During my first term as a MFA student at Florida Atlantic University I was surprised at just how many of my fellow classmates were a part of the Graduate Teaching Assistantship (GTA) program. My vision was too tunneled during my undergraduate studies. I was so focused on getting into the MFA program that I was blindsided  upon learning there were other options and possibilities available. You mean I could teach? No way. What would I teach? Oh, English Composition. How is it? Is it really work intensive? Oh, so it’s not so bad? I get an office? Yeah, I understand it’s a shared office but whatever, still cool. Well, maybe, I don’t know, we’ll see, I’ll think about it…
After many conversations with teachers, students, advisors, friends, family, and random strangers whose opinion seemed important during my time of doubt, I decided to apply for a GTA position.
The road to the GTA was not as narrow and straight as Alligator Alley. I was informed late in the Spring of 2014 that I would not receive a GTA. I was disappointed. My delusions of grandeur reverted from Captain my Captain moments back to my old fail safe—my Academy Award Speech for winning best original screenplay.
Questions of self-worth arose. Am I good enough? Do I belong here? Should I leave? Whispers spoken though a cracked confidence.
I spent most of that summer prepping for the upcoming term. I masked the disappointment of a missed opportunity under piles of thesis revision and new work I would need in upcoming workshops.
An email from my program advisor in late July rejuvenated my enthusiasm for both the MFA program and the future I could make in it—I was offered a GTA position. I’m not going to state exactly how excited I was, but it was somewhere between drinking an entire bottle of whiskey and doing complete cartwheels around my neighborhood. Twice.
Initially, I was too excited to be scared. I printed out a copy of the GTA offer letter and drove to my mother’s house. She was a public school teacher for thirty-five years and an adjunct professor at Nova University. She likes to take credit for any ounce of creativity I may process, so I thought she’d enjoy more affirmation. After that, I drove to my employer to put in my resignation. Management was almost as happy for me as I was that I’d finally be able leave behind the insane hours (and equally insane people) of the restaurant business.
I was excited most for that. Never have I been able to focus solely on school. I’ve always had to balance work, studies, and writing, and I’ve worried each area has suffered due to the sacrifices my juggling act has required.  I knew teaching would replace those restaurant hours, but the thought of staying on campus, constantly surrounded by like-minded people doing like-minded things was inspiring.
But I’ve had doubts. I’m too aware of my weaknesses not to. I’m terrible at giving presentations, I often overlook my own textual errors, and sometimes I waver off point and talk about ideas not relevant to anything. Like fishing, for example: I’ve never caught a Redfish before. I really want to. But I won’t eat it. I don’t like fish. But I love steak. So, anyway, you can see why I was concerned. Would my weakness affect my ability to teach and mold the eager minds of my students?
Well, the process is ongoing. It is, after all, only the end of the first four weeks. But those doubts, those fears, the moments of feeling like maybe I’m a fraud are shared. My fellow incoming GTA’s echo my fears, imagined or otherwise. I know my moments of anxiety will be calmed during the next group therapy section, otherwise known as Colloquium. The support offered within the program, from Colloquium, ENC 6700 and the more experienced GTA’s who have willingly offered guidance throughout the process, has made the experience of learning to become a teacher both worthwhile and rewarding.
My students are great, and some days I feel like I’m doing it right, that everything will be okay. Sometimes not so much. In front of my class, my grand hand gestures can cause confused looks from my students, as if my class were filled with twenty-two minivans drivers turning to peer into my sedan. But I just keep driving, thrilled I missed the exit.

Aaron Avis is a MFA student in Creative Non Fiction at Florida Atlantic University. He is currently in his first year of the Graduate Teaching Assistant program offered by the University.

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