The Classroom

A few years ago I wrote the piece reposted below about "My Favorite Place," referring to the classroom. At the time, I had taken a break from teaching and missed the thrill of the new school year. I saw the classroom as a space of possibility and opportunity, an orderly, safe place where the outcome was entirely dependent on you, your desires, your commitment, and your faith.

The classroom appears idyllic in that piece; individuals are accepted for their desire to learn, and mistakes are not simply forgiven, they are necessary steps for learning, reflection, and growth. As I often tell my students, a "draft" is inherently flawed. The goal is not perfection; it is practice, improvement, and refinement.

Today, on the cusp of a new school year, I can't wait to be back in the classroom, engrossed by evocative details, fluid sentences, and literary analysis. The darker the outside world seems, the more I want to shut myself in and obsess over thesis statements and comma splices.

While those feelings may be natural, they are dangerous. Those of us privileged to be in a classroom have the responsibility not only to share knowledge, but also to put it to good use. So when we look at a headlines filled with strife, sadness, and conflict, we do not run away to our ivory tower, but face the world and try to be better. Sometimes that means actually making use of the content of lessons learned, facts and figures relevant to specific, important tasks. Other times we need to think creatively, to be patient, to take criticism -- all skills honed in the classroom -- in order to affect change.

What was true in 2013 when I first wrote the piece below is still true today, that our efforts to learn and grow are a matter of faith, a belief that if we try, things will be better.

"My Favorite Place"

For years, the arrival of a new school year brought on a mix of emotions -- anticipation, excitement, anxiety, curiosity. Walking into a clean, empty classroom, awaiting a new batch of students and peers, these moments filled me with exhilaration. I have felt that thrill as both a student and a teacher. It is during this time of year that I miss teaching most.

The classroom is my favorite place to be. It is a setting alive with possibility and potential. It is based entirely on the optimistic belief that we and others can improve. That we can learn and grow, that progress is possible.

When we leave school, somehow the world changes us. We begin to feel cynical, pessimistic. We lose faith in ourselves and in others. We think that to be smart we must expect and express the worst possible outcome, that expecting more of ourselves or those around us will yield only disappointment. I believe that this approach sets us up for failure. I believe that we limit ourselves and others when we refuse to see the potential for change and growth. Perhaps it is easier to close ourselves off to what challenges us or makes us uncomfortable. It is safer to avoid the risk involved in having hope. But it is not better to do so. It is better to remain open.

My time teaching at community college has emphasized these lessons. My students come from all walks of life. Some are fresh high school graduates, but most are returning to the classroom after years away from school. In the same classroom I have taught a 16 year old and a 65 year old. They began their schooling in various parts of the world. I've taught students who hail from Ethiopia, Syria, Jamaica, Mexico, and Costa Rica, as well as those from across the United States. Some are working on their second or third degrees or are switching professions. Others have come to realize that a lack of a college degree is keeping them from achieving their current goals. For many, the classroom represents a second chance. They've told me about youthful mistakes that distracted them from who they wanted to be. But they haven't given up and given in, despite the hardships they have faced. They have come back to school because they know there is opportunity for change there.

Most of my community college students are inventing or reinventing themselves, trying to determine who they will be in the next phase of their lives. One of my students went to school before learning disabilities and differences were properly understood. Even if students were diagnosed with dyslexia or ADD, there was a taboo so associated with these issues that he did not feel comfortable speaking up or advocating for himself. He felt school wasn't for him, that he wasn't book smart, and nothing was going to change that. But new research and resources have helped him to realize his true academic potential. He has come back to the classroom with a new attitude toward academics and a different understanding of himself and of his potential.

The classroom is a world of possibility. It is based entirely in a belief that things can get better if we are willing to learn, grow, reflect, and share. Believing in the effectiveness of the classroom means believing that our efforts are not in vain, that hard work, dedication, and an open mind can bring positive change.

The classroom is a place of faith, in ourselves, in others, in the world around us.

-- "My Favorite Place" was originally written in September of 2013