Why Are They Just Staring At Me

There are days when I wonder why I even got out of bed.

In teaching, these days can sneak up on you when you aren’t ready for them. For me, they are especially acute when I’ve taken extra time with a lecture or assignment and the fanfare and accolades don’t come from it. Don’t misunderstand; I don’t think for a second that every lecture is a golden testament to my own brilliance – far from it. But when I’ve really worked hard to make a lecture interesting for the class, and they nod off during the lecture, or file their nails, or text under the desk, it can be more than a little frustrating. The reason behind the extra work can be that maybe the chapter reading was more dry than usual; or past students have struggled with some of the vocabulary in a particular reading; or maybe the previous lecture was less-than-stellar and I want to make up for it. Whatever the reason, there are times when I will take extra time and care, scout out particularly vivid images to put in a PowerPoint, find a video clip interview with someone that I think makes the lesson even more powerful, or tell an especially fun or unusual story – and they just stare at me.

You know the feeling. That loud silence when the crickets fill the silence of the room or when their eyes are blurry from trying to pretend they’re paying attention. That’s when I wonder why I got out of bed and bothered to come to class.

Luckily, these days don’t happen often. If they did, I would probably rethink my desire to teach – or at least I would rethink doing this part-time gig. For as we all know, this job doesn’t have a lot of benefits or compensations.

I sometimes wonder if there isn’t a teaching-fairy-godparent looking out for me, because when these days do sneak up on me (worse, they sometimes even double up on each other), something wonderful will happen that erases the frustration and feeling of “why did I bother.” That “something” is often small, and always unexpected. It’s a student from a previous class showing up in the next class with a huge smile; or it’s when a student stays after class to tell me he was too shy to speak up in the lecture, but really thought my story that day was fascinating; or when a student declares he or she will change majors because my class so interesting; or when a student asks me for advice about which college to transfer to.

These “somethings” can also be unbelievably huge and momentous. Like the time one of my online students showed up at my class to meet me because she wanted to see the person who had changed her life. Or the time a former student read my birthday on my Facebook page and dropped a birthday card off at the Instructional Office for me. I even had a student ask me to sign my lecture notes because “they got me through the really hard readings, and I just know you’ll be published one day.”

Big or small, these interactions with grateful, engaged, excited students keep me fueled through those other times. I mentally pull the “somethings” out and hold them in my metaphoric hands when the echoing silence rings through the room and the glazed expressions cause me to pause. A rueful smile will spread across my face, too, because I also know that the biggest failure is taking myself too seriously. That brilliant story or fantastic PowerPoint clearly isn’t as life-changing as I thought it should be. My own hubris must be kept in check, or those silent stares will happen more often as I lose touch with what I’m really supposed to be doing, which isn’t some ego-stroking performance, but just plain ol’ good teaching.

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