So here’s a crazy thing. If you want to teach high school, you need years of education training. You have to take classes, student teach, get certified, jump through hoops of fire, and sign a sizeable portion of your soul away to the gods of School Administration (at least, that’s what I’ve gathered from my teacher friends). Meanwhile, if you happen to be, say, a first year master’s student in medieval studies, you can be plopped down in front of a class with pretty much zero education training or experience.
Thankfully, I’ve had wonderful help from more experienced teachers at Western, real Virgils to my Dante. But I’ve also begun to learn some things the hard way—things my real-teacher friends all learned millennia ago, I’m sure. And here they are:
1. Once you’re on the other side of the technology console in the front of the room, nothing works. Those blinking black boxes are categorically opposed to the learning process. I’m half convinced it’s deliberate sabotage on the part of our artificially intelligent soon-to-be overlords. But it’s also made me more sympathetic when my professors struggle to get YouTube videos to play.
2. There is no possible way to write instructions clear enough that no one will misunderstand them. When I was a teaching assistant last fall, I thought with my trademark idealism that a few clever changes to the wording of some of the assignment prompts would clear up all possible confusions. Turns out not.
3. Grading is a game of dice. The difference between an A paper and a C paper is pretty clear, but when it comes to deciding between, say, an 87 and an 89, objectivity is pretty much impossible. And yet, a number has to go in the gradebook. My (probably idealistic) theory is that all the little variants between assignments average themselves out like particles annihilating each other in the quantum foam of the universe.
4. The professors I had at Calvin were geniuses. I mean, I already knew this, but now I know it, you know? Several of my Calvin English professors would respond to student questions in theologically rich complex sentences, their subordinate clauses cascading with pedagogical grace. I’m lucky if my answer has a verb in it.
5. I can make completely brilliant points, crack absolutely hilarious jokes, and ask ridiculously insightful questions and get absolutely no response from my students. What’s up with that?
6. Snow days suck.
7. Nothing’s ever certain, and there’s so much you don’t know. You might be surprised which students turn in really excellent work or say brilliant things in class. The student you think is just lazy might be going through illness or depression or burnout. The lecture you thought crashed and burned might be a student’s favorite. Your “pretty doable” exam might turn out to be impossible. A student might point something out in a text that you’ve always just skimmed over. You know so much less than you think you do. And you have to tell your pesky inner perfectionist that that. is. okay. Because as stupid as you think you sound sometimes, as incoherent as your lectures might be, as scared and insecure as this makes you, this isn’t about you. It’s about encouraging curiosity, celebrating discovery, and showing your students just a few of the delightful intricacies of this world that, for people of faith, resounds with God-given significance and worth. And none of that requires perfection.
Besides, I’m starting to think even God would have to temporarily alter the laws of physics to get the projector screen down on the first try.
Josh Parks graduated from Calvin in 2018 with a BA in English literature and violin performance, and he completed an MA program in medieval studies at Western Michigan University in 2020. He is currently a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, which means his plans to be in school forever are working out well. When not writing, he can be found playing violin, drinking coffee, making excruciating puns, and trying to learn Old French.