On Teaching and Learning

Taking A Leap

Anatomy and Physiology was my favorite course in college. After spending a semester elbow deep in human cadavers, I returned the next semester as a lab assistant and began tutoring the subject to underclassmen. So ten years later, when my parents saw an ad in the local paper for an A&P instructor at a private college in our area, I decided to apply. But not without hesitation.

  • I had never before taught at a college.
  • I had never before taught A & P.
  • And did you catch that ten years had transpired since I had anything to do with A&P?

But I had a few things going for me.

  • I have a Masters degree. In a related field (physical therapy).
  • I have a Masters in Education, too. Colleges like people with degrees. The more, the better.
  • I had teaching experience. It was mostly one-on-one and in math, but hey.
  • And it was mere weeks before the semester was due to start. In other words, the college may have been a little desperate.

Thankfully, they only needed a lab instructor. Lab, in my opinion, is much easier and much more fun to teach. Sadly, we would not be dissecting cadavers.

After just two semesters, the department chair tried to convince me to teach the lecture portion as well. “You know I’ve never taught A&P,” I reminded her.

I managed to hold her off another year–until she realized it was only my perfectionism stopping me. “You on your worst day is better than any other option we have,” she said.

Well, if you put it like that . . .

After two-and-a-half years there, I moved on to a community college. I taught one semester and didn’t accept the offer of summer teaching because I had decided to give myself a one year sabbatical. The department chair said “If you ever find yourself back in the area and wanting some work, give me a call.”

The Best Laid Plans . . . 

Surprisingly not cold, snow shoeing on Rich Lake.

Surprisingly not cold, snow shoeing on Rich Lake.

Fast-forward to December, 2014. When we moved to Schroon Lake I’d told Michael I wouldn’t stay past the New Year. It’s too cold. After not working for nearly a year (by choice), I felt like it was time to go back. And there weren’t many options in Schroon Lake.

But Michael was excited to spend the winter here. The concept that the lake actually froze–to the point one could drive across it–fascinated him. He wanted to try ice fishing, and walk outside in below zero temperatures. I had none of these desires. But I had some ideas.

My Natural High

I couldn’t decide what avenue to take next in life, but knew I wanted to teach. Of all the jobs I’ve had (and there have been many), they have all involved teaching in some form. The more I taught, the happier I was. I’ve read that you know you’re doing the work you’re meant to be doing if, at the end of the day, you feel energized. After I finish teaching, I’m on a high–I’m replaying what worked and what didn’t, excited for what I’ve learned, what changes I saw in my students, eager for the next class.

Don’t Burn Bridges

So two days before Christmas, I e-mailed the department chair at the community college at which I taught four years earlier. Like most colleges, she had her spring semester staffed. But, like most colleges, things changed last minute. And so it was that I was given ten hours of courses to teach each week for the spring semester.

“They didn’t even interview you?” Michael asked.

“Well, no, but I worked there once already.”

“For one semester. Four years ago!”

Never mind that I was teaching two courses I had never taught before.

“What?” Michael asked. “You mean you don’t know the subject?”

“I probably know a lot of it. I took the course twenty years ago.” I was hoping the material in the General Biology labs I was due to teach overlapped with the material I taught in A&P. Michael laughed. “This makes me think about my college instructors in a whole new light.”

Thankfully, one look at the syllabus and I realized I would be okay. Two-thirds of the labs were things I taught in my three years as an A&P instructor. And the other labs would not be that hard to brush up on.

Home Again, Home Again

The college, however, is back in my hometown–three hours south of Schroon Lake. But the universe has a way of providing whatever one needs. The apartment over my parent’s garage, after having been inhabited continuously for more than thirty years by my grandmother, then my brother, then my youngest sister, was available.

And so it is that I’ve become a commuter. I don’t teach on Fridays, so on Thursdays I head up to Schroon Lake.

On Sundays, I return to the apartment that was once an oasis in my childhood: the place where I could escape the loud, chaotic life of siblings and parents, and take my spot on Grandma’s floor to attend her lesson on all things baseball as we watched the Mets games together.

Grandma didn’t just teach me about baseball. She taught me how to ask nicely for things. She taught me that everything must be put back in its place after I use it. She taught me that BLT’s are a perfectly acceptable breakfast food (as are Entenmann’s chocolate covered donuts).

As I open the two-inch think Biology textbook to prepare for next week’s class, I smile as I realize I’m living in the former home of a woman who taught me things I’d never find in a textbook.

_______

And for those of you wondering: yes,  that list of all the wonderful things Grandma gave us–the one copied onto her tombstone–still sits on the windowsill.

My Back Pocket

I have a piece of paper in my back pocket.  My figurative back pocket, that is.  In reality, the paper sits in a green file folder marked, “PT License.” The paper was issued by the state of New York.  License #020405.  I received it after successfully completing an accredited physical therapy curriculum and passing a board exam.

Lucky for me, a person only needs to pass the board exam once.  Then, should she decide to resign from her first physical therapy job less than three months after she started it, never to look back, she can pay a few hundred dollars every few years and keep that piece of paper – in her back pocket.  In case she ever needs it again.

Ten years after it was first issued, I used that license as it was intended.  I sought out a part-time physical therapy job and was amazed – and a bit shocked – at how easy it was to get a job in a profession I hadn’t practiced in ten years. Five months later I was accepted into a doctorate of Physical Therapy program.  In both cases, I convinced others of something I wasn’t sure was true: that I wanted to go back to physical therapy (or, in the case of the latter, that I wanted to teach future physical therapists).

In December of 2009, I resigned from my second physical therapy position.  I completed my first doctorate course successfully, but didn’t take another.

That same year, New York State implemented a continuing education policy for physical therapists. So when I renewed my license this past summer, they could have asked me to prove that I had completed that requirement.  They didn’t ask.  But I had.  Teaching Anatomy and Physiology to freshman nursing and physical therapy students meets the requirement, and I did that for three years.

~~~

“It was easy when I was in PT School,” I told my friend Saturday afternoon.  “I just put on my lab coat, put my stethoscope around my neck, and went as a PT.  Or a doctor.  Or whatever people thought I was.”

I was visiting my friend at work that afternoon and had two Halloween parties on my agenda for that evening.  I’ve always wanted to be a flapper for Halloween, but never think about it early enough to pull it off. And my default Halloween costume? The last time I’d worn that lab coat was in 2009, and I was pretty sure I donated it to Good Will since then.

“I’ve got a lab coat I don’t use,” said my friend.  Conveniently enough, she’s in the medical profession and I was visiting her at work.

“Perfect!” I was all set.

Back at home, I got ready for the party, came downstairs and declared to my housemate David that, for Halloween, I was going as one of my past lives. “Why is it you’re not a physical therapist?” he asked.  I sat down.  This could take a while. Mostly because I didn’t really know myself.

Leaving my first PT job had little do with actually practicing PT.  Lack of confidence played a role.  As did my desire to explore all the world had to offer.  Less than a week after leaving that first job, I found myself in the familiar gray and green uniform of the National Park Service.  Six months later, I was roaming the streets of Paris, Venice, and Rome.  And six months after that, I was living in Boston volunteering for a year with Americorps.  The list goes on and on.

I left that second PT job because I didn’t really want to work in a nursing home.  The only reason I chose to apply there was because the want ad said that I could call to inquire about the position. I wanted to be able to explain my absence from the profession before submitting a resume.

“But you have a license, right?” said the woman on the other end of the line.

“Yes.”

“Then it’s not a problem,” she said.

I thought it a fluke.  But as I look back, I’ve had numerous PT’s say they’d hire me in a second – most having no knowledge of my skills as a therapist.

Which reminds me of a corporate job I was once hired for. They didn’t care about your skills – or lack thereof.  Those are teachable, they explained. What isn’t teachable is a good personality. Which, apparently, I have.

So here I sit, contemplating it all again.  Third time’s a charm? Perhaps.  Weeks ago I printed out the forms I’d need to get a license in North Carolina.  They sit on a shelf in my closet. Maybe I’ll pull them out.  Maybe.

Learning New Things

They literally stopped me on my morning walk – the yellow daffodil blooms vibrant against a deep green hillside.  I pulled my cell phone out of my jacket pocket to take a picture.  I’ve wanted to take a photography class but haven’t made it a priority yet.  In the meantime, I’ve been playing with the settings on my phone.  Changing the “Exposure Level,” I’ve learned, changes the amount of light – though I don’t know what setting this would be on my actual camera.  Today, I learned I have both black-and-white and sepia options.  Playing around, I got some shots I’m actually quite proud of!



I came home and decided to tackle the leftover roasted chicken in the fridge.  The book I just finished (Kitchen Counter Cooking School) inspired me to make my own chicken stock for the first time in my life.  It’s very simple, and a whole lot cheaper than buying chicken broth (much less sodium, too!).  I yanked the leg to separate it from the rest of the chicken and stopped cold – look at that knee joint!  Glistening cartilage at the end of the femur, the ACL I just tore staring me right in the face.  I don’t think I’ll ever stop being fascinated by anatomy.  Anyway, my stock now cools on the front porch and smells delicious.

Two down, Two to go

“A world without Rebecca is not a world worth living in,” she said.  A little extreme perhaps, but I appreciated the sentiment.  She was the dean of the natural sciences department.  I was a well-liked adjunct instructor of anatomy and physiology.  I had just told her I was leaving her institution to adjunct at another one that was closer to home and paid more.  (Not much more – adjuncts get paid peanuts, but that’s another story.)

When I told my mother I was going to another institution to teach a different course, she shook her head and laughed.

“Most teachers get their first couple years under their belts, then get to the point where they have all their materials set  so they can just focus on the teaching.  Not you.  You’ve got all you need to teach the same course, but you’re bored and move on to start all over again.”  Yeah, that’s me.

Every time I leave a job, I recall my most memorable resignation.  I was almost 26.  I hated my consulting job and no one there knew it, so my boss was shocked when I walked in with a resignation letter.  She said, and this is a direct quote, one I will never forget, “I hope you know what you’re doing.”  As if working for her was some grand opportunity I was giving up.  Ha!  I left and drove across the country, hiked the Grand Canyon, and never once missed her or that job.

I haven’t gotten anything near that response since.  Last Wednesday, I told my new department chair I would not be returning because I’m going traveling for a year.  She had the same look I’d seen on the face of my old department chair.  Maybe they get trained for this?  Maybe she had an inkling something was up when I didn’t apply for one of the three full-time positions they opened while I was there.  I explained, “I don’t really do full-time jobs.  I need a little more variety.”

When I told her all about my trip, she was excited for me.

“How did you keep this in all semester?!” she asked.  I explained that it had all been in my head, but plans hadn’t solidified til a few months ago.

“Send us a note, or pictures,” she said. “And if you decide you need to make a little money at some point, you can always call me up and we’ll have a course for you to teach.”

Words That Made A Difference

I wasn’t always a very optimistic person.  In fact, I clearly remember a time in my life when my mother told me over and over to “look on the bright side.”  Mom tells me she doesn’t recall that.  Which reminds me of a little girl on Oprah whose mother had passed away.  The mother knew she was sick and so took her kids on all sorts of trips before she died.  Oprah asked the little girl what her favorite memory was of her mom.  The little girl said it was one night when the little girl couldn’t sleep, and she and mom went down to the kitchen and ate cheerios.  You never know what words or actions are going to have the most impact on another person.

I had a pleasant reminder of this a couple months ago.  I had a student who ended up dropping my course.  His mother works on the campus on which I teach.  I was talking to her one day and asked how her son was doing.  She told me how he was enjoying his courses and that even though he dropped my course, “He said you were a really good teacher.  And there’s one specific study technique that you showed him that he uses all the time.  I don’t understand it really – something about forming a picture in his head and following something.”  I laughed saying I can’t recall what I said either.  Then, a couple weeks later, I was in lab.  Each table of students had a box of bones.  I instructed them to find a space on the floor and reconstruct the skeleton.  When they finished, I explained, “You’ll know you know this stuff if you can picture the entire skeleton in your head, and be able to tell someone  each bone and as you go up the arm, be able to say which bones connect to the next one.  Then, do the same thing for your legs.  Then connect them to your trunk.”  Hmph.  There is was.   Picture it in your head, follow it along.  Who knew words that came to me so naturally, without much thought, could have such an impact?

Variety

When talking to a parent of one of my tutoring students last week, he asked what I do for work other than tutoring.  People assume I must be a high school math teacher since I’m tutoring their high school child in that very subject.  I told him I teach Anatomy & Physiology at a local college.  He paused and a confused look came over his face.  He made a comment that that seemed so different from this.  I said I liked the variety and already had a sense that this man would think my lifestyle completely absurd if I went on to tell him about the other things I do.

But I hope to one day live in a world where, when people hear the multitude of things I do, they unanimously think it’s fabulous.  Don’t get me wrong – many people do think this.  But I felt sorry for this student who had a father who had done the same thing all his life and probably expected the same of her.  Yet I’m sure she has a multitude of gifts, like all of us, and if she wants to pursue them all I hope she has the courage to go against the grain and do just that.

So next time you hear of someone that does something completely different from what you’d expect (the insurance agent who just got certified in flower arranging, for example), let them know how wonderful that is.  It’s simple, really.  Instead of a confused look across your face, smile and say, “That’s fascinating – how did you get into that?”  It will make our day:)