Students and Teachers

“So what did you think of blacksmithing?” friends ask.

“I loved it,” I say.  “Though it was one of those classes I could have loved or hated based solely on the teacher.  Thankfully, I had a really good teacher.”

In my ten weeks here at the Folk School, I haven’t just been studying blacksmithing, or cooking, or writing.  I have also been studying teachers, and myself as a student.

During my years of “traditional” schooling, I excelled.  Not because I was necessarily smart, but because I was good at doing what was asked of me: namely memorizing information and spitting in back out.  I was also one of those kids who wanted to please the adults in my life – namely my parents and teachers – and so I did what it took.

Thankfully, I’m mostly over my need to please other people.  But not completely.  Holding the beginnings of what would hopefully become a hook, I asked my blacksmith instructor what he thought of my work so far.  “Well, do you like it?” he asked.  “Yeah,” I said, wondering what that had to do with anything.  “If you like it, it’s good,” he said.  Wait – I determine what’s good here? At first it was a little alarming.  I don’t know what I’m doing.  How do I know if it’s any good? But then the idea started to grow on me.  After all, I was the one that was going to take this hook home and use it.

Later I told another student what my instructor said.  “That’s what so great about this place,” she said.  “You’re not trying to please a teacher – just yourself.”

Tending the Forge

Making a Bottle Opener

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.”

To Rest, To Enjoy

“Hey – why not just enjoy your apartment for a while?”  God said.  Hmph.  Imagine that, I thought.  Over the last few months, I have taken time nearly every day to work on paring down my “stuff” in preparation for my year of travels.  I’ve cleaned out files and closets and kitchen cabinets getting rid of those things I rarely use or don’t need.  But lately, I’ve lost my momentum.

After beating myself up for a few days, I said to God, “So what’s the deal with me losing my motivation?”  Like all good teachers, he answered my question with another question.  Didn’t tell me what to do, just led me to a solution I hadn’t considered.

So I’m just going to enjoy my little place for a few weeks.  Read in bed.  People watch out my windows.  Do whatever I feel like doing – especially if that means doing nothing at all:)

Back to the Future

“That’s a real one,” I said to the group of four nursing students as they pulled a vertebral column (backbone) out of their bone box.  “What do you mean real?” one asked.  I laughed.  “Real.  As in it used to be in someone’s body.”  I watched as two of them lost all color and leaned away from it while the other two grabbed for it, their eyes wide and mouths open.  “Really?”  “Yes, really!”  I explained how you could tell the real bones from the plastic ones.  “The real ones are a lot lighter and more porous – you’ll see holes in them.  And they’ll be a rougher when you touch them.”

“Is ours real?” said a student at another table.  “Yup,” I said.  Some were happy they had real bones in their boxes, some thrilled to find they didn’t.  Wait til we dissect sheep brains, I thought to myself.

I wisely don’t tell them what we’re doing ahead of time.  As I’m going through my plan for that days lab, I just casually say, “After we finish going over all the structures on the brain models, we’ll be dissecting sheep brains.  There are gloves in the middle of each table.  The trays are over there.” I point to the sink.  Most students at this point are stunned.   I hear the whispers.  “Is she serious?” they ask each other.  I continue, enjoying every minute of watching some of their faces turn from disbelief to sheer joy and excitement.  “Take a tray per lab table, and one instrument from each box.  Then, get a brain from the plastic container over there,” I say, pointing to the bucket sitting next to the sink.  “Be very careful – they’re slippery.  I don’t want any brains on the floor.”  I just keep going as if people look at brains every day. A more vocal student will usually stop me at this point saying, “Hold up Miss Gallo.  You mean we’re going to cut open a brain today?”  “Yup,” I respond.  Most are thrilled, or at least interested.  A few want nothing to do with it, to which I respond, “If you’re going to be a nurse, you’re going to see a lot more disgusting things than this.”

Though I finished teaching A&P six weeks ago, these memories came back to me since I just finished reading the book “The Anatomist” by Bill Hayes.  It’s basically the story of how the book Gray’s Anatomy came to be.  In doing his research, he attends gross anatomy classes at UCSF and that, for me, was the most interesting part of the book.  Especially since he spends one semester with physical therapy students.

It wasn’t so much that it brought back memories of my own time in a cadaver lab, but that I wanted to be there again.  I was a little jealous that he was in a lab dissecting human bodies and I wasn’t.  No – it was more than that.  He talked about the instructors and I wanted to be them.  I can’t tell you how many times, in teaching A&P to my nursing students, I wished I could show them something on a cadaver.

I had a chance to get back into a cadaver lab on Friday.  I had dinner with my former anatomy professor.  In the days prior to our meeting I thought the first thing I wanted to do was go see the cadavers, but for some unknown reason I didn’t ask.  So I didn’t get to see them. I realize for most people that seeing dead bodies would not be on the top of your list of things to do before you eat dinner…but that’s beside the point.

The good news is the opportunity is not lost.  My anatomy professor teaches the course over the summer now and it would be very easy for me to go out there for a day, or a few days, or a week and help him out.  I assisted him when I was in school, and he has offered that he would welcome my assistance again.  So who knows?  This summer, I might just take that opportunity.  And then I won’t be jealous of that author anymore.

Another Crazy Idea?

Not too long after I started teaching Anatomy &Physiology lab at a local college, one of the tenured professors asked me if I was considering getting a doctorate and teaching full-time at a college.

“No, I don’t think so,” I said.  “It’s a lot of time and money to get a doctorate.  And I have too many other things I want to do.”  He understood.

A few months ago I was on a Saturday day trip with my father.  My mother was out of town for the day and he was going stir-crazy.  He decided to take a mini-road trip and asked if I wanted to join him.  Though I had plenty of anatomy to prepare, I opted for the adventure.  A little was out of sympathy, but another reason was just for the sheer “being a kid again” factor.  Just me and dad.  On a road trip.  On our way to our destination (a newly remodeled Dairy Queen my father, owner of two such stores, wanted to take a look at), we stopped and looked at things for sale on the side of the country roads on which we were traveling.  I was marveling to my father that his driving wasn’t really getting to me like it usually does.  I can’t recall how the topic changed to teaching.

“You really like it, don’t you?” Dad said.  I confirmed that I did, was enjoying it very much in fact.  “It’s a great place to work,” he said.  “College isn’t like the real world.”  Dad says this a lot.  By “real world” he means that the professors aren’t punching a clock like office drones.  They can make their own schedules to a point and get all those holidays and time off .  Dad, as an entrepreneur, doesn’t punch a clock either.  He, too, can make his own schedule to a point.  But he doesn’t have paid time off and someone else paying his health insurance.

I was saying how many different things a professor could get involved with on a campus.  There’s the teaching, but then you can advise a student group or be on committees.  And your work changes.  But before dad got thinking I might have found something I’d do “forever” (he still harbors dreams of that), I said, “but I’d need a doctorate to do all that…and that’s way too much time and money.”

Then something clicked.  My alma mater offers doctorates in Physical Therapy.  A clinical doctorate.  Not a PhD.  But a doctorate all the same.  In other words, it’s more hands-on clinical research and less sitting in a library writing a dissertation.  And I recall reading that they had a “transitional” program for those of us that already had a Masters degree in PT.  I said perhaps I should look into that.  But would it be the craziest idea ever to get a doctorate in a field I pretty much abandoned from the moment I graduated?  Just so I could teach?  I’d have to think about this.  But I did mention it to dad.  He’s been trained to not get too excited about any one of my ideas because a lot of them are only ideas and never get pursued.  He doesn’t always remember this training, but thankfully this time he did.  “Yeah, you should look into that,” he said, his voice indicating a wee bit of excitement but much more subdued than in past years.

Upon our return, I hopped on the internet and was shocked to see that the DPT only requires 16 credits – four classes.  Not only that, but three of the four actually interested me!  And you could do the entire program on-line!  I also learned that it cost a whole lot less than I thought it would.  This couldn’t be right, I thought.  So I looked at other schools who had these transitional doctorate programs.  And they were all pretty much the same – in terms of credits, on-line coursework, and cost.  Whereas I thought my research would show me the degree would take forever to get and cost more than it would be worth for me, I found I was wrong.  Hmph.  Who knew.

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?

You Never Know Who’ll Show Up

With my first-ever organizing class just a few weeks away, I took off for my favorite place to do research:  the bookstore.  There are a ton of books about how to organize.  The problem is that when someone wants to get organized, the best way to un-motivate them is for them to see a 300 page book on how to do it.  That’s why people sign up for my class.

Here’s the thing though:  I really didn’t need to read those books.  Over the past ten years, I’d helped so many people pare down and read so many books on the topic that I had all the information in my head already.  The reason I needed a book was to remind me of how much I did know.

I pulled a few off the shelves that seemed to address my audience (retired folk looking to stop accumulating and start scaling down) and then was able to snag an overstuffed chair on which to sit while I assessed the value of each book.  I picked the one I liked best – a fairly thin volume that covered what I hoped to in my four week class – and bought it.

I must confess that, though I carried that book and a notebook everywhere I went, I still didn’t sit down to outline my course.  But down to the wire, with just a couple days until my first class,  I panicked.  To get talked off the ledge, I called the person I knew would calm my fears: my mother.  I can’t recall what she said.  Something along the lines of “Just sit down and do it.”  So I did. I put it all on paper.  I was ready.

On the first day of class, after my students settled themselves into their seats, I asked them to go around the room telling me what their reason was for taking this course.  The answers were what I expected: the collections they didn’t know what to do with, the piles of books and papers, a desire to move to a smaller space.  And then we got to a tiny lady in the back of the room.  She said she loves organizing and is just here to learn some new tips.  Her friend piped up, “It’s what she does – and she has a book.”

My smile hid my intense fear and dread as I said, “Oh, wonderful!”  My fear, though, quickly dissipated as I realized I would do the same exact thing she was doing.  No matter how much I think I know about organizing, I still pick up the magazines touting tips for organizing your kitchen cabinets.  And I, too, would sit in on a class on the topic because there’s always something new to learn.

The other thing that helped me get over my initial shock at having an actual experienced organizer in my class was that I knew that I had a great class planned.  My confidence pushed me through.  And I figured there was some reason that I was up here instead of her.

My class went fabulously well.  I did some interactive activities, had a short video that made people laugh, dispelled some myths and felt like we’d made progress.  I knew that was so when many of my students sought me out at the end of the class to tell me how much they enjoyed it.  Including the organizer.  She asked about my interest in the topic and I quietly told her my dream and how I thought this was a good way to start.  She said I did a great job.  She gave me her card and her book and offered that if I would like to meet with her sometime to talk about how to get started, she would be happy to do that.

Wait a minute.  What about this idea of competition?  Why would she want to help me – someone who could potentially take business from her (if I ever got this idea off the ground)?  Then I thought back to something Barbara Winter once said to me: there is plenty of business to go around.  And smart entrepreneurs realize this and befriend their would-be competitors.  Had this woman known this tip?  I then thought about how many potential math tutors had asked me about how they could get started – sheepishly at first.  I am always encouraging and supportive.  First because I’m such a fan of having work in which you’re your own boss – and if I can help someone else see the joys of that, all the better.  And secondly because there are a lot of kids out there that need math help.  More than I can tutor.  And my goal is to help kids.  Encouraging others to become tutors fits in with that goal perfectly.

I was still a little mystified as to why this woman would want to help me, though.  But I took her information and told her my next few weeks were a bit busy but that I would love to talk to her.  It’s true, my next few weeks were busy.  But here was God putting this wonderful resource right in my lap – who was I to turn it down?  So I e-mailed her a week later and set up to have coffee with her after our next class.  Little did I know what a wonderful idea this was.