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Why I Am a Teacher

The campus center at the University of Tennessee.

In talking with a friend the other day, I realized I've never described the courses I teach or said much about my professional life here at the University of Tennessee. I've also never explained why I became a teacher (it isn't for the pay, lol), or what inspired my trip to Europe last fall, or many other things.

This post will not seek to answer all of those questions—I will cover them individually in time—but it will take us from Istanbul to the present moment—for a moment, anyway.



This semester came after a semester off. I did not teach last fall. Instead, I focused on myself, and then in November, I left for Romania, Istanbul, and Greece. I volunteered and traveled for a month and returned to the States just in time to head to California for the holidays. In early January, after being away for what felt like a really long time, I returned home to prepare for the semester.

I taught four sections of Composition 101 this spring. Four classes is a full load, and it has kept me busy. At first I worried that teaching four sections of the same class would be too much and that I would get bored. And I did get bored—of the grading. But surprisingly, I never got bored of the teaching. Each class was different and filled with such different personalities that, wonderfully, the same lesson plan seemed new every time.


Favorite classroom view.

Our course topic, too, provided both my students and myself with food for thought. Comp 101 is comprised of four successive units that are centered around a single topic. In my class, that topic is empathy. By reading various articles, we learn what empathy is, how people define it, where it comes from, and whether it is a good or bad thing. (Spoiler alert: It can be both.) We discuss it from every possible angle, and then in the third and fourth units, the students research a topic related to empathy of their own choosing. Topics I saw this semester included coaching, social media, medicine, architecture, relationships, divorce, generational trauma, politics, the judicial system, gangs, rape, and more.

Today's students are smarter than we give them credit for.

A Fine Line.

In all my classes—and in life—I try to practice what I preach. I strive to be clear, fair, and firm, but also to be flexible and kind. Empathy (I'll define it as "vicariously feeling others' feelings") is second nature to me, but I've learned that just because I feel for a student does not mean I should bend to his or her desires. Attendance policies and assignment deadlines are there for a reason.

I also know, however, that I am not perfect. If I realize that I haven't been clear, or that my quiz was unnecessarily hard, or that my students really do need more time, I am willing to acquiesce. By allowing my students to see my humanness, I give them permission to be human with me, too.

A calm campus in January before the students arrived.

The Payoff.

And in the end, it always pays off. In many ways, this was a lonely semester for me outside of the classroom, but in the classroom (and at the gym, lol) I found meaning. Not every lesson plan goes well, and some units are more fun to teach than others, but I gave every lesson plan and every student everything I had, and they could tell. They told me so in their course reflections.

"I greatly enjoyed this class, and it was one of the classes I looked forward to this semester. Since I am mainly taking gen eds currently, I don't have any classes that I am interested in or that particularly pertain to my major. However, this class I enjoyed because of the environment you created in class. I loved the questions at the beginning of class to take attendance. I also appreciated the leniency on some of the deadlines, as I found time management to be extremely difficult this semester. Overall, your class felt like I had a safety net if I needed help, but you gave us enough independence if that is what we wanted, and I appreciate being given that independence."

"I have never liked English class at all, but this class has definitely been the best. I enjoyed your teaching style and your effort to connect with the class."

"I think you did a stellar job being open to students who need help, which is incredibly important."

"I really enjoyed the class time! I had 8am classes Monday-Friday so there were mornings where it was hard to get up, but I was glad to be in class Tuesday and Thursday because I knew that the material covered was going to be good for me to be there for. I liked the use of quizzes to keep us accountable to the readings, and the conferences/showing us how to schedule tutoring was very helpful!"

"Thanks for this class!!! I really enjoyed it, and I can tell that you like teaching, which makes it easier to learn."

"Overall, I enjoyed taking this class. I have always struggled in English classes, but this one was different. I felt I had a true understanding of the content and was proud of all the work I produced. All the activities we did in class made it easier when completing big assignments like the essays and multimodal project."

"I really enjoyed having you as a professor. I feel like empathy was incorporated into the content of this class and also how the class was taught. I felt very comfortable approaching you with any questions I had and knew that if I had any concerns I did not have to worry about them going unseen or unheard. I might be a little biased since I have always had a soft spot for English teachers, but you were truly an amazing professor."

"I liked this class fairly well for someone who doesn't like English if that tells you anything!"

"You are an amazing teacher. You listen to your students, and you are so understanding. You walk us through our objectives, keep us on task with checkpoint assignments here and there, and you're always letting us know we can come to you for anything. Your canvas page is so organized too!! All of these made such an impact on my experience in your class, and I am very grateful. It is clear that you genuinely enjoy teaching."

"I really appreciate you teaching us, and I truly enjoyed your class every time. Thank you!"

"I took English 101 last semester and the teacher was not very engaging, which made me not want to be there. I would drop the class because I let myself get lazy and not push myself. This semester was different; you made class enjoyable, and I even had some fun working on my assignments. Additionally, you were incredibly helpful when needed."

"I have learned a lot in your class not only relating to writing, but also life skills: putting in 100 percent effort is not just picking and choosing when too, but rather putting in 100 percent 100 percent of the time. If I could have told myself this at the beginning of the semester, my grade would have looked a lot different—especially since the assignment portion of the class is supposed to be a grade boost, I would have done my dang work. I really hope it doesn't sound like I'm complaining. I am really just trying to relay to you how much I value your class. Thank you for that! Please just keep doing what you're doing, because you're doing great. (Yes, I just used the same word three times in a sentence. It's been a long week and will continue to be.)"

I'm smiling as I read these comments. This is why I am a teacher.

Looking towards campus from across the Tennessee River.

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1 Comment

May 21, 2023

Hi Jessica,

What wonderful feedback and insight from your students. It is clear you have amazing pedagogical skills and desires.

I’m intrigued by your topic of empathy. Over the last six months, I’ve been discovering that empathy is not something I have a full tank of. As a result of some personal circumstances which have led to further exploration, it seems I generally lack empathy. According to some friends and some family, it explains or describes much of their experience with me. It’s perhaps why I’ve gone in certain directions and appear to be fluent and competent in some streams but simply hopeless in others.

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