Tag Archive | going back to school

A Day in The Life of an Adjunct Instructor

great teacherIf you have been following me for a while, you know I have been teaching writing as an adjunct instructor at the local community college for the past two years. I’d like to share something that happened in my class yesterday. I have a couple of darling male students who wanted to play the game, “Stump the Instructor.”  I realized what they were doing right away because I’ve been down this path before. I’m happy to tell you, the game was over as soon as it started when I flat out told them, “I don’t know everything. Look it up.”

I continued the class by telling him, “I don’t know everything about everything. But I know more about writing and English grammar than you do, otherwise you wouldn’t be sitting here.”  Done.

I think teachers who set themselves up as omniscient beings are asking for trouble. Even grade school children go to work to prove their parents and teachers are wrong about something. This is the very reason I tell my classes I don’t know everything. I tell them I make mistakes once in a while. I do so because it makes me human, and a better teacher.  My role is to coach and guide them through the class, instead of parking myself on some know-it-all pedestal. I want my feet firmly on the ground to connect with my students. I do this by sharing it wasn’t so long ago I was sitting in their seat. I tell them I was an adult student just like they are now, and say I understand they have other responsibilities in their life, which can throw a monkey wrench into their worlds once in a while. In the next breath, also share I graduated from college Magna Cum Laude in four years with two children and a part-time job. In other words, I subliminally say, “There are no excuses. If you want an education,  you will find a way to get it done.”

I know one of the best things they can do for themselves is to show up. When they are in class, they have the benefit of my experience. I give them tips on how to approach an exam, how to take good notes, and encourage them to ask “why?” As we go through the textbook from week to week, I try give them memory aids I’ve made up. Like ABIOOTU, which is my made up word for all two-letter prepositions. Then there’s the tried and tested, “I before E, except after “C” jingle.” And once in a while, I come up with something new. I before E

Yesterday as I stood at the white board explaining the difference between infinitives and prepositional phrases beginning with the word “to,” I had a spontaneous inspiration. I said,  “Here’s a Barbara tip  — the “V” in the word INFINITIVE tells you “to” is paired with a VERB, where as, the word PREPOSITION has an “N” so in this case, “to” is paired with a NOUN.” I realized I am a  frickin’ impromptu genius!

I love when my creativity has the chance to inspire others who want to learn. I even love teaching  students who still are lumps of clay, not sure if they want to learn. But I despise students who come to class only to collect their financial aid and have no intention of learning because they not only want cheat the system. Little do they know, they are cheating themselves, too.

So on it goes, from one class to another, from one textbook chapter to the next. Learning happens somewhere in the process. I can only hope that some of the things I try to teach will stick.

Teaching More Than English

teacher at blackboardA month of my writing class has gone by. This class is a great bunch of adult students (18+) who are, for the most part, cooperative.  Most come to class regularly. Most take notes. Most pay attention. I’m happy teaching people who want to learn. I especially enjoy teaching adults who have a purpose for being in school.

Right from the beginning, I can pick out the ones who will succeed. These people are engaged because they have their eyes on the prize. They can see through the long tunnel of classes to the end where their diploma lies. They are serious about learning to make a better life for themselves and the people around them. I admire them. I will stand on my head to help them achieve their goal of getting through my class because they want to learn.

My hardest task is dealing with people who are just taking up space.

Today I had a student tell me,  “She don’t write like that.”

I couldn’t believe it! I couldn’t imagine talking to my teacher like that–in any grade.

I looked her directly in the eye and told her she was in my class to learn how to write properly, so she could communicate with others of authority, get through college required courses without appearing stupid. Needless to say, this smart little chickie in the front row had little to say for the rest of the class.

Sometimes I have to restrain myself from shaking some of these young people and shout, “WAKE UP!”  In one smart-ass comment, this girl announced she wasn’t interested in learning. Perhaps she thinks because this is a  basic class, it will be easy. Sorry, honey. Once you get through the basic classes in college, you realize they are the hardest ones in the curriculum. If her attitude gets in her way, she won’t pass my class because she will continue to “don’t write like that.” Then she will have to repeat the class with someone else after she grows up and realizes she doesn’t know everything.

One of the first assignments I gave this class was to write a paragraph about their BIG dream. Basically, I want to see how they see themselves. More often than not, I see mundane dreams. For instance, “I need an education so I can get a better job.” Or, “My father always said I’d be a good cop.” Or, “I like to be outside so I thought I’d try being a civil engineer.” Really? Has the pressures of life made them limit themselves to the point where they can’t even dream?

I’m paid to teach all the nuts and bolts of our language–in a word, grammar. But what I really try to do everyday in the classroom is get them excited about learning. I try to raise their level of curiosity, so they will go and seek answers to their questions. I want to inspire them to reach for something bigger than just an entry level job that requires a two-year degree. I want them to want more.

And if I get one out of a class of twenty students, to buy into being excited about asking questions, then I’ve achieved 1/20th of my goal. But I can be happy with that because I know that one person will go on and inspire one more person.

All anyone needs to hear is, “It’s okay to dream. Dream big. If you have dream, you can make a plan to get there. Life is short. Make your dream come true.”

Welcome Back, You’re Dreams are Your Ticket Out

welcome-back-to-schoolToday was the first class of my summer writing class at the community college. Right now I have 15 students, which is really a nice number for this basic class. Unfortunately, though, it’s been my experience to lose half of them by the end of the term. I’m hoping I entertained and cajoled them enough this morning to keep most of them engaged.

I’ve taught this class several times, and believe it or not I was just as nervous this morning as I was on the first time I stood in front of a roomful of eyes looking at me. Honestly, I guess I just have to accept getting in front of a class is just like when I was singing in front of audiences — the jitters will always be with me. But that kind of nervousness with sweaty palms and a few butterflies rolling around in my tummy  keeps me on top of my game. I’m alert and alive. Ready to give my best performance.

The hardest job that I have to do is to dispel demons of past “learning” experiences. I also have to kill the bullies who told these people they weren’t smart enough or good enough to be able to make it in college. I always address these two things during our first encounter. You see, teaching adults is different from teaching children. They carry baggage. We need to dump these negative attitudes quickly, so we can travel though the course work successfully.

Adults also need to know how they will benefit from the efforts they put forth. They need to see how learning English grammar will fit into their end goal. So, I also ask each of them what they want to accomplish and why they thought they needed to learn what I was hired to teach them. This discussion usually ends with a list of business communications they all will have to produce.

Then we read a piece by Sherman Alexie about being stereotyped, and I give them an assignment to write a paragraph on how they might or might not identify with the author. All of this is preparation for the future. They don’t know it yet, but I will instill in them that they are good enough for college courses by building their skills and their self-esteem. At the end of the day, we all need that kind of support–even the most seasoned writers among us still have to hear the good stuff.

So every Monday and Wednesday mornings, I’ll be doing my best to pass on my expertise about English grammar and basic writing, while my blog will have to go on the back burner until the afternoon. Forgive me, but it is for a good cause.

Precious Words

festival_of_books1This morning on CBS Sunday Morning, there was a poignant story about a WWII veteran, one of the few living soldiers who participated in the D-Day landing. He had a box full of military medals, but that wasn’t what this story was about. Instead, this piece was about another battle that he fought all of his life.

Throughout his life, he was cut out of a very important world–the world of reading. Others “covered” for him with work reports and other important documents he needed to understand. And he was ashamed that he let them do that for him. He thought being illiterate was more shameful than anything in his life. Oh, he tried to learn to read at different periods, but either he quit or his teacher gave up.

That is, until he recently met a young woman at Northeastern University, who gave him the patience and had the skills to open up the world of reading for him at age 90. His story should be an inspiration for all of us.

First, all of us who can read don’t realize what a precious gift our teachers gave us a long time ago. We can experience different worlds, professions, viewpoints, through millions articles, newspapers and books. We can enjoy novels that touch our hearts. Words are all around us. It’s how we learn. It’s how we expand our worlds from one single town to the universe.

Second, as writers, we are even more blessed because we can contribute our ideas and thoughts to the libraries. We have a chance to touch others in memorable ways. Our true or fiction stories have the power to change people’s lives. With that being true, we must also remember it is our responsibility to tell the truth as we know it.   

I know from now on when I want to whine about how hard it is to write on a particular day, I will remember that veteran,  shut up, and get to work. His quest to learn to read taught me something today. He appreciates books and what they contain. If I never becoming a best selling author, it will be my fault because he reminded me that if I want something, I have to go after it. I have to dig deep, work hard and keep my eye on the prize.

In his memorable words, “If you want to do something, get in there and learn now because you ain’t going to learn in that pine box.”

Get What You Want Creatively

thinking out of the boxWhen I was in college, I majored in English with a writing concentration. At the time, I wanted to be a business writer, but  the university I attended didn’t offer such a specific specialization.

I also was determined to leave college prepared for the workforce. In my instance, that meant I needed to graduate with a professional portfolio of my writing.

With the help of my adviser, I created my own major. (Not really, but it sounds great, doesn’t it?) Actually, what I did was create a way to receive the practical education I needed through 18 credits of internship.

It took me a year and a half to accomplish this feat. Step-by-step, I moved toward my goal. The first step was to write, edit, and develop an English Department monthly newsletter. This simple on-campus publication gave me interviewing practice and a bit of desk-top publishing experience. Believe it or not, this newsletter was good enough to secure a freelance job at one of the big companies in Racine, producing a monthly employee newsletter–before graduation! 

The next step was securing a paid internship at a national communication company as a staff writer. Here I learned to work as a member of a cohesive team. I was assigned small projects, but I did get a chance to write; they didn’t make me file and copy stuff. When the internship was almost over, I received my first baptism by fire. I was hired as one of five writers who wrote, rewrote, and developed materials for an Amoco Training Program. Talk about the Big Time!  I learned about tight deadlines and professional expectations. After the project was over, I even got a raise from $5 to $7/hr. Don’t laugh. That was BIG money for a student in the 1980s.

In May, 1991, I graduated from the University of Wisconsin with my diploma in one hand and my professional writing portfolio in the other. (Here we do the dance of joy!)

So why am I going on about this?

Simple. I’m giving you advice–if you want it. If not, stop reading here.

If you’re backed into any corner, look for the creative way out. (I believe “thinking out of the box” has become trite, but if that works for you, so be it.) Maybe the conventional way of doing things doesn’t work for you, so come up with something different.  If you have a book that needs to be published, and perhaps the traditional publishing route hasn’t worked for you or you desire more creative control over your work, look for other avenues of publishing. We authors have a myriad of choices now, and consequently, there are probably more new books out “there” than at any other time.

Listen, I would love to get rich from my writing, who wouldn’t? But more importantly, I want people to know I’m a good storyteller. I think I created something they might enjoy. And I’m willing to work hard to let them know about my writing. If I have to levitate out of the corner a traditional publishers offers, I’m ready. How about you?


Goodbye and Good Luck

Open your world.

Open your world.

Today is the last day of my writing class. We’re not doing any coursework. We’re just meeting, so I can pass along their final exams and wish them well in their subsequent semesters.

I’m also planning a little Christmas party. It’s purely selfish on my part. I guess it’s because I know some of these folks will not have much of a Christmas because of their economic status. I’m hoping some of them will remember me as a person who encouraged them, even though many times I wanted to shake them and yell, “Wake up! This is your future we’re talking about!”

I have two students I know will go on and get their degrees because they are willing to put in the work it takes to graduate. I have three “special needs” students who will probably never make it. In between, there lies the rest of the class. They have the ability, but no desire. I think they are in school because they don’t know what else to do.

What I’m trying to do with my small gifts is to tell them there is at least one person in the world who cares about them. Oh, and I’m also leaving a little of propaganda with them, too. Maybe some of you can take away a message from these quotations I’ve put together. Or maybe you can pass them on to someone who might need to hear them.


As we part at the end of the semester, I want to give you some thoughts that someday may inspire you. Think about these quotes, then continue your quest.

Your future is created by what you do today, not tomorrow.Kiyoshaki

You are what you think about all day long. — Robert Schuller

You are creating your future with every single thought.Jack Canfield

Finally, here are a few “Barbara Tips” you can take with you:

  • Being fearful of making a mistake prevents you from taking action. TAKE ACTION!
  • Education is all about attitude – be positive toward learning. DON”T MAKE EXCUSES.
  • Nobody ever died from working hard in school. PUT FORTH YOUR BEST EFFORT.
  • Frequently people are unsuccessful because they are afraid to fail. FEEL THE FEAR AND DO IT ANYWAY!
  • Whether you’re rich or poor, be happy first. HAPPINESS BRINGS GOOD THINGS INTO YOUR LIFE.
  • A strong, positive self-perception will carry you through all of the ups and downs in life. THINK THE BEST ABOUT YOURSELF.
  • Everyone has bad times; it’s how you handle them that show what kind of person you truly are. SHOW YOUR BEST WHEN THINGS ARE THE WORST.
  • Be aware of the words you use. What you say is a reflection of your self-perception. CHANGE YOUR WORDS, AND YOU’LL CHANGE YOUR LIFE.
  • A long journey begins with the IDEA to go on the trip. GET ON THE TRAIN TOWARD SUCCESS.

Finally, I leave you with this thought. The true definition of a teacher is someone who tries to draw out the genius in her students. When you find the genius inside of you, don’t shut the door. Instead, welcome it in, encourage it and continue to learn for a lifetime.

It’s the best gift I can give you.

–Barbara Celeste McCloskey

It’s Not Summer, But I Need a Vacation!

Finish lineTonight is the second to last night of my writing class. In a way, I’m sad, but in a way I’m very glad. It’s not bittersweet, it sweet bitters. In other words, this class has worn me down. I think this class has contributed to the funk I wrote about yesterday.

On Monday, we went through the final chapter of the book on homonyms — of course, to dumb everything down so people can understand, the authors now they call these words that sound alike and have different meanings, “Sound Alike/Look Alike” words.

Egads! Do the authors really think adult students are too stupid to understand the Latin word Homonyms? After all, if you know anything about Latin roots, you can figure out the meaning of the word from it’s syllables. But, I digress.

After we finished the course work, I had planned a spelling relay game to help them review the spelling words that might appear on their final. The reaction was unbelievable.

“Aw, this is stupid!”

“Do we have to do this?”

 “What do you mean, working in teams?”

There was so much push back from them, I blew a gasket and told them to forget it. Then I announced the class was over. I had enough of their lazy and apathetic attitudes, and I wasn’t going to hide it any more. They saw the “Wrath of Barbara” clearly, and they left like children, mumbling they would see me Wednesday.

I couldn’t understand what had just happen at the time. All of my other classes had fun doing this spelling relay. They enjoyed the camaraderie of working together as a team and the competition of going up against another team of their peers.  On one level, I was disappointed in myself for not controlling my temper better, but on another, I was glad to let out this frustration.

Deep down, I fear for these students. They have no idea what employers expect nowadays–especially with the big dreams they have for their futures. I have no idea how these students are going to make it in the “real” world. After all, working in teams and showing cooperation is all part of the corporate game.

So, I’ll give them their “practice test” tonight, the final on Monday and then wish them all well on Dec. 19th–our last day. They’re going to need it.

Fears and Exhilaration of Flying High

mother bird

With the semester ending in two weeks, I want to give my students a gift. I want to leave them with a message that they can carry with them. My message is:

Your future is created by what you do today, not tomorrow.Kiyoshaki

You are what you think about all day long. — Robert Schuller

You are creating your future with every single thought.Jack Canfield

This class has been a challenge to my teaching skills. I’ve been frustrated and stymied, and my students have been bored. After all, how exciting is basic English grammar? But through the sixteen weeks we’ve been together, somehow we’ve achieved equilibrium. You see, by now, the twelve people who have stuck out the semester are the ones who want their lives to change. They want a brighter future, and they have learned they have to work for it.

The next step is for them to BELIEVE they can create the lives want. That’s why I want to pass on the knowledge that they CAN CREATE THEIR OWN FUTURES by simply thinking about what they want. Some people say, “Fake it till you make it;” but it’s deeper than that. Faking anything is false. What I want my students to do is find the truth about their abilities and the happiness doing work they would do for free but are making a good living doing it.

I have shared my own story because I have been where they are. When I graduated from college, I wanted to be a business writer. With the help of a very good adviser, I massaged my curriculum to graduate with the experience and skills I needed, and I had a happy career for 20 years. Then when times got tough, I took a left turn and became a financial adviser. That was a wrong turn for me–I worked every hour of the day to try to squeeze my round head into a square hole.  After six years of banging my head against the wall, I returned to writing and found happiness again. For the first time in my life, novels poured out of me. I couldn’t wait to see what my characters would do everyday when I sat down to write. I was exhilarated and happy because I was growing once again in the “soil in which I had been planted.”

When my students leave, I will remind them to follow THEIR path, not one that someone else thinks they should follow. And like a mother bird, I will push them out of the nest and encourage them to stretch their wings and fly high.

Getting a Mule to Drink Education

You can only be truly successful if you take complete responsibility for your life. – Anonymous

One of my pet peeves is someone who blames everyone else for his or her failures. You’ve probably known people like this. They go through life whining about how they’ve been wronged, hurt, slighted or cheated out of what should have been theirs. Instead of being courageous and taking charge of their lives, they grow old disgruntled, still believing life owes them something. Running around life with a huge “chip on one’s shoulder” is so tiring.

I have one student in my class who has such potential to succeed, but he suffers from this problem. He whines because he lost his book. During class, he told me the grammar concepts I was teaching were stupid. After all, he can write, why did he have to learn the terms of the language?

Last night I had had enough and I blasted him. I told him he was very smart, but utterly lazy. I told him he could write his own ticket if he just quit whining and started working.

He stared at me and bragged about the grades he had gotten last semester without opening a book. I retorted, “That’s fine. But imagine what you could have done if you had studied! Don’t you realize there are scholarships out there for students who are willing to PROVE they are smart? What are you afraid of?”

He realized I had his number. At that moment, he realized I knew he was afraid of failing, especially if he puts effort into it. If he doesn’t work and fails, he can say, “That’s okay. I didn’t study.” Again, he’s made an excuse for himself and thinks he can back out gracefully.What a waste of a good mind.

I have three more weeks of this semester left to inspire him. He’s worth the effort, even though he doesn’t think so right now.

Think and Ye Shall Learn, Research and Ye Shall Know

For months, you’ve heard my frustrations about the unmotivated students in my writing class, and their low level of excitement for what I’m trying to teach them. But, tonight I’m looking forward to getting together. You see, when I left them on Monday night, they all left class excited about their new assignment.

On Monday I gave them a research project. It seems to me that they are not too curious about anything, so I wanted to send them into the library to find out about something they probably don’t know. To get them started, I threw out a bunch of ideas I had conjured up while watching the Sunday football games.  One girl in the class asked me where I got all of the ideas, and when I pointed to my head, she rolled her eyes and said, “No shit?”

Some of the ideas were pretty obscure. Here’s an example: “Where did the expression, “rainy cats and dogs” come from? There were other mundane questions like, “How did Thanks giving become a National Holiday?” Another one was, “Who invented beer?” (Remember, I’m dealing with a college class.) Their assignment was to find the answer and write a paragraph about their findings. I impressed upon them they had to do more than just find the answer.

So tonight, I’ll get to hear what they discovered. With them picking their own topic from the list, I’m hoping they’ll get excited and really get into the topic. I’m hoping by getting them into the library or going online to do their sleuthing, they’ll get excited about something that will light their fire.

Do I believe in miracles? You betcha!

Later — The experiment was a success. The students took pride in reading their paragraphs based on their findings in FRONT of the class. In fact, the quietest kid was the first to volunteer. Chalk one up for the teacher!