Friday, October 22, 2010

needs improvement

I just finished grading a whack load of essays and exams as part of my job description as a Teaching Assistant. The students have a lot to learn...and so do I. I occasionally drop my jaw and say, "Oh, wow!" at some of the creative answers that I come across (like mistaking the incarnation of Jesus for the endless cycle of re-incarnation), but the thing that really amazes me is that as much as the students' responses reveal how well they have grasped the material, my response to their work also reveals how much I have to learn in dealing with people.

One of the abilities I have developed over time is being able to see what is missing or where something is inadequate, so I make a good proofreader and a fairly accurate and meticulous grader. However, I can also discourage people by always pointing out what is lacking. Not only in their work and their writing, but sometimes I comment on people's actions and life choices as well. You see where this ends up - I am not always that pleasant to be around. In fact, I brought a student to tears this past week. Not that I was mean or nasty, but I was insensitive to the fact that for someone writing a paper for the first time, having all their mistakes pointed out can be very overwhelming and extremely discouraging, especially when they have put a lot of effort into it. I was gently reminded by my gracious Teacher that behind every essay and every exam that I am grading, there is a human being. And the remarks I write on the paper will affect that human being. I may be correcting words, but I am interacting with a person. I can't forget that. And every interaction must be filled with love and grace, even while offering correction.

I have been on the receiving end of remarks that cut me deeply and discouraged me. I know the professor was only trying to help me improve my writing, but my expectations, my subjective attachment to my work, and the many hours I put into the project made it difficult for me to hear that I had not done the assignment properly. That I had missed the point to some degree. After the initial shock of a disappointing result, I looked for someone to blame (the professor), and then it slowly started to sink in that, yes, I didn't get it totally right. I have something to learn. And this is why I am here, after all: to learn. I need to listen more carefully and read more thoughtfully and pay attention to what is being asked of me. This is humility. And this is the only way that I will make progress: by humbling myself.

The professor I am working for is a kind and wise man. He gives me a great deal of positive support as well as a lot of opportunity to learn by doing. One of the things he said to me has become my mantra in this job: be humble, yet confident. And that is what I want to help these students to embrace as well. I want them to develop the confidence to try something new, to explore something they know little about, to offer their thoughts and grapple with hard questions. But I also want them to remain humble in the process, open to correction, always attentive to others, and never assume that they got it all right.

We are all students. Some of us have just been at it a bit longer.
This is the view I saw last this week when I was waiting for the bus on the way to the university: the yellow leaves of fall, the freshly painted white line which a car drove over and smeared onto the manhole cover, the asphalt crack from the weight of traffic and the unforgiving weather, and the beautiful symmetry of the circle.

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