Did you ever have a professor or TA who would walk into class in a huff, as if they just got off a treadmill? That was me. In grad school I taught two sections of a literary theory course, each section back-to-back. One class wrapped, then I’d hustle almost a mile across campus to the next one, which happened in ten minutes.
The first class of the day took place in a classroom that resembled a board room. I’d start discussions with slides while the students sat at an impressive conference table. The second section had no such luck. In their assigned classroom, the students had to sit at single desks of elementary school smallness. The small room seemed to be the result of either poor planning or budget cuts or over-enrollment. (or, all of the above)
This is one of slides from the theory class that I taught. Riveting.
One day in the second section, I walked in with a huff as usual, making my way past the crammed desks, hoping mostly to get by the students before they would have to look at my butt for too long.
Once at the chalkboard, I turned around and surveyed the classroom and all 15 exhausted students were there, plus one more: an older man I had never seen before.
Occasionally the English department would send a professor to sit in on a class see how the TAs were doing. This was not a professor, just an older man in a windbreaker. He may have even been homeless. He had a threadbare look, and his face was drawn into a semi-permanent tautness. Survival mode.
Our eyes met and I tried to understand him. What kind of person would want to sit in a packed room with tired undergrads and listen to some woman go on about Stanley Fish? I proceeded with the lecture and discussion, and did my best to just go forward. The other students gradually noticed him and, sleepily, their days as busy and confusing as mine, visibly tried to scry who he was.
They never teach you in teaching workshops what to do if a new person suddenly joins your tiny, brick-and-mortar class. You learn what to do when students cry, or if they miss a final, but not if a total stranger appears.
For a few seconds during the lesson I worried that the stranger might even be dangerous, but something in his appearance kept me from making this judgment. A useless flowchart of ’if : thens’ built in my head. If he is dangerous, then do I tackle him? End class as soon as possible? Talk more about Russian Formalism? The weirdest thing about him was that he seemed to be listening intently. At one point he even began to take notes.
At the end of the class everyone left and the stranger remained seated. I left the classroom as well, and the math class that happened after our section piled into the room. A math student entered the room, saw the man, then chose a seat slightly further away from the stranger.
Looking back, there are actions I could have taken with the stranger that may have been ‘better’ or ‘safer’. I could have addressed him directly (hey, uh, sir, who are you?). I could have called campus security (and reported what? a rogue learner?). I’ll never know what he wanted, but it may have been something as simple as a warm room and something to think about.
Maybe what I did was best: just letting him be. No attention paid, no reaction given.
But I learned an interesting lesson that day: In most realms of education, teachers can never choose their students, and they can never control who steps foot into a classroom. Teachers can definitely ‘fire’ their students in some cases, but they have mostly no say in who gets in the door to begin with. All a teacher can do is choose how they interact with everything that the day throws at them. That’s both the fun and danger that faces educators everywhere.
With universities that now offer open enrollment for their courses, maybe the problem and confusion that I had with this stranger will be less likely to happen to other educators. You have to hope. Learning should be open to everyone, even if everyone is a little strange.
What do you think, though? Did I make the right choice? Has anyone else ever had this happen, and what did you do?