Thursday, May 28, 2015


I just watched the most amazing display. It was one of those experiences where I had to tell myself I was actually seeing what I was seeing.

First, let me set the scene: I’m on break from teaching college English for the summer. The high schools are still in session, and so I work as a substitute teacher. It is a win / win. Once I get the classes started and working on the assignment their regular teacher has left for them, I get a chance to write.

Today is a nice, sunny day at the end of May. I am covering for a Microsoft Word class, so the students each have a computer in front of them and are working quietly on their assignments.

One of the other classes, I don’t know which, are outside working on some sort of project. Some of the students have sports equipment (footballs, tennis rackets, hockey and lacrosse sticks, and a few tennis balls) and are playing across the courtyard. I can see them from my window.

I am not paying them much attention, until I notice several of them standing around a large tree. This time of the year, it is thick, and filled with leaves and branches. Looking closer, I see that one of their footballs is stuck near the top of the tree—too high up for any of them to climb.

After discussing it over as a group, they step back, and using their one remaining football, try to knock the other one out of the tree. Three attempts later, they are not having any luck. On the fourth attempt, the other football gets stuck—not far from the first one.

Once again the students huddle and talk about what to do. Next, one of the students—a tall one with dark hair and fuzz on his chin—throws one of the tennis rackets at the footballs stuck in the tree. Not surprisingly, the racket catches one of the top branches of the tree and stays there.

At this point, I’m looking around for their teacher, but he is on the other side of the courtyard watching different students play some sort of game.

Seemingly undaunted by their recent failures, the students with the remaining sports equipment start throwing everything they have at what the tree has captured. Within moments, all of the items are now lodged somewhere in the tree—and still out of reach.

Without anything else to hurl at the tree, the students look at each other. It was at that moment when I see the proverbial lightbulbs go on over their heads. They now realize they lost more than just one football to the tree; they lost everything.

Instead of going to their teacher, the students sit around the tree, heads hanging in defeat.

Class ends twenty minutes later. The students leave.

The equipment is still in the tree. 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Teaching Top 10

I did it. I completed my first year of teaching college English. Though some may find this hard to believe, I honestly feel I learned as much, if not more, than my students.

To be clear, not everything I learned related directly to English. Some of it was about teaching, and even life in general.

What did I learn? Here is my personal top 10.

Number 10: It takes longer to prep for a class than to teach it.

It should only take me about 75 minutes to prepare for a class that runs 75 minutes, right? Nope! I use PowerPoints, short videos, images, and examples when I teach. Each of these takes time to create. The challenge is to make sure I’m teaching the concepts in a way in which the students can actually learn. How long does a lesson take to prepare? Depending on the topic, several hours.

Number 9: The students who sit in the back aren’t the worst students—most of the time.

I remember being told that the best students are those who sit on the front row. That isn’t always the case. Personally, I like to sit in the back because I’m tall and have good vision. And I’m something of an introvert. Some of my best students sat on the back row. But to be fair, almost all of my worst student sat in the back.

Number 8: Teaching can be heartbreaking.

I couldn’t help but get to know many of my students on a personal level from reading their work. One of the big assignments in ENG 111 is to write a personal narrative. Time and again, I was surprised, shocked, and dismayed at many of the events my students had endured. From abusive parents / spouses / boyfriends or girlfriends, to coming to America and having to learn English as a second language, to serious medical conditions (and the list goes on), I grew a new appreciation for overcoming challenges.

Number 7: English, as a language, is pretty confusing.

They’re, Their, and There? When to use whom instead of who? How to explain to a person where English is not their first language when it is appropriate to use “had had” in a sentence. (Example: I had had better days.) What is the difference between affect and effect? Frankly, some of these are downright perplexing! Oh, and by the way, here is a tip for using whom instead of who: replace the word with “he” and “him.” If “him” sounds better, use “whom.” (See how both end with the letter “m”?)

Number 6: College teachers spend more time working outside of class than in—by a lot!

The vast majority of the time in a college class, I’m teaching. It isn’t me just talking the whole time, sometimes we do other learning activities. But grading papers, creating lectures and assignments? These are all done outside of the classroom. 

Number 5: Some students simply do not care.

One of the biggest surprises was encountering students who just didn’t care about the class or learning the material. These are those who would sleep through class, or read books while I am lecturing, and (more often than not) turn in poor work, if they turned it in at all. I only had a few students like this over the last year—but it was common enough to indicate it wasn’t as rare as I would have imagined.

Number 4: Doing the basics makes a huge difference.

At the start of each semester, I give my students the four keys to doing well in a college class. These are: 1. Do ALL of the assignments. 2. Do all of the assignments ON TIME. 3. Do all of the assignments on time AND TO THE BEST OF YOUR ABILITY. 4. Do any EXTRA CREDIT the teacher offers. Most of the students who dropped or failed my classes couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do the first basic rule.

Number 3: Most people procrastinate.

For my classes, almost all of the assignments are submitted online through a program called Blackboard. The deadline for the assignments is 11:59 PM on the assigned day. When a student submits an assignment through the computer, it displays when the assignment was turned in. More than half of my students turned in papers within the final hours before it is due—even when they have had days, and sometimes weeks, to work on it.

Number 2: Good writing takes time.

I already knew this, somewhat, yet it was reinforced this last year. Writing is a process. The papers written for my class went through several stages: prewriting (getting ideas), research, creating an outline, writing a rough draft, doing peer reviews, re-writing the paper based on the feedback, submitting the next draft to a tutoring service (either online or on campus), re-writing the paper again, and then submitting it for the final grade. Those students who did this process earned a good grade. Those who waited until the last minute? Not so much.

Number 1: Teaching is the most rewarding job I’ve ever had.

I’m not saying that my other jobs in retail, TV, and banking didn’t have their perks, but they don’t come close to teaching. Sure, the money isn’t as good. Yet, it is an amazing experience to watch a student grow and apply what they have learned. My primary goal is to help them learn how to learn. That is a skill they will use throughout their lives. When a student tells me, “Mr. Morgan, I’ve never liked English before. But now, I’m getting it. I can see why it is important and how I can use it in my major”—that is a feeling that is 100 times better than being told I was the top sales manager or that our snow coverage set a ratings record.