The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 1)

In the fall of 1986 my life took a turn. I’m in a pretty good mood today, so I won’t say it was a turn for the worse. Ask me tomorrow, though, and I might describe it as a swerve that took me right up to the precipice. It’s all a matter of perspective.

In the fall of 1986, I became a new graduate student in the Department of English at Texas A&M University. The head of the department met with me in person, shortly before sending my acceptance letter, and told me he found my academic performance, as an undergrad, praiseworthy. As a way of demonstrating how impressed he was, he offered me the job of “Graduate Teaching Assistant”—or GAT, which rhymes with GNAT, an interesting similarity given that both are located quite far down on their respective food chains. This meant I would be both a student and a teacher. Of course, I said yes to the offer.

The department then handed me a textbook and a syllabus and pointed me in the direction of my classroom. The assignment I’d gladly accepted—but began to feel less and less confident about as the start of the semester neared—consisted of teaching two sections of a course called “Introduction to Freshman Writing,” or something very similar to that.

In truth, I was scared shitless about the whole teaching thing but was happy to have the job. That’s because they promised to pay me almost nine hundred dollars per month. Today, that sounds like nothing—and it is—but to a poor student—one so underfed that the outline of his ribcage routinely showed through his shirt—the sum promised groceries in the fridge and thus three squares a day.

The day before my teaching job was to begin, I tried hard to imagine what it would be like having so many faces staring at me from so many rows of desks. Then the actual first class happened and it was even more traumatic than I’d ever dreamed possible. The expressions on the faces of my students suggested that they expected me to say important things and give them helpful guidance. This meant that they actually thought of me as a real instructor with knowledge and ability and such. This fact scared the hell out of me and made me question all sorts of things, including the sanity of those who’d hired me.

Needless to say, I was terrible during that first term. What I did in the classroom should in no way, using the most liberal definitions available to us, be called “teaching.”

Here I am, these great many years later, still in the classroom and still wondering if I’m good enough. (Evidence suggests that I’m a hell of a lot better than I was when I first started.)

The following blogs will tell the story of the teacher who never should have been a teacher and will chronicle my growth in the profession.  They’ll also be about the foreign places my teaching career has taken me and the insights I’ve gained while doing this work. I hope those who read the blogs will find them interesting, humorous, and maybe even a bit thought-provoking.

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