I Teach and I Learn


glasses-on-book

There’s no better profession for a curious person.

By Joey Kennedy

Oh, August. You’re here. And school will start soon.

I’m a teacher, and there’s not a much better profession for a curious person. Well, I’ve been a journalist my entire adult life, and that’s pretty good, too. But I’ve been teaching in the English Department at UAB since 2001. This fall will be my 17th semester as a “college professor.”

My first semester started a couple weeks before 9/11. It was a challenging first semester for a rookie instructor. First, I viewed myself from the start as pretty much a fraud in the classroom. I was halfway through a master’s degree in English, had never taught a class in my life, and here I was, shortly after the most infamous terror attack on the United States, trying to help my young students make sense of the senseless.

I got through it, and it’s been a rare spring or fall semester I haven’t taught.

I’m a teacher. Yes, I am. And I love it.

Some of my students call me “Dr.” Kennedy. I’m not a doctor; I’ve never earned a Ph.D., like most of my colleagues. I correct my students: “Not doctor, just mister.” Still some students insist on “Dr. Kennedy,” no matter how many times I correct them.

Many students call me Professor Kennedy. I let that one go, though I fully understand professor is a “rank” at a university, and my rank is “instructor.” Nobody calls me “Instructor Kennedy,” however. Some students call me Mr. Joey, and that’s OK. And I imagine some have called me much worse, especially those who had never made a B in their lives until they took one of my composition or literature classes.

I’m a teacher. And I hope to be the kind of teacher I wanted to have throughout my schooling. I believe one of a teacher’s primary responsibilities is to encourage, and I do try to encourage. No matter how poorly a student may write, I always try to find something encouraging in their writing. Sometimes that’s difficult. But not often.

I can teach writing; I’m no fraud there. I tell my students on the first day of classes that if they are crappy writers but follow our course during the semester, they may still be crappy writers at the end, but they’ll be  better crappy writers. It’s true, too.

There are few individuals in our lives— our parents or another relative, maybe, or perhaps a close friend—who have an impact on a person’s life more than a teacher. I’m reminded of that, when I hear from students I had years ago who tell me they were inspired my one of my classes, or they were going to drop out of college but I changed their mind, or they couldn’t stand composition or literature until they took my class (most of those still didn’t like the courses, but they could tolerate them).

That doesn’t happen every day or every month or even every year. But it happens, and that’s worth all the money UAB has paid me to teach since 2001 (but I’m not giving any of that money back).

For a student to tell me they made it through engineering or medical school or became a nurse practitioner because of some influence I may have had on their college education is the ultimate reward.

I remember the names of my better teachers—Mrs. Willis, Mrs. LaRose, Dr. Grimes, Dr. Quinlin, Dennis Covington. Somebody may remember Mr. Joey.

For the rare student—and there have been a few—who changes majors from business or something else to English because of one of my classes, I’m greatly fulfilled.

I am a teacher. My mother would have been blown away, but she died four years before I started teaching. My wife, who had her master’s degree and was teaching long before I was, must be amazed that I’m a teacher now.

When I was a young sports writer at The Anniston Star, without even a bachelor’s degree yet, and had just started dating Veronica, she was working on her master’s degree in English at Jacksonville State University. She had some research papers due, and I told her I’d help her with her research.

Veronica gave me some scholarly journals about “bildungsroman” to help her with. I got out my little paperback dictionary (this was 1978—there was no Google) and looked up the word “bildungsroman.” It wasn’t in my obviously abridged dictionary. So I didn’t call her back. I figured that relationship was over.

Eventually Veronica called me, wanting her journals articles returned. I sheepishly handed them over, claiming, truthfully, I was stopped abruptly by not even finding a definition for “bildungsroman.” She forgave me because she saw the humor in the situation, our relationship amazingly continued, and I learned what a “bildungsroman” was. If you don’t know, Google it.

And now I’m teaching “bildungsroman” in my literature classes. Who would have thought it? Certainly not Veronica. Certainly not me. I truly have come of age.

I am a teacher, and when somebody asks me why I teach, I tell them: “I teach mainly to learn.”

I learn so much from my students, not only about them, their dreams, their likes, their dislikes, their hopes, their hobbies, their music and their fun times, but also about their passions — and their passions always have a lesson to teach. I’ve developed relationships with students over the years that I still cherish and value today.

I’ll continue later this month at UAB, for my 17th fall semester.

I am, indeed, a teacher, and I am honored to be among that group.

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