The fall semester class was POS 115: Issues in American Politics. I just met with my advisor to pick out my final classes that I needed to earn my associate's degree and graduate from Mesa Community College. I was missing 3 credits in social and behavioral sciences. So after reviewing all my options, I made my decision and registered.
I enjoyed attending community college. For me it was a chance to meet people of all ages, experiences, and backgrounds. It also allowed me the opportunity to continue working full-time to pay my tuition. So it was with wide-eyed curiosity and willingness to learn that I attended my first evening class for POS 115.
As soon as I entered the classroom, I realized my mistake. If I had a better memory, I never would have picked this course by this particular teacher. I had previously registered for this class and dropped it for a singular reason, the teacher. The teacher was a little crotchety on his best day. His comments were direct and sometimes painful to hear. He was demanding and had unrealistically high expectations, or so we thought. He rarely smiled, but he loved the subject. He never used a textbook, standardized curriculum, or multiple choice exams. He used open educational resources before it became higher education's latest trend. He didn’t allow but one absence and it had to be accompanied by a doctor’s note or death certificate.
He would hand out photocopied articles he had collected throughout the years. Some current news, but mostly old articles. We were required to read them aloud in class and then dissect the various arguments to develop personal opinions on the spot. For one assignment, we watched Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing in class so we could write a detailed position paper on the various ideologies presented. Every week he sent us home with political articles and we would write a minimum 3 page summary and argument/opinion paper that was due the next class period in addition to larger project papers spaced sporadically throughout the semester.
He publicly challenged our opinions and required us to defend the position in front of the whole class which by now consisted of just 9 other students who were unlucky enough to need these same three credits to graduate.
Whether he intended to or not, this crass and unforgiving teacher taught me important life lessons.
- Understand your audience. To pass this class with an “A”, I needed to understand my teacher and his expectations. In work, college, or life in general, in order to be heard, you must first understand your audience. Until this point, everything I loved about my community college experience no longer applied. I was not there to joke around during the evening class with my teacher or make new friends, I was there to learn about specific events in American politics, their impact, and formulate an educated opinion. You have to understand your audience before you can effectively communicate your perspective.
- Formulate an informed opinion. As the saying goes, “opinions are like noses, everyone has one,” but for most people developing a solid opinion and standing behind it are the most terrifying things they can encounter. It exposes our most internal beliefs. It opens us up to having our beliefs and opinions challenged and rejected. However, it’s these strong beliefs, when shared with the world that create change. Steve Jobs was not an easy man to work for or with, but he was a visionary. His staunch opinion of how technology could change the world created advancements that no one could imagine.
- Listen and understand other opinions. I did not always agree with my teacher, but I learned the valuable skills of understanding and tolerance. It’s important to develop good listening skills and be able to hear what another person is saying so you can better understand their point of view. It is also important throughout life to develop tolerance for others who have opinions different from your own. Life requires everyone to “agree to disagree” and for some this skill comes easier than for others.
- Reading and writing are lifelong learning skills. It seems pretty basic, reading and writing. Both of these subjects are learned at an early age. This was by far the most intense class I had taken during my community college career. This course forced me to critically read and analyze at a level not required in my previous courses. I had to develop opinions that were supported by evidence through clearly articulated written assignments. Effectively communicating is important throughout life.
As I reflect back on this specific class, I realize that what I understood to be a mean teacher was instead a teacher who placed high expectations on his students and challenged them to defend conflicting opinions with evidence resulting from many sources because the world would expect the same. Those lessons and challenges prepared me for so much more than just meeting minimum course requirements, student outcomes, passing standardized tests, or understanding American politics. This course prepared me for life.
What did you learn from your “meanest teacher ever”?