In May 1999 a gift appeared that continues to empower me. No, not a million-dollar grant. A request from a student: “Dick, I want you to be my mentor. I’m interested in writing and teaching. I’ve studied writing with you for two semesters. Your approach and ways of thinking intrigue me. I want to learn more.”
Always eager to learn, Erin was an impressive student: intellectually curious, perceptive, tenacious in research, adept at giving and receiving criticism, supportive of classmates, persistent and thoughtful in revising drafts. I asked her to write a proposal.
She envisioned her role as akin to that of a colonial boy apprenticing with a blacksmith. Her sincerity, awareness of history, and apt simile persuaded me. Her simile also brought to mind a colleague’s frequent quip that teaching writing is hammer-and-tong work.
While internships are common in, say, workforce development programs, student internships with faculty aren’t usually available until grad school. How can I not do this, I pondered, especially given Erin ’s abilities and commitment? Yes, I taught five writing courses. Yes, I was active in college governance and culture. Yes, administrative resistance hovered. Still, I plunged.
In summer Erin and I hammered out details. During the upcoming school year, she’d assist me teaching one composition course per term. She’d coach peer-critique groups (the heart of my pedagogy), answer student questions, occasionally facilitate all-class mini-lessons, hold two office hours with me per week, respond to student writing, and be available as a tutor.
We agreed that I’d critique her performance, and she’d critique mine, just as our students would be learning to give and receive constructive criticism of drafts in progress. To propel her into the role of colleague, I introduced Erin as co-teacher. From the first day, she won students’ trust, worked with them like a pro, and shared with me her observations, questions, and concerns.
Our students embraced her coaching. She was a peer who’d completed the rigorous course successfully and was now committed to their success. Many viewed her as a role model who worked hard in pursuit of aspirations and willingly served others. Her dedication inspired even students who seemed stuck in the idea that doing well in school isn’t hip. Teacher-intern collegiality sparked community and active involvement.
After, during, and before class, I welcomed Erin ’s perspective. In my lifelong pursuit of excellence in teaching and learning, little did I imagine the gift of such ongoing collegial inquiry. If a class didn’t go so well, she’d observe, “Things went fine today, but something was missing. What do you think it was?” During class, while students were busy in their groups, she’d say, “Some students still struggle with focus on this paper. What should we do?”
Anticipating a class, she’d offer, “I remember how hard it was at first for my critique group, at the stage of refining style, to avoid discussing surface errors and keep focused on tough style issues such as sentence flow and word choice. I’ve been thinking we might prep the groups by . . .”
During office hours, when students from my other classes appeared, I identified Erin as an intern and asked if they minded her being present. They didn’t. In one gut-wrenching conference, a young man sobbed as he explained how his personal situation undermined his schooling. Afterwards, Erin said, “That was heartbreaking—and amazing how you worked with him. How did you know what to say when he said . . . ?”
Her questions challenged me to articulate my pedagogy, in this case a process of listening attentively to a student while at the same time listening to my inner guide. The practice had evolved intuitively and eventually had become conscious. But I’d never tried to explain it. Ongoing collegial inquiry with Erin , and succeeding interns, has impelled my self-awareness and growth as a reflective teacher. A true colleague is a mirror. I see my teaching and my students’ learning with increasing clarity.
Also curious to observe faculty behind the scenes, Erin asked to shadow me at committee meetings. Most of our college committees and task forces do include students, and during her apprenticeship, she served with me on four or five. In part because of her sense of responsibility as an intern, she readily volunteered to do research and help craft reports.
Openness seemed essential about college issues behind the scenes. An undergrad worthy of working with students can be trusted to act with integrity. Once when granted a hearing with the president and vice president together, I asked if Erin might attend. They welcomed her, and she added insight to the frank discussion of waning faculty morale.
As part of the college’s Excellence in Instruction series for the general faculty, Erin, taking my role, introduced and concluded a session in which a critique group from our class demonstrated a particular stage of our peer-critiquing process. For English faculty in the Virginia Community College System, we co-presented at least one session on peer critique groups.
We continued to collaborate on college projects the following year as well, and at the annual meeting of the Two-Year College English Association-Southeast, Erin and I co-presented a retrospective session on her apprenticeship. My experience mentoring her sparked my enlisting a student intern each year thereafter until my retirement, using the model Erin and I had wrought.
In early May my current apprentice and I would discuss promising candidates. We considered students who’d earned A’s or high B’s in Comp 1 and 2, expressed an interest in teaching (any subject), and worked effectively with classmates. As my third apprentice, Jessica, and I discussed the qualifications of a certain young man, she quipped, “He won’t be as much fun as me to work with, but he’ll do a great job.”
Each year the student chosen to be invited said yes—and followed through—save the very last invitee, who said yes in May and in July decided to move out of state. It was my fourth year teaching in a learning community combining comp and US history. The history prof assisted me in teaching comp anyway, and at such a late date I decided not to seek a replacement apprentice.
Because of time and energy constraints, three interns elected not to participate with me on college committees and at professional conferences. I wish all, as apprentice professionals, could have experienced those additional challenges and ensuing accomplishments, satisfaction, and self-confidence.
Here is Jessica’s reflection:
Since I was shadowing Dick, I was able to see first hand how things are done behind the scenes. I became a member of the College Advisory Council and got to sit in on meetings with faculty and even the president. I helped a sub-committee of the CAC draft a constitution and by-laws for a proposed College Senate.
Dick took me to two conferences during my internship. The first was a huge meeting of English professors from Virginia ’s community colleges. I sat in on discussions and even found the nerve to speak up.
At the other conference, Dick and I gave our own presentation on the writing process. Being in front of a room full of students is pretty intimidating, but it doesn’t compare to what I felt in front of all of those teachers, although the experience was worth it.
Two apprentices chose to earn course credit via independent study. They kept a professional journal, wrote a term paper on some aspect of learner-centered teaching, and were evaluated formally and graded. The others chose to apprentice solely for the experience. All earned a beefed-up résumé and letters of recommendation for scholarships/awards/transfer/employment.
In my forty years as a teacher, mentoring apprentices has been as important to me as any professional work, benefiting the apprentices, our students, and especially me. What gratitude I feel toward them for the lessons I’ve learned. What joy to have offered them such a unique professional experience. I was going to teach that course and keep those office hours anyway. Did mentoring take much extra time and effort? No. Did it cost anything? No. Were there administrative hassles? No.
Each apprentice has met or exceeded my expectations. Each has been good company; helped me learn mutuality, interdependence, and comfort at being observed and critiqued. Each has helped me teach with camaraderie and pluck, greater understanding of students’ needs, and heightened self-awareness. Each has helped me, in the heat of my packed professional life, keep focused on my primary reason for being: teaching and learning.
Like blacksmithing, the teaching of writing, especially with a true colleague, is hammer-and-tong work, yes, and a whole lot more.
Where Is Erin Now?
As a homeschooler, Erin was accustomed to learner-centered learning, which we practiced in our class and often discussed during her apprenticeship. The next year she initiated student-faculty roundtables to discuss and promote active learning throughout the college.
In part because of her student-faculty roundtables and her apprenticeship, not to mention her stellar grades, Erin was honored by Phi Theta Kappa, “USA Today,” and the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges as the number one community college student in Virginia and as one of the top sixty in the nation. She went on to graduate from the great books program at St. John’s College in Annapolis , Maryland , arguably one of the most intellectually demanding undergraduate curricula in the US .
An outstanding student, in her senior year she was invited to address a learned society regarding how she intended to apply what she’d acquired at St. John’s . Her passion to enrich her home community so moved the audience, including the college president, that he invited her to deliver the same address to the board of visitors.
Erin now works at Piedmont Virginia Community College as the business liaison for Piedmont Futures. She coordinates a K-12 outreach program that teaches area kids about careers, encourages them to imagine themselves as accountants or photographers or zoologists, and helps high school students find internships with local businesses. She’ll make a presentation about the program in a session at an upcoming professional conference.
And Erin’s Successors?
Chip graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in religious studies and teaches in a school for troubled boys.
Jessica pursues her passion for landscaping by working at a garden center and dreams of completing her studies and teaching history.
Jim graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in English, plans to attend graduate school, and will likely become a college professor.
Sasha transferred to the University of Virginia to pursue a double major in German and psychology and will likely become a college professor.
Amanda (who began college as a developmental student) will graduate in May 2009 from Longwood University with a degree in elementary education and then launch her teaching career.
Brittany transferred to Mary Baldwin College, where she is studying to become a speech teacher/therapist for kids in the elementary grades.
–Dick Harrington is Professor Emeritus of English at Piedmont Virginia Community College, Charlottesville, VA. He was a founding faculty member there in 1972, retired officially in 2004, taught composition and student development courses part time until May 2008, and then actually retired.