“The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility.”
– bell hooks
Growing up, I was one of the lucky ones for whom school was a desirable place to be. The Internet did not exist, and to learn new things, one generally had to leave home and go to school or the public library. Teachers and books transported my hungry young mind to unfamiliar places and taught me that there was so much more to the world than what I could see in my small suburban town.
Because I lived in an affluent area, my public school was well-resourced with capable faculty and staff, the latest technology (back then, that meant having an Apple II computer on the premises), and access to new teaching and learning methods. Plus, my mom was a high school English teacher. From a young age, school was an important part of my life, and I had a powerful and supportive insider guiding me on my journey.
Exemplary experiences in my college and post-graduate career cemented my love of education and the pursuit of new knowledge. There, I experimented with the art of the metaphor – connecting seemingly unrelated ideas, texts, and philosophies in ways that excited me, expanded my awareness, and left me curious, not just about the content, but about the learning process itself. Having benefitted so much from my college-level studies, I knew I wanted to one day teach others after I had some accumulated wisdom to impart.
Cut to 2021. After spending 20 years in corporate America as a marketing expert working with C-suite leaders, global companies, and national nonprofit organizations, I found myself wanting more meaning and engagement within my own community. In the wake of Covid, the days of commuting to and from NYC for three hours daily had fallen to the wayside. Suddenly I had time to invest in the world around me, and I started applying to teach communications part-time at the local community college 20 minutes from my home.
Months passed without an acknowledgment of my application, but I continued to email and call the Dean of the Humanities division. “Pleasantly persistent and tactfully tenacious,” is a mantra bestowed on me by one of my mentors, and it keeps me going when I am experiencing blocks. Then, one day in August, I received an email inviting me to interview for an Adjunct Professor role teaching English 101, a subject that I hadn’t thought about for over two decades. Yikes – be careful what you wish for!
While I was an English major in my undergraduate career at Notre Dame, I had forgotten much of the arcane material that was the foundation of the curriculum. As a communications professional, I am far more interested in action and effectiveness than in theory and “proper” form. To teach the class, I would have to re-learn the rules of grammar that I have been breaking for decades, along with the basics of MLA citation which, let’s be honest, I have not used once since writing my Master’s thesis in graduate school. It was daunting, but I decided to take the leap and do it anyway to get my foot in the door. The journey of 1,000 miles begins with one step, and sometimes that step requires dusting off past selves.
Within three weeks, I was on the job as Professor Kenny. Having managed large teams, overseen multimillion-dollar ad campaigns, and coordinated crisis communications at Fortune 100 companies, I knew I could handle anything. Still, I had no idea what to expect when I walked into the classroom that first day. I didn’t know how to operate the A/V system or how the attendance app worked. Would the students comply with the mask mandate? I was anxious and excited. Spoiler alert: a friendly fellow in tech support helped me with the A/V setup, the students wore masks without a hassle, and the attendance app was a no-brainer.
As I looked out at a sea of blank stares, I quickly realized the real challenge would be establishing a rapport with 40 masked strangers who were more than half my age. They were accustomed to a frictionless consumer world where information, goods, and services were available on-demand and where high-quality attention, interaction, and involvement were scarce and, consequently, perhaps a little scary. As their teacher, I was in a position of power, and I would need to relate to them on their level if I wanted them to engage with the course material and actually learn something.
I started small, sending a personal email to each student commenting on the essay they completed for the baseline writing assessment about an obstacle they overcame. My remarks were not limited to grammar and form. I commented on the content, letting them know their experiences were valid, and that I appreciated their willingness to share. I learned everyone’s name by the second week of class and chatted with them about their lives outside of the classroom. Little by little, students started opening up, asking questions about the coursework, attending office hours, and asking for help with assignments.
To keep my expectations in check, I connected once a week with my colleague/mentor/friend Andy Goldman, a professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Andy had written my recommendation letter and had encouraged my passion for teaching by inviting me to guest lecture at his NYU class for years. We were both thrilled to see my long-time aspiration coming to fruition. “Stay focused on the students, and all will be well,” Andy said. Teaching first-year students was wonderful because we were all newbies together. Most of them had experienced the last two years of high school via remote learning, and many described feeling relief and excitement to be back in a classroom and out of isolation mode.
For a class on argument and persuasion, we watched The Social Dilemma. The students wrote and delivered speeches about whether big tech companies should be regulated. A handful shared very personal stories about social media-induced anxiety and depression. The students were eager to explore and discuss topics in contemporary culture, including fake news, misinformation, and “cancel culture.” “Young people” are not a monolith … they have a wide variety of beliefs and perspectives. Yes, it got testy on occasion, but that was healthy and how true understanding is reached and change is created. Ultimately, we always found a way to respectfully debate (and disagree).
Although writing comes easily to me, teaching writing was hard, especially when the students came from various levels of preparation. The experience brought into sharp focus the inequities of primary and secondary education in our country and, specifically, in my own state of New Jersey. While all of my students were from the same general area – Union and Essex County – their writing skills varied dramatically. Certain kids get better schooling than others, depending on their zip code and the level of stability present in their homes. While I couldn’t go back and change their primary and secondary education, I could meet them where they were today and point them in the direction of tools and resources that would empower them going forward.
Some of my students will earn their associate’s degree, some will transfer to a 4-year institution, and some will drop out due to their personal obligations and need to work full-time. Regardless of their future paths, my goal was to help each student discover something of value that would serve them in their lives. What united all of us in the classroom was that we lived nearby, and we shared a desire to expand our worlds through education. That is what makes public education and community college so vital, and why I am proud to be a small part of it.