I now realize what it was like for Rip van Winkle. Rip came back after 20 years; I have done so, too, but after only 18.
Our circumstances are different, of course. Rip slept; I left teaching in 1992 and returned to the classroom this year. Back then, I retired from the University at Buffalo, and this semester I find myself teaching a course at Buffalo State College. (My university colleague, Julie Sarama, and I are writing a math textbook and I sought this opportunity to try out draft chapters with these students.)
I had been warned before taking on this assignment: You were spoiled teaching bright university graduate students, but these are far less selective college kids. Some will still be in their teens, and they're liberal arts students as well. Get ready to be shocked.
Well, I have indeed been shocked. I am having a wonderful experience and I owe most of its pleasures to the two dozen fine young women and men in my class. These kids are great. I look at my grade book in wonder: every assignment completed by every student. They are far more serious than I was as an undergraduate, which has challenged me as their instructor. As a result of their industry, the quality of their work ranges from good to excellent. When they do have trouble with concepts, most often it is my fault.
To get feedback from the students, I have them write brief commentaries in addition to their regular exercises, and those papers have been a regular source of enjoyment for me. They tell me when I or the text have not been clear and they suggest specific, very appropriate text changes.
But better still, they give me insights into their own lives, and I find this rejuvenating.
Many of them admit that they fear and dislike math. At the outset they told me, "When I discovered the class was math, I have to admit, my heart did skip a beat," and "I am not ashamed to admit that math is not my strong point. In fact, I strongly dislike the subject." In this they remind me of Charlie Brown, who told Lucy that he is best in subjects that are mostly a matter of opinion. But my students are toughing it out.
They have been very kind to me (after all, I will be assigning their grades). One wrote about some difficult exercises: "completing this homework assignment was definitely an esteem booster." But they do get in occasional indirect digs. My favorite: "Probability can get really complex, and in this class I expect it to be taught in its usual complex manner." Of course, the standard inquiries also appear: "Is the paper due before class or until midnight?"
These students don't realize just how out-of-touch I was when I returned to the classroom. I have had to get used to them all having computers. My classroom teacher's station is as complicated as a Boeing aircraft console and the associated equipment is mostly beyond me. I write on a white board with a pen instead of a slate blackboard with chalk. In one classroom, I turned to point at something I had written on the board and the board lighted up. I had to be shown how to turn it off.
I find myself perfectly happy to pass on this world to these fine young men and women. I know that they will do a better job with it than we have, and I thank them for putting up with this latter-day van Winkle.