Carolyn Mathews

A Teaching Life

Dr. Carolyn Mathews, English Department

Submitted on the occasion of her retirement in the Spring 2020


Teaching has been my main purpose in life for the past 47 years, so I welcomed the chance to reflect on what I most believe about teaching and to share with you, my colleagues, my teaching life as it comes to a close during a pandemic. I’ll be sharing three main things with you. First, I want to share my background—how and why I came to this profession and why I stayed for so long. Second, I’ll discuss what I learned along the way--the ideas that have guided my daily practice. I’ll end with how these ideas have played out over the last several weeks as I teach online for the first time ever. This is my teaching life.

I didn’t always know I would teach. For the past 21 years here at Radford, I’ve worked with students in our Teacher Preparation Programs, teaching mostly the English language arts methods classes—the Teaching Writing and Grammar and Language for Teachers classes for students in our k-12 programs. Many of my students tell of always knowing they would teach. As children they lined up the neighborhood kids, their dolls, or their younger siblings to teach spelling lessons and do Read Alouds. I was not this sort of child. When I was in 4th grade I announced that I intended to be a chicken farmer and a writer. I thought those things went together quite well—I would get up early, feed the chickens, let them out of the coop, and then write for much of the day before going out to the hen house in the late afternoon to gather eggs. By the time I entered college, I had given up on the idea of chicken farming.


I came here in 1970 to what was then Radford College to live in Tyler Dorm and to major in English, because I loved to read and write. I worked on teacher licensure because that seemed the only option for a person with an English degree. (English Department, we have come a long way opening options for our majors, but this was 1970.) I remember thinking that I would have summers free to write. My reasons for choosing teacher licensure weren’t the best. I came to teaching by default. I know that I possessed some “teaching dispositions” that we in teacher preparation look for when choosing candidates for our programs, but I gave not much thought at all to my dispositions. My reasons were selfish.

This coming to teaching by default doesn’t mean I didn’t think about what makes a good teacher.  I took my first English class—Freshman Composition—with Warren Self. Many of you remember him as a chair of the English Department and then as Vice President of Academic Affairs. Warren taught me many things, but the most important was the power of good questions. So often we as teachers feel so driven to help our students learn that we think we can pour in the knowledge—what Friere called the banking concept of education. Just let me saw off the top of the head and pour knowledge in. Warren never did that. He used questions to help me as a college freshman discover how to make my writing stronger. He never said, “What a disorganized mess you’ve written here.” Instead, he would point to a passage and say something on the order of, “When I got to this point, I wasn’t quite sure how this new idea fit.” The first time this happened, I remember being amazed that he could point to the exact spot where I no longer knew what I was doing. I thought he was a genius. Then he began asking questions, and before long, the connections among the parts of the paper became clear to me. I thought, “This is a good teacher!” And to this day, I think that the good teacher is one who leads students to understanding through expecting some action on the part of the students. That ACTION is the crucial thing--they must examine texts, ask important questions, explore connections, find how things fit together.

Despite my contact with many good teachers here at Radford, I never really visualized myself becoming that good teacher. I would teach, I would work hard, I would put into practice the ideas about teaching and learning that I gleaned from my education program—at that point there was no English Education at Radford; my methods course was taught by a former science teacher. I actually had no real inkling of what a teaching life would be until I stepped in front of my own classroom at Dublin Middle School in the Fall of 1975. Something magical happened.


In The Principals of Psychology, William James posits his theory of the self—he sees the self as a not just one self, but as a synthesis of many selves—multifaceted Material Selves and Social Selves, a Spiritual Self, and then Pure Ego, the “I am.” According to James we all have as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize each of us and carry an image of us in their minds. I love James’ theory. It allows me to think of all the many parts of my life that are knit together as I perceive experiences and attend to the stream of my thoughts. I am immensely aware of my many selves, but the self that emerged when I stepped in front of those 8th graders at Dublin Middle School was my very best self. And that self has continued to serve me throughout my teaching career, through the 14 years teaching middle school, one year as a special purpose faculty here at Radford, three years at UNC-Greensboro where I taught composition as I worked on my PhD, two years at Greensboro College, and then four years at Wake Forest, where I held a visiting position teaching composition and American literature. In 1999 I began teaching here in the English Department, and I firmly believe that my teaching self remains my very best self.

So what do I mean when I say that my best self is my teaching self? Here’s what I’m not saying: I’m not saying anything really about my performance as a teacher. I’m not saying I always have productive classes or that I know the best way to teach or even that students like me. When I say that my best self is my teaching self, I mean that teaching has been the ONE consistent thing that lets me FORGET myself. I forget myself by losing track of time and planning and over-planning a lesson, and loving doing that work. I can puzzle endlessly about why students are not quite understanding key concepts about language study.


As a case in point, I graded midterms over Spring Break 1. Students had to write about code-switching and how to work with students whose dialect interferes with their ability both to write in Standard English and to take standardized tests. Most of my African-American students completely understand code-switching. Likewise, my Appalachian students thoroughly understand, and both groups suddenly become much more vocal. This talk of code-switching speaks to their experience.  My students, on the other hand, who speak dialects that use Standard English—some of them (not all)--have trouble.  As I graded these midterms, I was puzzling through how I taught the material, what I had the students do, why some of them just could not analyze the grammatical patterns that dialect speakers use. How would they ever be able to help their future students? I worried these questions to death, despite the fact that I will likely never be able to implement any of the changes I came up with. My best self cares deeply about student learning.


This teaching life has taught me one main truth: no matter how well I might “perform,” no matter how thoroughly I might be able to analyze information or share my knowledge, students do not move through confusion to understanding because of me. Teaching is not about the teacher.

I remember standing in front of a class one day early in my career. The students were not understanding. “Why can’t they get this,” I asked myself. And then as clearly as if someone were speaking aloud to me, the answer came, a paraphrase of what Bob Lockwood had taught me in Foundations of Education: In order to learn, students must be actively involved in the mental processes necessary for understanding.  Unless they engage with the concepts, the readings, the information, there is no learning. The teacher’s task has little to do with telling or performing; rather, the teacher’s task is to lead, direct, question, and assist.

My goal in the classroom has always been to lead students to experience their own “ah-ha” moments and to make connections that allow them to see the “big picture.”  In my teacher preparation courses, this means designing activities that model for young teachers the sorts of tasks that lead to learning. In Teaching Writing, such modeling includes guided writing, a sequence of scaffolded lessons that take students through each stage of the writing process. At the end of this sequence, one student this semester wrote of the lessons: “I will most definitely use guided writing in my future classroom. Each lesson we did made me want to continue making my paper better. I started to care about what I was writing, and it made me want to do well on it. If I can make my students feel the way I felt when writing this paper, I will do whatever it takes.”  Reflections like this one allow me to see students’ growth.  My students consistently talk about how their learning will impact their future students. They talk, too, about the changes they notice in their own attitudes, beliefs, and abilities. They rarely mention what I as a teacher have done. I like this focus; it tells me that I have stayed sufficiently in the background, providing the structure and activities that help them learn pedagogical principals and apply them.


My teaching life and my best self have been put to the test these past two weeks as we have all moved our classes online in response to COVID-19. I was not at all ready to end my career sitting at a computer monitor.  I had thoroughly resisted online teaching, thinking I had no interest in learning the needed skills this late in the game. I had never even heard of Zoom until two weeks ago when CITL gave crash courses to help us transition to online. Thank you, CITL.

But I’m doing it.  My classes are meeting through Zoom, and I have figured out how to carry on with group projects and my students’ own practice teaching. I am seeing that online teaching and learning are not fundamentally different from what I have been doing these 47 years. I have to figure out what isn’t working and fix it. Yesterday, I read grammar lessons that my students had written. Over half of the students had done exactly what I asked them NOT to do. “Do not start with a definition,” I had told them. “Grammar definitions put students to sleep. Start with something that will engage the students…” Yet here I was reading lesson plan after lesson plan that began with definitions of absolutes, participial phrases, or adverbial clauses. 

I knew what I had to do. I had to let one of the main tenets of my teaching life guide me: SHOW, DON’T TELL.  When the class met on Zoom, I modeled two lesson beginnings, not telling them which I thought was better. In the first I gave a deadly definition of adjectival clauses, which addressed essential and nonessential information and the use of relative pronouns. The other lesson started by asking them to share their favorite artist and song, and then I modeled sentences with adjectival clauses: “Ed Sheeran, who is an English singer, songwriter, and record producer….”  I used the models to illustrate essential and non-essential information. After this demonstration, I sent students into Breakout Rooms (what a great function this is on Zoom!). They discussed which lesson beginning was better and why.


In this online teaching, just like in any teaching, I am seeing that telling is far weaker than showing. I am seeing yet again that students truly learn only through doing. I cannot tell my students either in person or online how to be a good teacher, but I hope I have showed them.

As this teaching life draws toward retirement, I am thinking how tending chickens and tending gardens are somewhat alike.