What Teaching College Night Classes Taught Me About Teaching High School English

English student Deanna Palm

“The job is yours if you want it!”

This sentence was music to my ears after hours of background checks, tax forms, and applications.

“You start tomorrow.”

This sentence was the wakeup call.

You see, it all began on a freshly thawed out day in March—a day I will not soon forget. I’d received a text from an acquaintance that Black Hawk College’s Outreach Center was hiring a new instructor for crocheting (and later knitting), my dream job. Their former instructor decided that it was time for her to retire and live her best life (in Thailand? Taiwan? Someplace in Asia) and I, a nineteen-year-old Black Hawk College sophomore, was the only one to apply just one day before the class was to be held. I was a bit suspicious as to why this process was so rushed, but the excitement that welled up within me was enough to blind me into racing through the mountains of paperwork. 

Let me get one thing straight. I was no novice in crocheting, knitting, or teaching yarnworks. I was a knitter first since eight years old, and a self-taught crocheter since thirteen. I’d taught groups of children ages 8-14 from my home, taking over my knitting/crocheting club from the woman who taught me everything I know (that I couldn’t find in print), and quite successfully, too. I may have been young, but I was not unqualified. Still, you can imagine the look on my supervisor’s face when we met in the lobby. Apparently, I sounded a lot older on the phone, and thus, my voice that mysteriously deepens when nervous landed me my position as the youngest Professional and Continuing Education, or PaCE, instructor in Black Hawk College history.

I’ve been teaching at BHC for over a year now, and it’s been the greatest learning experience for me. While my first class was thrown together in just one day, complete with a syllabus, schedule, and handouts, I got an opportunity that not many future educators get before completing their Bachelor’s degree. I got my own classroom…that I had to share with GED and ESL instructors. My own lesson plans… that were based on previous guidelines from other instructors. I did have my own students, no catch there. Sure, it was a non-credited course where I didn’t grade their performance, but they did get to grade my performance at the end of every course, but even so, they were my students. Most importantly, I got to do what I love: teaching. 

As you can imagine, this experience required a learning curve. My first class had an age span of twenty-six to eighty-one, far different from the eight to fourteen-year-olds I was used to teaching and often resulting in some challenges establishing authority. The informal nature of my night class made for some rather inappropriate background discussions and frequent disruptions. Looking back on my experiences, I was almost certain that I would never use any of the lessons I’ve learned from them in my future high school English teaching endeavors. After all, college night school and public high school? They couldn’t be any more different, right? However, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Now that I’m finally entering the education portion of my… education, I’m beginning to see the undeniable connections between the two. These range from teaching strategies to types of students to classroom setup. The first similarity I’d like to introduce is the diversity of learners. I arrived at BHC with my knowledge of teaching youngsters. Kids and teens have these amazing, adaptive brains that soak up information like sponges. I was truly spoiled to teach such bright children and, and later, peers, and I had to adapt to teaching students beyond my peer group. While in the past I’d taught every student the same way, now I had to learn three different teaching techniques to accommodate auditory, visual, and kinesthetic learners. For auditory learners, I had to develop phrases to remember the steps that I could repeat over and over again throughout the lesson. These were phrases like, “The name of the stitch is the number of times you yarn over and pull through two,” or the far catchier “If you’re in doubt, pull the whole stitch out.” These students would humorously come up with their own sayings like, “Yarning over’s easy sober,” and “GINS: Gauge Informs Needle Sizes.” 

For visual learners, I had to demonstrate the steps in phases as a group. Then, I’d go around and show the steps individually. Visual learners had a hard time doing the mirror image of what I was showing, so this extra instruction from a different angle helped them greatly. My handouts also contained a text version of my verbal instructions so they could use it as a reference after seeing what each term looked like.

Finally, for kinesthetic learners, I’d often have to teach things like how to position the crochet hook throughout the entire stitch-making process. All learners in my classes were a combination of these styles, so while my instruction still took the format of one lesson for the whole class, that lesson took many forms to be more inclusive of other learners. I was naïve to use a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching in the first place, but this experience helped me to develop strategies to accompany the three types of learners throughout every step of the process.

Much like in high school, my classes were different sizes, too. I had some classes in high school where there were five students in a class and others where there were twenty, and I always wondered how my teachers prepared. Anywhere from three to eight students would show up in my classes, and for a subject as hands-on as crocheting, that meant learning to adapt. After all, there isn’t much room for class-wide lecturing when most people want to come to the first class fully prepared to make a basic scarf by the end of it. I needed to learn the art of over-planning. If eight students showed up, I was perfectly prepared, but a highly motivated class of three learns at a lightning pace when they have more opportunities to ask the instructor for guidance. Armed with extra handouts and double classes, I was able to learn how to move classes along at a relaxed pace, regardless of size. With this came the inevitable absences. I also had a learning curve of how to catch individual students up to keep them on the same track as the other students. This was done through clearly outlining all of the required stitches for the course, taking two weeks on average to learn. In my four-week course, most students would have an opportunity to learn beyond crocheting in rows of treble stitches. Those who finished in two weeks would get to crochet circles and hearts and more complex pieces, and students who missed a class along the way were still able to learn all of the basics without feeling as though they were running behind. Prioritizing lessons led to lower course drop rates and higher student engagement.

I also needed to master the art of “unteaching.” As unfortunate as it is, some teachers are ineffective and can even give incorrect instructions to their students. I can’t tell you how many people were taught to slip stitch, thinking they were learning to single crochet. It reminds me of the time a teacher told me that free verse poetry tends to contain “enjambent,” not enjambment. She’d put her foot down every time we suggested it was pronounced otherwise, even though a simple Google search was all it’d take to prove her wrong. It took a lot of “unteaching” and mnemonics to differentiate between the correct single crochet and its slip stitch cousin, but creating new ways to remember this distinction was the best way to undo what was done.

While some students had learned the wrong way, others already knew the right way, and while I wouldn’t say they knew more than the teacher, they certainly knew more than the class covered. For example, I had one student take the “Refresher Crochet” course thinking it was “Intermediate Crochet” instead of a crash course in my “Beginner Crochet” class. This showed me the importance of understanding student abilities. I needed to figure out what she knew, learn what she wanted to know, and figure out how to teach her in a way that mirrored beginning crochet principles. After all, I couldn’t make this class “Intermediate Crochet” for her and teach two different lessons, but I could show her how to double crochet two stitches together while others learned to double crochet. This has better prepared me to handle the students whose learning appetite exceeds classroom expectations.

There was another thing I never anticipated that I briefly mentioned earlier: having a shared classroom. There was so much more that went into this than I thought. Before every class, I’d need to arrive at least thirty minutes early to clean and prepare my classroom. The desks would be arranged in the weirdest ways, and I’d need to drag the tables into to correct arrangement for that day’s class after taking a photo of the arrangement they were in so that I could put everything back the way it was. There would often be student materials left behind from the algebra class that met before mine that I’d need to turn into the lost and found. I learned to bring paper towels to dry the newly cleaned tables because, while I was thankful for the sanitation procedures in place, they could harm the yarn my students placed on those tables. Then there were the whiteboards. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I had to erase, “Hi! -<3 Nikki” off every dry erase board in the classroom along with other sophomoric drawings of… human anatomy… and…colorful language… I’d enter to find that my pens and markers that I’d placed in a jar on the desk had walked away to a far corner of the room or underneath a computer keyboard or into textbooks from ESL. I’d walk into a different tornado every time, and sometimes, this tornado took the form of random people who weren’t involved in any classes just wandering through my classroom to see how much had changed since the last time they’d been there. This lesson taught me that I needed to keep everything I needed with me and have ample time to prepare my classroom desk arrangements and materials because I could never be certain of the conditions I was walking into. In addition, I learned that people respect their stuff, but they don’t always respect yours, and I was able to find ways to protect my supplies for the future.

The biggest shock to me was how many students took my class to get back something they’d lost. Several students would approach me after class and say, “You don’t have to try to teach me so hard. I had a stroke.” You see, doctors often recommend yarnworks as a means of trying to exercise fingers and regain fine motor skills. I had no knowledge of this and assumed that all of the students who took my class would have full use of their hands. Instead, I found that I needed to develop creative ways to pause practicing and weave in instructions on topics like pattern reading and choosing the appropriate tools to give these students an opportunity to rest their hands and minds throughout. Another student had Parkinson’s Disease, and she needed guidance on how to move her hands in a way that, even if she had tremors, the yarn wouldn’t slip off the needles. One student had knee surgery, and I needed to arrange the tables in a different set up so he could sit with the group. There were several women with arthritis who wanted to learn which hook/needle size was best to hold with their limited use of their hands. Now that I’ve taken my first Special Education class here at WIU, I can see how this ties into accommodating special needs during regular class instruction.

Finally, my students were the greatest teachers because many were teachers. They’d share around the circle about their students and lesson plans, and I gained a lot of knowledge from hearing how they taught Shakespeare and made an effort to get their students to appreciate poetry. Many would share videos and assignment sheets with me via email, and I was able to glean so much from our conversations. There’s a lot we can learn about teaching from baptism by fire, but there is even more we can learn from those who have been educators for decades and seen the changes to the public education system firsthand. My biggest advice to anyone looking to teach is to listen because, while it’s tempting to want to jump right into teaching as soon as possible, it is far more beneficial to hear what you can expect before you are in a position of influence. 

The independence of teaching your own class for the first time is thrilling, and I am grateful for the opportunities BHC has granted me. This chapter has been both educational and rewarding, and the students I’ve taught have taught me equally as much. As I prepare to transfer to the Macomb campus here at WIU, I eagerly await the next chapters of block teaching and student teaching, knowing that they will further equip me for the future.