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Life out here by Bret Kofford: The lessons of teaching

November 21, 2001

CALEXICO — The best thing about being a teacher, I have learned, is a teacher learns so much from his students.

I have taught English part-time for several years at San Diego State University-Imperial Valley campus. From English majors, and from students who are not English majors but take English classes, I have learned much.

The best thing I have learned was there is still a deep appreciation for the written word among college students. The scariest thing I have learned is that many of my students have a lot more talent with the written word than I ever will.

For the last year and a half I also have had the honor of teaching in the campus' liberal studies program. (For the right-wing nuts out there thinking, "Who better to teach liberal studies than Kofford?" I have two responses: 1. I have heard that about 50 times, so you are not clever, and 2. Liberal studies has nothing to do with political affiliation. The liberal refers to breadth of education and exposure to the world … and, of course, indoctrinating impressionable minds with the perfection of the teachings of our beloved Chairman Mao.)


I have learned so much from my liberal studies students, all of whom are studying to be elementary school or junior high teachers. Along with teaching the introduction to liberal studies class, I grade the large portfolios the students must complete to graduate from the liberal studies program. The portfolios contain much of the work from the students' college careers and include essays about their lives and what they have learned in their college studies.

As I lecture and lead discussions and read and grade, I find I often am the student.

I learn much about perseverance from these students.

I see many have overcome much in their lives. Many are immigrants who have struggled with the language, with poverty and with raising families while working and going to school. Many are the children of farm workers or were farm workers themselves, yet they are on the way to a university degree and a better life for themselves and their kids. They are trying to set an example for future generations, and succeeding.

I learn how stupid stereotypes are from these students.

Many of the liberal studies students are single mothers who were either abandoned by the fathers of their children or left the men because they were philanderers, batterers, layabouts, drunks or all of the above. Yet here these women are, supporting their families and working themselves to a frazzle in school, with the sole purpose of trying to better their lives and those of their children. Oh, and I have met some of these children, and they tend to be wholesome, all-American kids.

I learn much about my country from these students.

I learn that despite people such as columnist Cal Thomas decrying our loss of a "national identity" (code phrase for a lower national percentage of white folks like him), that immigrants from other nations and first-generation progeny want nothing more than to fit in as Americans and do well here. They realize this country is giving them opportunities they would have never gotten in the old country, and they appreciate that deeply. They were as horrified as any of us at what happened to our country recently. And it is our country. An accent or place of birth doesn't mean it isn't.

I learn much about standing up for myself from these students.

Last year I had a guest speaker in one of my liberal studies classes, someone I brought in to talk about the thoughts and stances of a true conservative in this country. The students politely accepted even some of his more strident comments until he lit into Cesar Chavez. Some of the students (and I) pointed out that, while he surely had his flaws, without Chavez many of those in the classroom would not be where they were right now, working on a university degree and a profession instead of picking grapes in Coachella or cutting lettuce in Holtville. They argued with our speaker, politely and intelligently, but passionately.

I learn a lot from these students. Through these students I have learned, more than anything, that I need to try to be a better person.

Your children and grandchildren will be learning the same lessons from these fine people soon.

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