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Larry Efird column: Teaching, an ever-changing rough draft

Every year, when I begin doing a research paper with my English III classes, I hear the same perpetual question from a fresh new crew of juniors: “Are you going to require us to do a rough draft?”

And every year, my answer is the same: “Yes.”

A one-word answer is all I need to tell them something they already knew. And then the next question comes: “Why do teachers always make us do rough drafts?”

I tell them it’s because we are all in a conspiracy together, and we like to think up ways to torture 16- and 17-year-olds. Some of them laugh; some of them are annoyed; some of them didn’t hear either question or either answer!

So, why do teachers —English teachers especially — require rough drafts? Beyond our barbaric tendencies, we know that if our students complete a rough draft, their final paper will be of a far superior quality than if done without one.

The very word “rough” implies that the first copy is a dry run, a rehearsal for the real thing. Whenever I receive a rough draft, I read it, and then make suggested corrections before I return it to the owner. The wise student makes the changes before he or she turns it in, and later revels in the success of a job well done.

The ones who don’t turn in a rough draft oftentimes don’t bother to turn in the final paper either. They just never get around to it, or they conveniently forget. Some claim their papers even get lost in cyber-space in the age of flash drives and Google docs. Imagine that!

A rough draft is an apt metaphor for those in the teaching profession. It’s also a good metaphor for the students whom I serve each day. I’ve often told kids there is no such thing as a perfect paper, and the same applies to teachers and students. I haven’t had, or met, a perfect teacher yet. I was privileged to have had some of the best teachers in North Carolina when I was growing up in Kannapolis, and although a few of them were perfectionists, they were not perfect. I’ve taught some outstanding young people too through the years but, though brilliant, not perfect.

I find that many teachers today are discouraged. Young ones, not-so-young ones, and old ones — like me. We know we’re not perfect, and there’s no perfect school in which to teach, but we continually strive to learn from our own rough drafts, rough classes, rough years, and rough days, by making the necessary adjustments to ensure that we will see our students’ success as our final copy. They are our rough drafts.

We want to give our kids the best educations they can receive. We don’t always get it right in the classroom, but we try. We learn from our mistakes.

I once had a boss, while I was in graduate school in Texas, who always said, “If you do have to make a mistake, at least make a big one, so you won’t do it again!” At first, I thought that was sort of a goofy thing to tell us, since we were hand-writing airline tickets for people in the pre-computer days, but he was serious. He knew if we hand-wrote a ticket for them to New York instead of New Orleans we’d probably never do it again!

I face a group of passionate teenagers every day, who are pretty good at making mistakes. I try to help them make the necessary corrections on their papers and, at times, in their lives. I’ve found that kids are somewhat better about getting over discouragement because they like to think about the future and things getting better. Teachers, however, are living their future now. They fear things are only getting worse.

I want to encourage teachers who are suffering in the midst of some rough days in the field of education. We hope that those who make decisions which directly and indirectly affect our daily lives are as conscientious about their rough drafts as we are. It’s the only way any of us can improve.

Larry Efird teaches at A.L. Brown High School. 

 

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