Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Learning from my Students

By James M. Jackson

When I graduated college with a math degree and a secondary school teaching certificate, I planned to be a secondary school teacher. I’d bless the unwashed masses of hormone-laden teenagers with my love of algebra, and geometry, and trig, and calculus, and probability and statistics. Best of all, I would imbue them with a love of that sublime universal language of numbers called mathematics. Yeah, right.

Mr. Genius-at-Numbers sometimes loses the practical answer in pursuing the theoretically correct answer. For example, I convinced my parents it was less expensive for them to let me go to summer school (where I took two courses and played tennis all day) and I could graduate a semester early, saving them that tuition, room, and board. I neglected to consider that the only teaching jobs available in January are to fill vacancies caused by death or disability (of which, visibly showing pregnancy was the most common one back in the Pleistocene era of 1972). Long story short, I became an actuary, not a high school teacher.

Over the years of teaching various classes in actuarial science and contract bridge for intermediate players, I learned I love teaching people who want to learn. But if you don’t care; I don’t care. I would have made a lousy high school teacher. So, in the end graduating a semester early was a good thing.

When teaching high school math or actuarial sciences, I acted as the expert. There were right answers and wrong answers. If I learned anything from the students, it was to discover different ways to present material so people with different learning styles could “get it.”

Contract bridge has its factual aspects, but much of learning to play well involves sharpening judgment skills. I always learn new aspects of the material when I teach it. Often, if I haven’t taught a class in some time, I rediscover things I had forgotten. Student questions often require me to look at a situation from a different perspective, allowing me to gain a deeper understanding of the game. I have the privilege of learning from my students—even if they don’t realize it.

After nearly fifteen years of writing novels, a friend asked me to develop a class on revision and self-editing for the Kiss of Death chapter of Romance Writers of America. I’ve continued to update and improve that month-long course and am currently teaching it for the Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime.

There are rules, of course, in writing fiction—but not very many. For every purported “rule,” we can find a classic or bazillion-dollar best-seller that vaporized it. When it comes to writing processes, absolutes are meaningless. I provide guidance and share my experiences and learnings from others, but they are only intended as suggestions. The lessons I provide are certainly valuable, but the real learning for students occurs in doing the homework assignments and receiving feedback on their work.

Invariably, students complete homework in ways I had not expected. Occasionally, their technique is something I want to try myself. More often, their novel approach does not work, and I must help them see that. Knowing something doesn’t work is not the same as being able to understand why something doesn’t work. Preparing the explanation often leads me to deeper insights and understanding of the issue. When that happens, I feel like I should refund their tuition because I’ve received such a marvelous bonus.

I pay them off in thanks and look forward to the next opportunity to teach and learn.

* * *

James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. Furthermore, a novella is the most recent addition to the series. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com.


  1. I love teaching writing workshops for those very reasons, Jim. Either my students teach me something, or during my class prep, I learn more about the topic than I ever could have otherwise.

  2. As you note, Jim, there is a huge difference between conducting classes for people who are anxious to learn and coaxing reluctant high school students to success. Each takes a different skill set. Participating in a class with an enthusiastic instructor and engaged fellow students is an adventure.

  3. Annette -- exactly right.

    Kathleen -- and the adventure has begun. So far, so good!

  4. After 44 years of teaching, I heartily agree with your ideas, Jim. My memoir about teaching is exactly that—what I learned from my students.

  5. I enjoyed your self-editing class and still highlight my WIP with different highlighter colors.

  6. I'm glad of your attitude on teaching. I've found some instructors are weary of students who ask too many questions, who seem demanding. One instructor limits how much she teaches because students are too time consuming. It does take time to respond to students, but it is so important to answer questions. It is through that give and take that everyone benefits.

  7. I’ve taken your classes, Jim, and I can vouch for your talents as a teacher. Whenever I’ve taught, I’ve gained more than I might have given. Involved students are wonderful instructors.

  8. I've always learned something from your posts, Jim, and really appreciate the fact that you've done the research and presented complex things about marketing, etc. so that I can sometimes understand it.

  9. The teachers who earn gold stars, in my book, are the ones who know their stuff, can communicate their stuff, and enjoy the fact there's more to learn about their stuff. Three gold stars for you, Jim!

  10. Great insights, Jim. You sound like an excellent teacher!

  11. Margaret -- This Friday the class gets to learn about the color-coding their scenes! Buy stock in magic markers now!

    Elaine -- that's not to say that in group classes one doesn't come across a student who thinks it's a private month-long seminar - that said, too many students are afraid to ask questions because they'll look stupid - if they only knew!

    I can only hope the current crop of students will agree that I taught them a good course!

    {Some may have noticed I am using a two-month supply of exclamation marks and zero periods -- because the period key is stuck and doesn't work -- off to the store for compressed air!}