I began teaching law in the mid-1990s. My first course was a death penalty clinic at Duke Law School, which I co-taught with my former professors Jim Coleman and Bob Mosteller. I had been something of a professional student, accumulating a number of degrees – BA, M.Div, MA, JD. But I had never, ever imagined that I would be at the front of the classroom.
As a student, I was quiet but attentive; I rarely raised my hand, and when I did, I spoke quickly to get it over with. Initially, my teaching was pretty much the same thing. Hurry up and say something useful, but above all just get it over with. It took me years to feel comfortable in front of the classroom, with all those eyes peering at me, judging my every move. I was conscious of every word, and the more conscious I was, the more nervous I became.
Thankfully, I received sufficient affirmation along the way to keep teaching. Also along the way, somewhere, somehow, I began to transcend my overly conscious self in the classroom. I became less aware of the peering eyes and more aware of the peering minds. I began to experience my students not as judges to fear, but as individuals with strengths and weaknesses who needed a teacher to help them achieve their goals, their dreams.
Yes, my students needed me, even those who didn’t seem to particularly like me. My reality had shifted. Teaching became a privilege and a joy, a journey with students to a new level of understanding of the law, the world and themselves. The journey was not always easy or even completely successful. But my students were like clients to serve. Some became friends.
I recently left law teaching — for the second time. I left Duke Law in May 2004 and, now, Charlotte Law in December 2015. I don’t know if I will pick up law teaching again, but I want my former students to know that I am a better person for having taught them. I not only morphed into a “professor,” which is pretty amazing, but I came to appreciate the role that adult education plays in the lives of so many of us just trying to make it in this crazy world.