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During my first year as a law professor I learned something important the day I caused a student to cry. I am by no means as stern as Professor Kingsfield from “The Paper Chase,” and had no intention of emotionally or psychologically wounding the young woman. I am, after all, a humanist. Besides, this was my first year teaching, and a reputation for obliterating students would not help my student evaluations or course enrollment numbers. Still, there we were, in a witness room of the D.C. Superior Court, with tears streaming down her face and my soul rushing from the crack in my heart, as I tried to remedy the result of my words, “I am disappointed in you.” It was the second semester of my career as a law professor. As one of the supervising attorneys of Howard University School of Law’s Criminal Justice Clinic, I am responsible for guiding students as they represent individuals charged with misdemeanor violations of the law. I had adopted a style of supervision that affirmed the students’ case plans and strategies (as appropriate), and also helped them develop self-confidence in their ability to work through the difficult issues and decisions. Or so I thought. A primary objective of clinical work is for students to identify and exercise the skills necessary for successful practice of the profession. Every class discussion, every case meeting, and every encounter between the students and the supervising professor should assist the students in developing their ability to evaluate and manage the problems that will be brought to them as attorneys. Preparation is the key. “Put it on paper” is the mantra. Practice makes perfect is the method. In the 10 months or so that had passed since I received the glorious news that the esteemed faculty of Howard University School of Law would welcome me as a colleague, I had been struggling with the concept of who I was as a teacher. At first, I was ecstatic about the providence represented by this transition from the trenches of trial work to the ivory tower of academia. I knew my parents would be proud. I had fantasies of appearing on Court TV as “a leading expert” providing commentary on critical legal issues. I hoped to inspire legions of law students into public defense and social interest legal careers. I dreamed of tenure. After about a week of that bliss, reality reared its head. I was — now — a rookie law professor. Along with that realization came the chorus of doubt and anxiety that often accompanies the uncertainty of new environments and alien codes of conduct. How formal or casual should I be? How can I evaluate without being too critical? How do I motivate a less-than-enthusiastic student? How do I discern the challenged learner from the slacker? How do I stress the importance of an active work ethic without being a tyrant? How accessible should I be as a person versus a teacher? My bliss gave way to misgivings about my ability to flourish in academe. As it was in the beginning and ever shall be, there was preparatory work to be done. So, I attended the Association of American Law Schools workshop for new law teachers. I contemplated the composition of my persona as teacher. I spoke with my new colleagues about teaching, preparing, and evaluating. I attended their classes. I consulted with them about the difficult situations. The first year was progressing positively. The students didn’t boycott my classes. And I gained confidence about my transition from practicing to teaching. By the second semester, I was somewhat less nervous than the first and was giving the students the benefit of the doubt regarding their preparation and ability to perform. Surely, there was not a student in the Criminal Justice Clinic who would appear in court without putting the plan on paper. But, like them, I was still a novice. My sense of teaching accomplishment manifested itself through implicit confidence in the students’ abilities. Unfortunately, I overestimated one student’s preparation and failed to have her show me her “script” or rehearse the hearing with me. This particular student was bright, genuinely interested in the work, and had a good grasp of the relevant law. Our discussions indicated that she had done everything she needed for the hearing. My confidence in the student was based on a lack of preparation on my part. As the court struggled to understand the student’s vague representations, I mentally slapped myself in the forehead for not insisting that the student write out her representations to the court and practice them in my presence. Worried what the client might think, and hoping to ease the student’s discomfort (if not my own) I turned to the last resort, and whispered the relevant words to the student. Afterward, I had my words with her. And she had her tears with me. I assured her that this one incident of insufficient preparation would not result in failure of the course. I reinforced the importance of putting the plan on paper. I also accepted responsibility for not taking her through the paces and acknowledged that I too had made a mistake by underestimating her nervousness. By the end of the conversation, we had pulled ourselves together; still, I regret having let her down. A few weeks later, the semester was over, but the client had another court appearance. When I met the client in the courtroom, the first thing she said to me was, “You shouldn’t have made that child cry. She was doing her best. You’re supposed to encourage and support your students, not make them feel bad. Have you forgotten what it’s like to be new and nervous?” Trust me, I haven’t. Aminata Ipyana is an associate professor at Howard University School of Law.

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