Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Problems in Teaching

I was completely excited to go teach my two classes today. When I finally forced myself out of bed and pushed past the piercing pain in my right shoulder (one student suggested it is the rotator cuff that's ailing me?) and after my first two cups of coffee, I thought about my fresh, shiny-faced students, the possibility their minds possess and the creativity just dying to be harvested and felt motivated to get my act together (namely, to shower) and get to school. I was so excited to see them and teach their eager minds that I arrived at school over an hour before my first class.

I'm slightly sad to report, however, that I don't think they were nearly as excited to see me. My first class, fiction, is full of older students-just one freshman-and they are all ready to roll, even when feeling a bit lethargic. They make me happy, even though they probably don't know it. They're quick-witted, go-with-the-flow (or my whims, I should say) and able to keep up. They recognize what's important and what's not. They trust me and that is what I have learned really does make a difference in a classroom, but they're not afraid to ask questions or for clarification. So rare, so wonderful! Today, at the last minute, I asked them to please write a short scene or paragraph using the word "gank" defined as "steal" example: "Dude, you ganked my last pair of socks!" They did it and they did it well. This is, of course, kind of a random activity, but I wanted to see if they could create a character based on the character's language. Some of them expressed concern that they were too involved with their individual characters (the ones they were using in their first stories), so I wanted to throw a literary wrench at them by giving them a random assignment having to do with NONE of their characters. They did well, but, truly, they always do.

My second class, full of youngsters, is really quite good, too, for a required class. They don't sit and stare at me until I get paranoid and they really do read the homework and participate. I did this class differently than usual and am starting off with the topic "Problems in American Education" (which I've never done before, but suddenly felt the need to be able to discuss intelligently...gee, I wonder why!) and they've been pretty awesome about that, too. Over the last few weeks, this class has discussed what makes education and where we (the U.S.) rank in it internationally important, why our education system is lacking, various scholars' suggestions as to what's wrong with our education system and how we can fix it...etc. I asked them to come up with their own reasons for what is wrong with our education system based on their experience for class today and they came up with some good ones and had quite an enthralling convo kicking about "cheating," "lack of discipline"...etc. I was impressed by their ability to be honest. Most of my students admitted to cheating on a test. Most of them admitted that they didn't care if they got in trouble in high school. Most of my students told me, this one was painful for me to hear, "I'd rather take an easy class in the subject I like most than take a class in the same subject that will challenge or stimulate me." What!?! I nearly fell off the desk.

For me, a lot of what got me through school was a sense of competition. Mind you, not all my teachers instilled this feeling in me and, certainly, not all subjects. Today, I wondered whether competition is individual and inborn or instilled by teachers/classroom atmosphere...or what. I have had the privilege of teaching at least two courses at Mizzou in the last four years where my students were competitive with one another. I never pit them against one another, I just made the material harder and harder based on their ability, forcing them to work harder. To their credit, they were all really into the subject material and, many of them, even went so far as to change majors to English when the semester ended (makes my literary heart flutter!). They were motivated and invested in the class. I felt lucky to have them.

Since then, it's sort of been my goal to have students as engaged and hardworking. I want them to feel that sense of satisfaction when they've worked really hard and earned a good grade, like I want them to work harder if they don't get the grade they wanted and NOT because it wasn't an "A" but because they know they can do better. This is how they learn and this is what I love about teaching.

It broke my heart a little that my students weren't as excited to see me today as I was to see them, but it killed me, at least a small piece, to hear that they didn't care, (even about their most favorite subject and what they could learn in it), about anything but the grade. Like they pointed out: teacher's shouldn't teach to the test. What I think they didn't recognize, and what I left them to ponder as they headed out of my classroom for the day was that "students shouldn't work toward just the grade."

Peace out, my loves. I have some potato and kale soup on the stove (I love the cookbook "Veganomicon" and will post a blog about it soon) and a Fi that just got back from the rec. Does life get much better than a Fi that will try my every whim? I'm a lucky, lucky girl and I hope you are all just as lucky...



  1. Sounds like a pretty good day. I remember being a freshman in college and probably having the same feeling about easy classes vs. challenging classes at the point in my life. When I went back for my masters, it was the other way around. I wonder if maturity has anything to do with it?!

  2. Giving students grades for their work is just part of the malaise of an education system that stresses competition and acquisition of facts at the expense of cooperation and independent thought. Students shouldn't just work toward the grade, I agree, but they do because that's what the system is all about - a system ruled by prescriptive syllabuses and exams, that leaves little time to explore other avenues of research that would be more fulfilling to the student and, indeed, to the teacher...

    'surely there's a better way
    where knowledge isn't all
    and exams and syllabuses don't
    hold indomitable sway,
    where the idol of competition is overthrown,
    independent thought comes into its own
    and where the seeds of cooperation
    can at last be sown?'
    (from my book "It's a Teacher's Life...!")

    Having been a teacher for 20 years, that would be my dream. Thank you for bringing up this issue - it needs to be discussed more, and in my own little way I've tried to do this in my book, in the hope that more people will come to realise that our education system does indeed need changing.

    Helena Harper