The Art of Running Away

meSMNSmIt’s been a tough semester.

I’ve described some of the trials already: a new course that didn’t work very well, an unsuccessful experiment with blogs, a number of unpleasant end-of-semester exchanges.  More than a month after the end of classes, I’m still dealing with a challenge to one of my plagiarism rulings, and still awaiting a decision on what to do about a very rude email.

I’m also trying to work out a solution to a bigger problem, and the solution I like best is the one that probably reflects worst on me.

This semester I had an unusually high number of failures in one of my sections.  Actually, “unusually high” is hedging it – eleven out of forty failed.  For me, this is unheard of: I was consistently astonished by how weak the majority of the students in this section were, how resistant they were to following instructions, how unpleasant the atmosphere in the classroom was.

I interrogated myself about it.  Yes, the course was more challenging than it should have been, but I’d made adjustments, and the other section of the same course was doing fine.  (Four students in the other section had failed, three because they disappeared from the course and/or stopped handing in their work early on.) With only one or two exceptions, those who were making a good effort on all assignments were squeaking by.  It just seemed that there were a lot of students who weren’t invested, weren’t skilled enough to skate through, and weren’t really getting along with each other or with me.  The whole experience was nasty, and it was borne out in the course evaluations: while the other section was very positive, this section returned the worst evaluations I’ve ever received.

Generally speaking, once the semester is over, the grades are submitted, and some straggling complaints are dealt with, it’s time to move on.  Out with the old! Learn from your mistakes! etc. However, there’s a wrench in this scenario.

This course is a requirement for a major.  I’m currently the only teacher who teaches it.  This means that all these students – as many as FIFTEEN REPEATERS, not including students who have failed the course in previous semesters – will end up back in my class next winter.  This includes the student who has filed the plagiarism challenge, the author of the rude email, and the other students I mentioned in the post about requests for makeup work.  It also includes other plagiarists, other students who got angry at me about something or other, other students who have ALREADY failed the course before, and all sorts of other problematic situations.

Perhaps you can imagine how I feel.

So here’s the question.  My “good teacher” instinct is to say: Here’s a learning experience for you!  What are you going to do with this mess?  It will involve, obviously, a close examination of everything that went wrong with the course, and everything that I didn’t do to address issues as they came up.  It will involve up-front discussions with all the failing students right at the beginning of the semester.  It will involve careful “handling” of students who will be resentful and will believe that their failures are all my fault.  What a challenge!  What an opportunity for growth!

My “self-preservation” instinct is to ask someone else to teach this course next year.

I finished this semester exhausted and overwhelmed.  In addition to the struggles outlined above, I’ve been juggling other work, home renovations, MEd studies and, less and less, attempts to work on my own writing.  (As you may have noticed, my blog fell mostly by the wayside.)  The idea of not only trying to fix this broken course but doing it in the face of a pile of students who are coming in with a grudge feels like way, way too much. What I really need is a sabbatical, but I can’t afford one.  So maybe what I need is a sabbatical from this course.

This feels like a massive, cowardly cop-out.  It’s also what I really, really want to do.  Is there a way to justify it?

Image by Moi Cody

Top 10 Posts of 2012

njpcdISIt’s time again for Classroom as Microcosm’s yearly top 10 roundup!

These are the posts that got the most hits this year. It’s not always clear WHY a given post on this list got so much traffic, but the fact that a lot of people looked at and/or read these posts suggests maybe they have something to offer.  If you’re new to the blog, or haven’t been able to keep up, they give you a sense of what’s been happening here for the last twelve months.

Please note that this list is comprised solely of posts that were written this year.  It does not include “reprises” of past posts, even if those posts were substantially edited or rewritten.

If you like what you discover, please subscribe!  Look to your right.  See the button that says “Sign Me Up!”?  Click it, and away you go.

1. What’s a Teacher to Do? Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed

I expect this review was popular because the book was popular, and deservedly so.  I’ll be using it as a primary text in my English for Child Studies course next year, and I expect to reread it periodically to remind myself of all the things that teachers need to aim to teach: not how to identify a theme or correctly form the passive voice, but how to be resilient, curious, tenacious, etc.  This book made my list of top 10 books of 2012.  It’s great.  Go read it.

This post was also honoured as a WordPress “Freshly Pressed” pick, and thus garnered me some new readers, for whom I am very thankful.

2. Plagiarism: What Do Students Think?

In this post, I asked students to tell us why they plagiarize, or, if they never have, why they think others do.  The comments section is full of enlightening responses to this question.

3. Essay Writing: The Cake Analogy

I hope this post was popular because it was useful.  It links to an analogy that explains how and why to structure an essay properly.  A number of teachers have reported that this description of an essay as a layer cake has been very clarifying for their students.

4. Bad Teacher

Maybe this post got a lot of hits because it shares its title with a popular movie.  Nonetheless, rereading it amused me.  It tells the story of a nasty house-hunting experience, in which the bad guy turns out to be a teacher.  The question: can you be a bad person and still be a good teacher?

5. Demoralization vs. Burnout

Being “burnt out” is not the same as being “demoralized.”  Knowing the difference can help you decide what to do.

6. Methinks the Lady Doth Explain Too Much

I hesitated to write about Shayla in 2011, when the email exchange documented here transpired.  At the end of the Winter 2012 semester, I figured enough time had passed that I could write about Shayla with some perspective.  Little did I know that Shayla would turn up in my class again this past semester.  Sometimes I wondered whether I was the one behaving badly.  In those moments, I returned to this post to remind myself that no, I was doing the best I could with a baffling and infuriating student.

7. Things They Should Teach In School

My husband and I bought a house this year.  (I’m keeping track of my home ownership adventures on this new blog.)  In the process of buying a house, we discovered that we know NOTHING about a lot of very important things.  In the comments section of this post, readers suggest topics that really deserve time and attention in school, because we will grow up and need to know how to negotiate a mortgage or repair a bicycle, and most of us won’t know where to begin.

8. “I Do Not Take Off Points.  You Earn Them.”

What do you do with a student who thinks her academic problems are all her teacher’s fault?

9. What’s In a Name?

I can’t seem to make my students learn my name – or any of their teachers’ names, for that matter.  Does it really make a difference if they just call everyone “Miss” and “Sir”?

10. Penny Gives Up

I am happy to report that Penny’s story had a happy ending, but in this post, I consider the lowest point in our relationship.  She’d worked very, very hard and had still failed, and saw little reason to try again.

*

Did you read a post this year that you liked, but that didn’t make this list?  I’d love it if you’d let me know; I am considering compiling a list of “commenters’ favourites.”

If you’ve been visiting the blog for a while, please tell me what you think of the new look!

A very, very happy 2013 to you all.  Thank you so much for visiting my blog, for reading my posts, and for leaving your comments or sending me messages.  As always, if you would like me to tackle a topic this year that’s been on your mind, please let me know!  I hope that your year is full interesting challenges with happy outcomes, and that you will continue to visit me and share your stories.

Image by Dez Pain

College Teaching and Helplessness in the Face of General Badness

In my memoir course, my students’ first exercise is to write down a small story that they often tell people about their lives.  I like reading these little paragraphs – they are often about getting lost in foreign airports, mislaying precious items and realizing that material things don’t matter, buying liquor while under age.  But there are always one or two students who tell me things I don’t want to know.

This term it was Michael.  Michael (not his real name, of course) wrote a story about being punished when he was around six.  It’s difficult to follow the timeline, but it seems that his parents left him alone while they went on vacation, and came home to find the house a mess, so they beat him and sent him to his room.  The description of the beating is perfunctory, but that of his feelings is quite elaborate: the fear that they would find out, the terror during the beating, the remorse as he recovered, and so forth.

I think it’s possible some facts of the story are less than accurate (his parents left him home alone for the weekend when he was six years old?)  Nevertheless, there is clearly something unfortunate going on here.  I wrote a note at the bottom of his assignment saying that the story made me sad and asking him to come talk to me about it.  Instead, when he rewrote his story he added a paragraph at the end that went something like this.

Yes it is a pretty sad story but I know people who have had been threaten even worse. I find that it was tough but I know a very important star who had problems like that in his childhood and in his career they had a pretty tough time even and a lot worse than me. I think it’s the shock my parents had that made them do that but I understand my parents because if your them and you don’t know that there are mess everywhere when you enter your house you can take it pretty bad so at the same time yes and no it is and it is not a sad story

Here is my reply.

Michael: of course, it is your feelings about the incident that are most important.  Are you aware that we have counsellors here at the college whom you can talk to if you are ever feeling bad about things that happened in the past or are happening now?  Let me know if you would like more information.

Like many of my students, Michael is over 18.  I am therefore not under any legal obligation in a situation like this (according to counsellors I’ve spoken to in the past about similar stories students have written.)  I have no intention of chasing him down and making him talk to me about anything he doesn’t want to.  That said, I wonder if there’s something more I should be thinking about doing for him.

Every year, I consider avoiding personal writing assignments.  Every term I ask myself: do I need these close reminders of the general badness going on out there in the world, in my students’ lives?  But I know I will never eliminate them – the assignments, because I won’t, or the badness, because I can’t – so I need a clear strategy for dealing with the stories that rear their heads.

What do you think teachers, especially teachers of older students, should do when faced with stories of suffering, abuse, or trauma?  Have you faced this issue yourself?  If so, what do you do?

Image by Brenda Otero

How I Saved My Teaching Career: Introduction

A few years ago, I was ready to quit my teaching job.  But I didn’t.

I’ve been a teacher in some capacity for twenty-three years.  I fell in love with the profession when I was a college student and landed a part-time job as an assistant language teacher in an elementary school.  I was sure that I had found my vocation – that teaching would be a source of both income and happiness for the rest of my life.

I took an education degree and got jobs teaching English overseas and in Quebec.  Despite the difficulties I encountered, my dedication to the job never wavered.  Teaching inspired me.  The emotional rewards were immediate and powerful; the challenges were opportunities to learn and grow.

In 2001, I finished my Masters degree and began teaching English literature at a CEGEP.  Within a short time, I had tenure.  And for the first few years, my love of teaching persisted.

But teaching CEGEP was different from my previous jobs.  The responsibilities were greater, the marking load was enormous, and I faced many more classroom management problems than I expected.  Students cheated.  They failed and demanded that I give them second chances.  They lacked motivation and refused to follow directions, or were blatantly disrespectful and disruptive.

In the past, I’d found these pedagogical challenges interesting, but as the years passed, I became more and more tired, anxious, and discouraged.  The rewards seemed to diminish in proportion to the difficulties.  I began dreading the start of the school year, dreading Monday morning, dreading each class.  At 35, I began counting the semesters until I could retire.  And then I began concocting plans to leave teaching and pursue some other career.

But then I stopped.  I took some time to reflect.  I took some time off.  I looked around at what I had.  I examined what was really at the root of my problem.  I investigated ways to strengthen my skills and commitment.  I found methods to calm my mind and fortify my heart.  And I started to meticulously document my experiences, reactions, and options.

Now, a few years later, I’ve renewed my commitment to teaching.  I haven’t returned to my initial, giddy infatuation with my job; instead, I’ve developed a deeper and more sustainable understanding of my role and its rewards.  I don’t know for sure that I’ll be a teacher forever, but I know that I have a lot more years in me.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll outline some of the steps I took to regain my love of teaching:

  •  STEP 1:  Take stock.  Is it worth it to stay?
  • STEP 2:  Take time off.
  • STEP 3:  Find and appreciate your (educational) community.
  • STEP 4:  Face your fears.
  • STEP 5:  Keep learning: get more training.
  • STEP 6:  Take up meditation (or another contemplative practice).
  • STEP 7:  Start a blog.

Stay tuned!  Maybe my experience will shed some light on yours, no matter what your profession.  What’s more, I’ll present some general questions for you to consider if you are wondering how to love your job more/again/for the first time.

And please leave comments about your own path.  Have you struggled with whether your career is the right one for you?  Are you deliberating this now, or have you resolved the dilemma?  If you’re just embarking on your professional life, what are you going to do or stay motivated?  We’d love to hear your stories.

*

The series “How I Saved My Teaching Career” was originally published on the TimesOnline’s education blog, School Gate, in 2009.  Thanks to School Gate’s editor, Sarah Ebner, for her permission to repost.

Image by tinneketin

Bloggers Anonymous

As is usual this time of year, I’m dealing with a trying student.  Yesterday, as a cathartic measure, I prepared a post in which I collated our email exchange since the beginning of the semester.  If you are not me, this exchange is no doubt extremely entertaining.  (If you are me, you spent most of yesterday meditating because it’s the only thing that prevented you from wrecking stuff and cursing constantly.)

However, this morning, I’m finding myself reluctant to publish it.

When this blog was being read by only a handful of friends and colleagues and the occasional visitor, I felt fine about posting stories about students, including almost word-for-word dialogue and emails.  I was taking plenty of steps to protect my students’ privacy, including the following:

  • My real name doesn’t appear anywhere on this blog, and I’ve taken strict measures to prevent my real name and my blogonym from being connected to each other anywhere on the internet.
  • I never mention the name of my college.
  • I change all names and identifying features of any students I mention.
  • Although plenty of my friends and colleagues know that I’m the blog’s author, it’s highly unlikely that they would recognize students in any of my stories.  My college is large – even if we’re teaching the same person at the same time, there’s usually no way for a teacher to know that this person is the one I’m referring to in a post.
  • The only people who are likely to recognize a student in a post are a) the student him/herself, or b) other students in the class, if the post describes an event that happens in the classroom.  For this reason, I’ve tried very  hard not to let my students know that I keep this blog, and so far, I think I’ve been successful.  There have been times that it would have been valuable for me to share it with them, but I never have.

Given all of the above, I’d be interested in your thoughts on this matter.  Is it okay for a teacher to tell true, detailed stories about interactions with students if no one is likely to ever know who the students are?  What about publishing emails from students – are these confidential?  (I believe the law concerning letters is that the recipient is the owner.  Is this true for emails?)  Is there a difference between reproducing a brief email and a long exchange?

As this blog gains more exposure, I’ve been trying to be more prudent.  But telling true stories is helpful to me, and seems to be helpful to readers as well.  I miss it.

What’s a teacher blogger to do?

Image by Richard Dudley

F is for Facile

Let’s say a hypothetical student submitted a hypothetical essay containing assertions similar to those below.

(The assignment is a real one: a report on a series of oral presentations in which students “sold” books to the class.  The books were assigned from a list that I created.  The purpose of the report is to indicate which of the books the student will choose for his or her final reading in the course, based on the presentations and on excerpts.  For more info on the book list, the assignments attached to it and the structure of the course, go here.

Let’s assume, though, that these comments are fictional but are representative of the KIND of comments one student made.)

While listening to all the oral presentations, trying to keep my eyes open and fighting off the boredom brought by the students suffering from social anxiety…

Being mentioned that the story is about a girl being caught in the throes of war in an island made me realise two things that’s going to bother me during my reading. First, no sexist comments intended, I have a hard time putting myself in the shoes of a girl with all the crying and empathy. Second, they’re on an island? I don’t want to get to the part that they throw coconuts at each other.

To conclude, looking through all the chick-flick-like stories and bore-me-to-death-and-cry-me-a-river scenarios, my pick is…

Let’s say that this is just a sampling, and the whole paper takes this tone.  In fact, let’s say that the student has taken this tone all semester and that his teacher has very carefully “managed” him in order to put him, and delicately hold him, in his place and to minimize disruption to the class while avoiding the escalation he clearly desires.

Is it too hands-off, for example, to write something like this next to the first comment above?

Not relevant to the evaluation you are doing here.  Also, not a good way to inspire trust, which is important if you want to engage your reader.

Should a student’s grade on an English essay be affected by the fact that the essay is smug, snotty, misogynist and xenophobic?  How do you keep your personal feelings about students and their behaviour out of your grading practices?

Image by H Berends

Five Purposes of Higher Education

What do you think higher education is for?

Back in September, Richard Kahlenberg gave a convocation speech in which he outlined five “Purposes of Higher Education.”  I don’t entirely buy them.  Kahlenberg, in his speech, is critical of the extent to which higher education has accomplished these things; I wonder whether they should be our goals at all.

1.  To ensure that every student, no matter the wealth of her parents, has a chance to enjoy the American Dream.

2. To educate leaders in our democracy.

3. To advance learning and knowledge through faculty research and by giving students the opportunity to broaden their minds even when learning does not seem immediately relevant to their careers.

4. To teach students to interact with people different than themselves.

5. To help students find a passionand even a purpose in life.

“4″ and “5″ work for me as ideals.  How often are they accomplished?  As Kahlenberg says, not very well.  Every time I walk through my school’s cafeteria, I notice that, even after a year or two or three in college, students are still choosing to interact with people very much like themselves.  And a few hours in a few classrooms will show anyone that many college students feel passionate about very little that school has to offer them.

Where “2″ is concerned: educating “leaders” is overrated.  We can’t all be leaders, and the world needs educated, successful followers, too.  Kahlenberg seems to be suggesting that those who go to university should be the leaders; this is an outmoded view.  Nowadays, plenty of people who go to university will be employees in large companies, or civil servants.  There’s no reason that higher education can’t provide for them, too.  Kahlenberg is worried that universities are perpetuating old norms by giving preferential admissions to the wealthy and other “legacy admissions”; I think there is a greater problem with the idea that a university education needs to be focused on leadership.  A university education needs to be focused on learning, in all its forms.

Which brings us to “3,” which seems like two different things to me, and neither mentions “learning how to learn,” the most relevant skill to any career or life.  In fact, “3″ doesn’t seem concerned with student learning, per se, but with the “advancement of learning” in an abstract sense.  If higher education is to be “education,” it needs to put the concrete, day-to-day learning of students at its center.  “Giving students the opportunity” to “broaden their minds” suggests that faculty are spouting wisdom that students are welcome to partake of if they wish – this view of “education” sits very poorly with me.

And as for “1″…well, I’m not American, so maybe I don’t know from American Dreams, but the concept has always seemed like a great big fraud to me.

Take a hop over to the article, and then come back here and tell me what you think.

Image by Carlos Alberto Brandão

What is the Deal With Class Size?

Does class size really make a difference?

Frequent commenters Gen X and Army Amy have asked me to give you my thoughts on class size and its effect on learning.  Early in this blog’s life, I wrote a post on class size, in which I assert that

I believe that if every class in the country were reduced to a maximum of fifteen students, many, if not most, of our educational and social ills would be resolved.

Four years on, I’m not as convinced.  I’ve taught classes with as few as 3 students and as many as 43; I’ve had semester loads of 70 students and loads of 120.   Of course small classes are nice: less grading, more chances for individuals to express themselves.  However, the effect of the class size seems to vary wildly depending on the dynamic in the class, the level of the students, and the conditions under which we are working.  I’ve had small classes that went pretty poorly, and big classes where everyone seemed to feel validated and supported.  In the end, it was difficult to tell whether the students in the small classes really learned more.

There is research that purports that class size has a huge effect on learning.  There is other research that purports that it doesn’t, or at least it has less of an effect than we think.  As usual, statistics can tell any story we want them to tell.

Nevertheless, I persist in feeling I am a much better teacher to my students if I have fewer of them.

What is your experience, as either a teacher or a student?  Does class size really make such a big difference?  Obviously, teachers are happier if their classes are smaller.  Are students happier too, and does this help them achieve?

Image by Sigur Decroos

Pearls of Wisdom to Offer Students About Writing

There are five things that Rob Jenkins tells his composition students every semester.
  1. “If you think you won’t have to write anymore once you’re done with your English classes, you need to think again.”
  2. “If you think you’re going to be done with writing when you get out of college, you need to think again.”
  3. “Writing is not a magical ability that some people just have and others just don’t.”
  4. “If there is a secret to good writing, it is this: multiple drafts.”
  5. “Good writing comes from having more to say than you have space in which to say it, so that you’re forced to say it as well as possible.”

He elaborates on these in some detail in his post over at the Chronicle of Higher Education.  I intend to drop them on my students one at a time, as the occasion warrants.

The Incomparable Mr. G: Part 2

Before I began teaching CEGEP, I taught intensive summer English Immersion programs at a university in small-town Quebec. I’d already been teaching in various capacities for a while at that point, but one experience with these five-week programs made me think suddenly of Mr. G.

My class that summer was a joy, and I established a good rapport with all of the students. This program was designed for people 18 and over, which meant that parties, dances and events could be held at the university pub. Teachers often attended these events as well; I and some of the other younger teachers got to know our students outside the classroom in this way.

After the five weeks were over, a number of students stayed in the village on an extended immersion program, to work and continue practicing their English. I was still in town as well, teaching another session. My former students were mostly staying together in two adjoining houses, just around the corner from my house, and they had regular parties to which I and a couple of colleagues were usually invited. I spent a number of weekend evenings at one or the other of these houses, drinking too much and staying up all night and generally behaving as I would with friends my own age.

It started to dawn on me, however, that I was not with friends my own age. I had been teaching since I was very young, and was accustomed to my students seeing me almost as a peer. I had failed to notice that I was no longer a peer at all – most of these people were 18, 19 and 20 years old, and I had just turned 30. What was more, even though they were no longer technically my students (and some of them never had been, having been in other classes), they clearly still perceived me as a teacher. One night the colleagues and I went out dancing with them, and they seemed both amused and bemused by this. They also seemed slightly shocked to see us smoking marijuana and engaging with them in conversations about relationships and sex. At first they seemed delighted that their teachers were “cool,” but as time went on I started to get the feeling that they didn’t quite know what to do with us, or how they should be relating to us.

One late night as I sat on the porch with a few of them, the police showed up, not once but twice, because we were making too much noise. The second time they appeared, I thought I saw one of them look at me slightly askance. It was probably my imagination – I don’t think I looked older than anyone else – but I was all at once profoundly uncomfortable. In my own mind I was suddenly ridiculous, like those middle-aged male professors who used to hit on me and my friends when we were undergraduates, and whom we always found so laughable and sad.

I had a sudden vision of Mr. G. Granted, when I knew him, he was older than I was that night on the porch, but nevertheless, he would never have spent a night reveling with his students – it would have seemed unutterably beneath his dignity – and some of his students would have been the same age as the students I was spending my evenings with now.

I didn’t go back to any of their parties after that.

I started teaching CEGEP the following September, and I found that my view of my students and my relationship to them was very different than it had been in the years leading up to that. I started to understand the need of students, especially young students, to see their teacher as a teacher and not as a pal. Recently a colleague commented on how, when she was a CEGEP student, she liked it when her teachers were friendly, personable and even “cool,” but not when they tried to be her friend. I thought of Mr. G again, and something clicked for me. Until students get to a certain point – graduate school, perhaps? – seeing a teacher as a “peer” is an uncomfortable experience. Those boundaries need to be clear.

Making the transition away from being a friend to my students and toward being a real “teacher” to them has been one of the greatest challenges of my teaching life. I am trying to find a balance where I can show them that I see them as individual people with individual lives, and that I am concerned about and interested in those lives, but that I know where to draw the lines, that I know my place. Memories of Mr. G have provided me with a very helpful model – it is possible to know your young students, and play a role in their lives that goes beyond the classroom, but it is important that the boundaries be clear, in order for them to be secure in their relationship with you and maintain a sense of respect that is as much to their benefit as it is to yours.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 11,082 other followers