What Do Students Need to Learn About Learning?

mhGtM2sIf I could change one thing about the education system, particularly the pre-university and professional college system in which I work, it would be this:

Students would learn a lot more about learning.

I have a fantasy in which I go back to school to do a doctorate in educational psychology, and then I overhaul the college curriculum to introduce mandatory courses in Applied Learning Sciences. These would be kind of like intense, intellectually challenging Study Skills courses, in which students would learn…well, how to be students. They would study the learning brain. They would be exposed to different theories about knowing and metacognition. They would also read and discuss educational philosophy – what is school for? What does “learning” really mean? And they would apply this knowledge to everything from keeping an agenda that would actually help them to reading effectively to managing exam anxiety.

If you were designing such a course, what would you include? What do you think students need to learn in order to be good at learning, not just when they are in school but for the rest of their lives?

Image by sanja gjenero

Why You Should Fall in Love with Abed Nadir or Some Other Imaginary Person

I want my students to believe that it’s good to fall in love with fictional people.  But I may be wrong.

My English course for Child Studies majors is called “A Question of Character.”  We’ve spent the last few weeks discussing  what “characterization” means in literature, and what “character” means in life.  Along the way, we’ve talked a little about whether reading literature can influence our personal characters and, as a result, our success and happiness in the present and future.  This is a question I want to explore more deeply in the coming weeks.

Our foray into this topic has corresponded, accidentally, with my sudden, random, out-of-control obsession with the TV show Community.  This obsession is inconvenient because it means that I can’t grade papers, can’t read the 45 books I need to read for this class, can’t really leave the house or do my laundry.  I can’t do anything but watch CommunityI devoured all 74 episodes in 2 weeks, and when they were over, I was so grief-stricken over the loss that I went back to the beginning and started again.  My husband is getting a little worried.

That said, my obsession with the show IS convenient because, although it is a multifaceted obsession, it is also focused.  I love the writing, I love the bizarro universe, I love the many layers of meta-meaning.  Mostly, though, I love Abed Nadir.  And I think my love for Abed is an appropriate discussion topic in a course that deals with character.

For those of you unfamiliar with the show, Community has followed a band of 7 oddball students and their equally oddball teachers through their first 3 years of community college. (The 4th season has just begun, and I’m disappointed with it so far – a lot of changes have happened behind the scenes – but I still have high hopes.)  Abed is, at least on the surface, the oddest of them all.  In the pilot, another student, irritated with Abed, barks that he has Asperger’s Syndrome, and he does seem to be a textbook case.  His consuming passion is pop culture, and he makes terrible movies that reveal some of his buried emotional truths.  He’s rigid and aloof, yet remarkably sensitive; a genius, yet utterly naive.  He repeats the phrase “Cool.  Cool cool cool” like a distracted owl, and he does a lot of blank, fish-eyed staring and subtle head-cocking.  He’s able to connect with the people around him only by imagining that they’re all in a film or television show – when his friends pressure him to flirt, he channels Mad Men’s Don Draper; when he dresses up as Batman for Hallowe’en, he turns into an actual superhero.

Abed isn’t really capable of loving anyone, but the closest he gets is his relationship with his best friend Troy, former high school quarterback and prom king.  Troy, for his part, loves Abed to distraction.  When a girl Troy’s interested in says Abed is weird, Troy walks out on her.  (Abed: ” I AM weird.”)  When he thinks Abed might be stolen away to England by a pen pal, Troy’s jealousy leads him to go “all psycho girlfriend,” as Troy’s actual girlfriend gently describes it.

It’s not just Troy, though; everyone around Abed loves him, even though they don’t understand him.  His friends listen to his advice because they know he has absolutely no emotional investment in their problems.  They step in front of bullies who want to pick on him; they pay for film courses that his father won’t cover, because they want him to follow his dreams.  From the moment he appears in the first minute of the pilot, telling the leading man his life story and THEN his name, he gives Community its wonky center.  And the fans love Abed with a love so demanding that some critics think it will warp the show’s orbit entirely.  (The Facebook page of the actor who plays him, Danny Pudi, has over 15,000 fans, and I would wager that at least 14,000 of them know Pudi ONLY as Abed.  That’s a LOT of love for a character who can barely make eye contact and has shrieking meltdowns when clocks are reset for Daylight Savings.)

It’s Abed who keeps me glued to Netflix for 6-hour blocks.  I want to spend all my time with him.  In the beginning, I had only a vague, inarticulate understanding of why this was, and a feeling that it would make a good basis for a lesson.  Also, great news: if I teach a lesson about Community, and Abed, I get to spend more time watching Community, and Abed.

My initial, intuitive analysis went something like this:

  • I love Abed because I’m just like him: socially awkward, unintentionally aloof, isolated inside my own mind and often unable to connect with others. (I always score in the borderline-to-Asperger’s range on autism self-tests.)
  • I love Abed because he’s so, so much better than me.  He’s adorable.  He’s charming and funny.  He’s completely self-assured – he fears losing his friends but has no fear of losing himself.  (And he doesn’t lose his friends.  This is also important.)
  • Abed therefore represents an ideal, but one I can actually aspire to.  He’s not realistic, but he feels real; I recognize so much of myself in him that it seems possible I could, someday, be as wonderful as he is.  Maybe loving him will improve me.

What does this have to do with my class?

I decided to find out by doing some research, and came across an article in the journal Children’s Literature in Education called “Why Readers Read What Writers Write,” by Hugh Crago. Crago presents us with the term “emotional matching,” which he defines as the way “a work of fiction has matched or paralleled the reader’s ‘self-narrative,’ that is, the shadowy concept most of us have about who we are, why we act the way we do, and the sort of ‘history’ we have had in the past and expect to have in the future.” (280)

Crago gives us a couple of examples to illustrate how “identification” works as powerfully with a fictional character as it does with a real human being.  For children, especially – and my course is a Child Studies course – an imaginary person can be an (unrequited but never rejecting) friend and role model, someone to connect to and also to admire, to seek comfort from and to imitate.  When we love Anne Shirley or Harry Potter, Tarzan or Nancy Drew, we feel, “I want to be like that, and I COULD be like that, because that person may be awesome, but he/she is also like me.”

Is it really this straightforward?  It feels so magical and chemical, so deeply personal despite its universality, this infatuation with a person who doesn’t exist.  Could it really come down to a simple Lego model of the soul – if your piece fits onto my piece, I get bigger?

Come to think of it, that IS kind of magic.  Maybe it’s why kids love Lego, too.

Or maybe it’s even simpler than that.  Maybe we love these characters because, by watching them or reading about them, we can feel what it would be like to be as amazing as they are, without doing any of the work required to actually be so.  This is a less encouraging scenario, and certainly undermines the pedagogical validity of my lesson.  Are Harry Potter and Anne Shirley and Abed merely ways for us to escape our real selves, to put on, in our own minds, costumes that make us appear to ourselves to be more than we are?

Mark David Chapman and Holden Caulfield immediately spring to mind.

I have written about the benefits of obsession before, but am I making excuses for something that is usually a waste of time and sometimes dangerous?  The greatest achievements in art and other creative pursuits are often the fruit of a creator’s obsession – or perhaps “grit” or “focus” would be a nicer word – but can passive, compulsive consumption of a sitcom or a novel ever lead to real personal growth?  Or can it only offer us, at best, comfort?

Maybe it doesn’t matter.  As any lonely, bullied, awkward or frightened child will tell you: such comfort is nothing to sneeze at.  This moving post, by an autistic woman who saw, in Abed, the first authentic reflection of herself on television, would convince anyone that simply recognizing oneself in the other is one of the most life-changing experiences we can have.

My plan is to start my lessson by asking my students to think of a book, a film, or a TV show that they have, at some point in their lives, loved to the point of obsession.  I’ll then get them to watch an episode of Community, to name the character that they each like best, and to discuss why.  I’ll ask them to guess which character I like best, and that will give me an excuse to talk about Abed for a while.  And then we’ll look at Crago’s article, and discuss the uses of “identification,” of “emotional matching.”  What do kids, and the rest of us, learn from falling in love with people who aren’t real?  Can we learn to be better versions of ourselves?  Or can we mostly just take refuge?

And if it’s only refuge, isn’t it still worth an awful lot?

*

Some related and worthwhile links:

Community is TV’s Most Ambitious Show

The Curious Case of Abed Nadir: Community and “Pop-Orientalism”

Episode Recap: “Virtual Systems Analysis”: The Fears of Abed the Undiagnosable

Crushes, Breakups and Natural Lives: How the Critical Romantic Watches Television

The Worst of Me

mmZCRsEWhich of your character traits is your worst enemy, in your life but especially in your job?

In one of my courses, we’re writing reference letters for fictional characters.  In addition, as a possible blog assignment, I suggested students write reference letters for themselves, imagining they’re applying for their dream job and giving an honest assessment of their strengths and weaknesses.  It made me think about how I would assess my strengths and weaknesses as a teacher – and as a person, for that matter.

My biggest flaw (and I have thousands) is irritability.  I get annoyed even with people I love, people whom I know have the best of intentions.  When someone interrupts me when I’m talking, or hogs the spotlight, or expresses him/herself in a way that’s less than clear, I turn bitterly cold and sometimes shut down completely.  This seriously bruises my relationships with my students and others.

Example A:

Student: Miss, what were you saying about that thing?  That talk?

Me: “Talk?” [Long pause]  [Note: I know what the student is referring to.]

Student: You said something about … a talk, you said … we have to do something.

Me: When did I say this?  Today?  Last week?  What exactly did I say?  I need more information here.

Student: Never mind.  Forget it.

Example B:

Me: Would you like some coffee?

Mother-in-law: Well…you always make your coffee very strong.

Me: Yes, we do.  [Long, long pause.]

Mother-in-law: Maybe you could add some water to mine?

Me: So you’d like some?  Certainly.

I’m not suggesting that teachers, or people, should always be friendly and sweet.  However, irritation can be mean, and its primary goal is to make the receiver feel bad.  (The ultimate objective is to change the receiver’s behaviour, but it is not a good method for doing so.)  I struggle with this in the classroom, in my marriage, in my friendships, and in my interactions with grocery store cashiers and people who walk too slowly in the metro tunnels.  It tires me out and in makes me an a**hole.

What about you?  Do you have character traits that make your job, or your life, more difficult?  Have you done anything to change them?

Image by Michal Zacharzewski

Education and Growing: Reprise

Foreword:

It’s been a rough week.  Things at work are going fine, but life outside of work – especially life as a new homeowner – has been, shall we say, challenging.  Full of minor and major inconveniences.  Full of questions about whether buying a house, buying THIS house, was such a good idea.  My husband and I are trying to keep a brave face on, but we’re really stressed and tired, and have gone from being annoyed to being overwhelmed.  This is all new to us, and it’s really hard.

I keep reminding myself that difficulties help us learn, and learning helps us grow.

I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Gretchen Rubin’s Happiner at Home.  She quotes Yeats as saying

Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that, but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.

This is good to hear, as pleasure and virtue are in short supply around here.  It also sent me looking for an old post about education and growth, one I published in 2009.  As I keep telling my students: learning isn’t always fun.  It isn’t always pleasant.  It’s sometimes really crappy.  But it always makes us grow.  The trick is to grow in a direction that will allow us to keep growing.  If we can do that, then we’re golden.

*

What exactly is “growth”?  Does “education” always foster it?

The philosopher John Dewey defined education as an accumulation of experiences that stimulate both growth and the capacity for further growth. In Experience and Education, Dewey tells us, “the educative experience can be identified with growth,” and further clarifies that we must understand “growth…in terms of the active participle, growing.”  This suggests that growth is an ongoing process, and it is the process that is valuable, not arrival at full maturity.

However, according to Dewey, not all experience is educative:

Any experience is mis-educative that has the effect of arresting or distorting the growth of further experience…when and only when development in a particular line conduces to continuing growth does it answer to the criterion of education as growing.

Growth is a process of change or evolution, but it is not, in and of itself, a positive thing.  We can grow in negative ways, and such growth can limit our ability to grow in the future.  Such growth is not educative.

As a student, for example, I can have experiences that lead me to be dependent on others for my learning.  If my early teachers teach me that “learning” involves parroting material I learn in textbooks, then I will grow in that direction, and when I leave formal schooling behind, I may have difficulty learning in other contexts; I will have a limited capacity to think independently and to learn creatively from non-textbook-generated experiences.

Each of our students arrives in our CEGEP classroom with a unique set of experiences.  Some of these experiences have been conducive to growth.  A student who is not yet be cognitively ready to be an “independent” thinker (and Baxter Magolda would say that most of them aren’t) may still be well prepared to become such a thinker, because he’s been asked to grapple with challenging, open-ended tasks in the past, and has received some sort of satisfaction or reward for his efforts.  He may also have models – parents, older siblings, teachers, coaches – who’ve demonstrated “how to be a learner”: models of curiosity, hard work, creativity, and excitement about new knowledge.  These students arrive in college knowing how to learn.

Some of our students, however, have been stunted in their growth; they’ve grown in directions that have cut them off from further evolution.  They’re easily frustrated and angered by difficult questions and tasks.  They want to be told what to think, or else they are infuriated when their ideas are challenged.  Some shut down, and stop coming to class, or to school altogether.

Perhaps this is because “growth” can be frightening.  Growth inevitably involves leaving old ways and knowledge behind.  For some students, this may seem daunting or impossible.  In some cases, however, we as teachers are not providing new experiences that will help students redirect their growth in a more fruitful direction – out of the concrete and into the soil, as it were.

Let’s imagine, for example, that I return a student’s first paper, and that student has failed.  Let’s imagine that the student becomes frustrated and angry, and accuses me of “grading too hard.”  I’m likely to become irritable and defensive in such a situation, but if I step back, it may become clear that this student has never learned how to deal productively with failure.  Her past growth in this area has led her to an impasse.

It’s my job to teach her how to learn from failure, or rather, to provide her with an experience of failure that leads to learning.  How can I transform this experience from a blow to her self-esteem into an opportunity for growth?

How can failure help us grow?

For one thing, it can give us the impetus to ask important questions.  If I understand this, I can communicate it to the student.  I can ask her, “Why do you think this paper should pass?  Why do you think it failed?  What comments have I made that you don’t understand?  Look over the first page of the paper, and then ask me three questions.”  Maybe this student has never had the opportunity to ask sincere questions about failures, nor has she received sincere answers.  Students who learn from failure almost always have this skill, and it’s a fairly easy skill to demonstrate, if not always easy to absorb.

Other qualities – the willingness to take risks, an openness to new ideas, an ability to identify what one doesn’t know, a talent for organization – may seem like innate characteristics, but it would be interesting to analyze the degree to which these qualities are in fact skills that are learned through appropriate experience, and to consider ways that students might be able to learn such skills even if they arrive in CEGEP without them.  [Editorial note: Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed is an important reference here.]

If we see effective education as a series of experiences that induce growth and that lead to further growth, then our role as educators, along with every moment we spend in the classroom, becomes transformed.  We’re not just teaching students a pile of material.  We’re teaching them how to learn, and how to continue to be learners.

Image by Kym McLeod

One Minute of Solitude: Reprise

solitude

We are six weeks into the semester, and I’m starting to pinpoint small classroom management issues and think about appropriate responses.  Nothing major has arisen so far (fingers crossed), but whenever I am confronted with hints of passive-aggressiveness, defiance or rudeness, I start evaluating what I need to do: ignore? Confront? Defuse in some other manner?

This always makes me think of past experiences, and one class from the autumn of 2009 has been coming to mind.  Here’s an early attempt I made to curb their inappropriate behaviour.  Take a guess: do you imagine this approach was effective?  Do you think it would be effective in one of your difficult classes?

*

Two of my three classes this term have been, so far, focused yet energetic, respectful yet lively. The third has been a bit of a pain in the ass.

This class meets from 4-6 in the afternoon – the worst possible time. They’re tired. I’m tired. Their brains are buzzing from a day’s worth of Red Bull and adolescent drama. They’re so done with learning.

What’s more, there’s a little gang of boys who seem to find a lot of stuff funny. I’m not sure, but from a couple of murmured, oblique exchanges that I’ve caught in passing, I’m beginning to think this has something to do with physical attributes of mine that they like.

Also: this is a remedial English class, and so far the work we’ve been doing has foundational (read: pretty easy.) Some of them are bored.

All this makes for a frenetic, nervous and silly atmosphere. After our second meeting, it became clear that this was going to be a continual problem if I didn’t do something to nip it in the bud.

What? I wondered. I stewed about it for a while. Should I throw people out? Should I give a speech? (Past experience suggests that speeches don’t work.) Should I separate the silly boys to the four corners of the room? Should I barrel through material that some students need to focus on so that other students won’t be bored?

And then I remembered a technique that a friend mentioned a while ago.  She said that begins her classes by allowing the students to shuffle around, chatter, etc. for about five minutes. Then she asks them to sit for one minute in complete silence before they take a deep breath and begin.

This, I thought, seems like a way to, if not eradicate the squirms and giggles, at least keep them more or less in check – to start on a calmer ground, so that escalation will be minimal.

So yesterday afternoon, when I was writing the class agenda on the board, I called the first item “One Minute of Solitude.” I then asked the students to make sure their desks were separated into rows and their cell phones were turned off and put out of sight.

“Last class,” I explained, “I was observing you. I noticed that there was a lot of very nervous energy in the room. It’s late in the day, people are tired , it’s hard to focus, people can’t stop laughing. So I want to do an exercise with you that I sometimes do with late classes. I want you to close your eyes. You can put your head down on your desk if you want. I’m going to turn out the light. And I want you to sit silently for 60 seconds. I’m going to time it, and if there are any distractions – if anyone speaks, if anyone’s cell phone goes off, if someone knocks on the door because they’re late – we’re going to start again.”

“Are we do this for a reason?” Khawar asked.

“Yes,” I said. “A nervous, agitated mind is not a good learning mind. Energy and enthusiasm are good; agitation is not. You’ve all been very busy all day, and your minds are busy too. This is a way to settle our minds so we can learn better.”

I turned out the light. I flicked my iPod stopwatch and said, “Go.”

60 seconds of silence is long. At about the 40 second mark, a couple of students shifted impatiently and looked around, but no one made any noise. And when the minute was up, I quietly said, “That’s it,” and turned the lights back on. They lifted their heads blurrily.

“How did that feel?” I asked.

“Calm,” Khawar said.

“Long,” Philippe said.

“We’re going to do this every class,” I said. “For some of you, it might be the only 60 seconds of calm you have all day. I hope maybe you’ll come to enjoy it.”

Did it help? I think it did, a bit. The major failing was that two of the boys who most needed this exercise came late, and so didn’t do it; as soon as they walked in, the energy in the room ramped up again. However, it never quite reached the height of foolishness that it had the class before, and overall, the work got done and the wasted time was minimal.

I’m a bit nervous about starting every class this way, but I’m hoping that, instead of becoming tedious, it really will be a tiny oasis of peace for some of them. And perhaps some of them will learn that if they can’t sit still and quiet for 60 seconds, it’s probably causing them some problems that they should really address…

Image by barunpatro

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

When Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed, arrived in my mailbox, I opened it with great anticipation.  I love Tough’s writing; his pieces on This American Life and in The New York Times have always impressed me with their warm, clear prose.  What’s more, last year, an excerpt from this book, published in the New York Times Magazine, inspired me to turn around my approach to some serious classroom problems.

In that excerpt (taken from Chapter 2), Tough describes children from difficult backgrounds who nevertheless succeed in school and other endeavours because, he posits, they have developed certain character traits.  I chronicled my thoughts on that piece in a post called “Fail Better,” and I then took his ideas to my students, some of whom were having a lot of difficulty.  I asked them to analyze some of the fictional characters we were reading about in terms of the important qualities Tough describes.  I then asked them to think about which of these qualities they possess themselves.  And I asked them to discuss his main assertion: that character, notably the trait he calls “grit,” is more important than intelligence when it comes to children’s success.

My students seemed convinced by this assertion.  So am I.  It forms the foundation of this book, in which Tough examines current research, as well as a few inspiring case studies, in order to support it.  He supports it very well, and puts together a powerful argument.  The upshot: character is more or less destiny, but character can be taught, or at least influenced.

Tough tells stories of students who have met with terrible adversity but have still managed to achieve impressive things: chess titles, admissions to competitive universities, or just a good GPA and graduation from high school.  He also speaks to people, particularly educators, who have made a difference along the way: curriculum designers, coaches, principals, teachers.  He outlines the qualities that researchers suggest divide children who succeed from children who don’t: curiosity, zest, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence, self-control, and grit, or a passionate desire to stick with a task until it is accomplished.

These characteristics are rooted in brain chemistry, Tough discovers, but they are not entirely innate – they are directly affected by a child’s environment, particularly a child’s exposure to stress and, on the other side, nurturance and support.  A child who lives in a stressful environment may have difficulty developing these qualities.  However, such a child, from such an environment, who is given the tools and confidence to face challenges may develop a stronger character than a child who faces little adversity.   A child who grows up in poverty but has a nurturing, supportive parent – one who encourages the child to tackle difficulties, praises success, and promotes the learning potential inherent in failure – may have more character tools than a middle-class or wealthy child whose parents protect him or her from every bump in the road.

I loved this book, and the stories it told about children who succeed against big odds and the people who help them.  The greatest satisfaction it offers is the knowledge that such children CAN be helped.  In the end, though, it left me feeling a bit sad.

Character can be nurtured.  Children are not doomed by their social circumstances or their genes.  Nevertheless, I’m not sure what my role is.  How much can teachers help, especially teachers who don’t meet children until they are no longer children at all?  The book left me with one lingering, powerful desire: to do some research of my own.

This research would involve examining sixteen-to-twenty-year-olds who have made it through high school, who have been admitted to CEGEP – granted, a CEGEP with famously forgiving standards – but who are still floundering.  That is to say, my students.  Is it too late?  Have their characters been formed?  Is it possible for them to now learn grit, curiosity, self-control etc.?  If so, am I in any position to inspire it in them?  According to some of the authorities Tough cites, “variations in teacher quality probably [account] for less than 10 percent of the gap between high- and low-performing students.” (191)  However, he also tells us that “transformative help” (196) can come from myriad sources – not just parents, but anyone with whom the child comes in contact.  His book gives us stories about people, mostly teachers, who have offered that kind of transformative help.  These stories are moving, but they also highlight the intensive energy and the depth of inner and outer resources teachers need in order to help these kids, preferably at early stages in the kids’ education.

I would encourage any educator, community worker, parent, or person who cares about children and/or the state of our social world as a whole to read this book.  It is well-researched, wonderfully written and thought-provoking.  It also raises a powerful question that it does not answer.  It tells us that children, no matter what their background and innate capabilities, can succeed in school and the professional world.  It tells us that they cannot do it alone, but that we – the people who surround them – can help them.  It doesn’t give us, as individual teachers, a blueprint for how to do that, especially when we come along later in the game.  But it gives us some examples.  With a little grit and curiosity of our own, maybe we’ll be able to figure it out.

Demoralization vs. Burnout

Being a pug: a demoralizing state of affairs.

Are you burnt out?  Or are you demoralized?

A recent article (passed on to me by a colleague) fits nicely with my series on teacher burnout that wrapped up last week:  sometimes what we call burnout is actually demoralization. The difference is in the cause.

I have been lucky enough to work mostly in contexts that value and support good teaching and effective learning.  Recently, though, there have been some administrative developments  at our college that prioritize bean-counting over student achievement and teacher sanity.  So far, resistance has been strong, and no sweeping changes have been made, but it is possible that, within a year or so,  we will be inundated with a lot of time-consuming paperwork in a perhaps futile attempt to keep our remedial English classes to a manageable size.  If this happens, I can foresee serious consequences for our morale.  And even now, before any concrete changes have manifested, there is tension and hostility between administrators and teachers the likes of which I haven’t seen at the college before.  This is definitely demoralizing, and threatens to be much more so.

I hear a lot of stories from teachers who are, not burnt out by the real demands of teaching, but demoralized by the conditions they have to battle against.  Doris Santoro (in the article linked above) describes demoralization as follows:

Demoralization occurs when the job changes to such a degree that what teachers previously found “good” about their work is no longer available.  Moral rewards are what bring many of us to teaching: finding ways to connect meaningfully with students, designing lessons that address students’ needs, using our talents to improve the lives of others. [Demoralization] is a sense that the moral dimension of the work is taken away by policy mandates that affect [our] teaching directly.

I would be interested to know about your experiences of demoralization in your job, whether it be teaching or something else.  In particular, I’d love to know how you’ve successfully battled demoralization.  Have you triumphed over policies or infrastructures that were compromising your ability to do your job?  Or have you learned to adapt, or adapt to, such policies to meet your needs?  Have you ever left a job because it demoralized you so that there was no turning back?

Image by BlueGum

How I Saved My Teaching Career: Step 6: Meditate

This is the seventh post in a series on how to overcome burnout and love teaching again.   See the end of this post for previous entries.

I have a confession to make.  I’m a bad meditator.

Meditation is incredibly boring.  Everything in me resists doing it, and I can avoid it for months.  If I don’t meditate first thing in the morning, I won’t do it at all.  When I wake up, however, meditation is at the absolute bottom of the list of things I want to do.  (Second from the bottom is going for a run; if I have to choose, the run wins.)

Nevertheless, if I hadn’t started practicing meditation, I doubt I’d still be a teacher.

I’m probably not the only person in the world who spends a lot of time in mental conversation with people who aren’t there.  (I might be unusual in that I also have these conversations out loud, with nobody, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.)  When, for example, a student is driving me crazy, I spend a lot of time talking to him even though he’s not around.  I lie awake at night having furious arguments with him.  I practice, over and over, how I’m going to react the next time he does whatever he did this morning.

This can have positive results; I sometimes come to solutions by wrestling with problems this way.  My methods, however, usually outweigh their usefulness.

My anxiety about things that aren’t happening right now used to be even more intense than it is now.  I often found myself knotted up about something a student had done three years before, a student whose whereabouts were unknown to me now.  I projected all sorts of catastrophes onto the coming semester, and the projection could be self-fulfilling: I walked into the classroom tense and defensive, and this caused problems.

Then I began to meditate.

The central principle in Buddhist meditation is “dwelling in the present moment.”  The practice goes like this: you sit in a (relatively) comfortable, erect position on a cushion or chair.  You half-close your eyes, drawing your gaze close to you.  You place your attention on your breath: you breathe in with the awareness that you are breathing in, and breathe out knowing you are breathing out.  You do this for ten minutes, forty minutes, an hour, or as many hours as you are told to.

Inevitably, your mind wanders.  You start making a grocery list, arguing with someone who irritated you earlier that day, or fantasizing about the good-looking person sitting on the cushion in front of you.  When you notice that your mind has wandered off this way, you gently label your mental activity by saying “thinking” to yourself (silently), and then you draw your attention back to your breath.  Until it wanders off again.

There are many other, more advanced, meditation practices, but this is the basic one.  It’s incredibly simple, and yet incredibly difficult.

I read a few books on meditation, and took some courses at my local Shambhala centre.  At first, I had trouble fitting my sitting practice into my daily routine.  Then, during one of my meditation courses, a teacher said that meditating for ten minutes every day is better that not meditating at all.

When I heard that, I committed to sitting for ten minutes every morning before I left the house.  For ten minutes, I practiced paying close attention to the only thing that was happening: my breath going in, and my breath going out.

And then, something remarkable happened.  Just as I focused attention on my breath when I was sitting, I found myself focusing attention on the actions of students and my emotional responses when they were happening.  Instead of brooding and scheming, I cultivated my curiosity.  “Look what just happened!  I wonder what will happen next?”

If a student was making me crazy by talking in class, my natural tendency was to freeze, to second-guess myself, to hesitate.  What if I told her to stop, and she got angry?  What if she still talked and I had to do something further, and then she hated me, and said something rude in response?  Would it prove once and for all that I was a bad teacher?

As I practiced meditating, though, I found myself able to say, “Jennie, your continual talking is making me furious.  If you can’t stop talking, you’ll need to leave the class.”  I simply responded in the moment, and waited to see what the consequences were, and responded to them when they arrived.  “Look at that!” I would think.  “Farid just said something rude.  What does one do when a student says something rude?  Let’s try saying, ‘Farid, that was a rude thing to say.  Did you intend to be rude, or were you just not thinking?’  And then let’s see what happens.”

Through practicing meditation, I’m learning to experience the world and my students much more directly, with a fresh, inquisitive perspective.  A lot of exciting stuff has started to happen as a result, including a lot of learning.  Mine and theirs.

In the past couple of years, my meditation practice has become spotty: I tend to turn to it when my anxiety is spinning out of control, instead of maintaining a steady practice.  I’d like to ease myself back into it.  Meditating makes me a better teacher, and a better person.  And the world and the classroom are very interesting places when you experience them moment by moment, exactly as they are.

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Leave a comment!  In what ways have your spiritual/contemplative/religious practices helped you in your job?  I’d love to hear from you.

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Previous posts in this series:

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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 Penny Matthews

Plagiarism: What Do Students Think?

It is only a week and a half into the semester, and already my office mate and I are talking about plagiarism.  There are hangovers from last semester – cases that never quite got resolved – and our college has a new plagiarism policy that requires, among other things, that we submit any plagiarism accusations to the dean within 15 business days.  (This is good to know; sending off those letters often falls to the bottom of my to-do list.)  So we’ve been wondering what instances will rear their heads this semester, and what we can do to head them off, beyond the myriad precautions we already take.

In discussing it, an old question from a friend and reader, Gen X, emerged for me: if you asked students, what would they say about plagiarism?  Why do they do it?  Why do they continue to do it even though they know it a) may get them into trouble, b) does not help them learn, and c) is both cheating and stealing?  Do they see it some other way?  Are they desperate?  Do they (as I suspect) really feel it’s no big deal as long as they don’t get caught (and sometimes even if they do)?

I would be very interested in anyone’s take on this; I’d be especially interested to hear from students, but we’ve all been students at one time or another.  Have you ever plagiarized?  Why?  Did it seem justifiable, or did you not understand the problem, or did you know you wouldn’t get caught, or did you feel it was your last best resort?  If you did get caught, what were the consequences?

(I did it on minor assignments in high school all the time.  If my biology teacher asked me to answer five short questions about the beluga, I knew he wasn’t asking me to copy information out of the encyclopedia, but I was never, ever reprimanded for doing so.  I never plagiarized anything in university, from what I remember, but I had friends who did, shamelessly.)

Why do students plagiarize?  What can be done to prevent them from doing so? Is it really such a big problem?  Gen X wants to know, and so do I.

Image by  Michal Zacharzewski

I Like Teaching You

Today is the first day of the new semester.  I’m not exactly pumped.  I’ve been working all weekend to find a motivator, or an inspiration, or a visualization to turn to when I feel it’s all too much.  What’s my objective for the next fifteen weeks?  What mantra will I repeat to myself on the days when I’m wondering what it’s all for?

In mulling it over, I asked myself, “What have I done for my students lately that made me feel good?”

In December, as I was marking students’ final papers and writing feedback, I found myself, in a number of instances, appending the line “It was a pleasure having you in my class” to my comments.  A simple thing.  I wrote it only when it was true.  And each time, a little wash of warmth swept over me.

I need to remember to do this, I thought.  Whenever I’m writing final notes to students, I need to acknowledge the enjoyment those students have given me.

But why restrict it to final notes?  Could I make it a practice to ALWAYS say positive personal things to students when they occur to me?  Not just “What a great pair of boots!” or “You did a bang-up job on that paper,” but also “Your contributions really light up the classroom” and “Your friendly demeanour is going to open a lot of doors for you in your life.”

When I first began teaching, I saw each student/teacher relationship as an intimate connection.  Once I started teaching CEGEP, I burned out quickly; the emotional energy necessary for such a connection with every student was not sustainable.  Since then, I’ve been trying to find a balance, and I’ve erred on the side of being distant and chilly.  Perhaps it’s time to start working toward a middle ground, one where I can say, in myriad ways, “I like teaching you.”

Do you have a goal for the semester?  Did you have one for last semester?  How did it pan out?  I will keep you posted on how I do with this one, and on any consequences I observe.

Image by Richard Dudley