Funny, after I saw today’s prompt, the word “educate,” I began to feel kind of sick. I (of course) flashed back to 38 years in the classroom and saw, again, how much I don’t want to go back there.
I read an article today by a woman who is teaching university geology. It ends with the same panacea we have all offered ourselves (usually successfully) “If I reach one student…”
By the time I left teaching, 2014, it was not the same profession I entered in the 70s. Students were different. They expected nothing from school. It was something they had to endure before they could enter “real life” (which they would be great at because their parents had always told them there was nothing they could not do). The teacher had gone from being a person who was there to help them learn to someone (a comparatively stupid someone who could be cowed by helicopter parents) in conspiracy against them. I can only imagine how it is in giant lecture classes where a teacher can’t get the students actively doing something for the 50 minutes or so. But the problems with teaching were not just students who weren’t prepared, not even those who were physically aggressive, or the parents who were demanding and nasty — administration was yet one more egregious layer on what had become a nightmare.
One of the last (good) classes I taught was a writing class. It was semi-remedial at a community college. Students got college credit for it but it was not a transfer-level class. We met twice a week for four hours. Writing is not something you can teach top down; it’s not an information based subject. It’s a subject students have to practice to learn. My many, many, many, many years of teaching writing at this level had shown me that students at that point needed to learn to write in a very basic way; sentence to paragraph, paragraph to essay. Fine. I didn’t mind teaching that. Tangled up with that were words. Good. I like words.
That particular class was a hodgepodge of nationalities, ages, backgrounds. The oldest student was in her mid-fifties; her native language Spanish; she had a Masters Degree from a university in Mexico City — typical community college group. I decided the best way to approach them was to regard the four hours as a writing lab. I introduced, I lectured, they tried, they revised, I helped, they revised, they went home and finished and the next day we met they handed me a finished essay. 98% of the work was done in class. Why?
Anyone who is in that level is afraid to write for one reason or another — they’ve tried and failed. They have a learning disability. English is not their first language. Having the teacher there during MOST of the work was a huge help to them morally and actually. And they read each others work as they went along.
I left them to themselves to sort out their use of the 4 hours. Some had to go pick up a kid or two at day care and take them to grandma’s in the middle. No problem for me. Some were restless thinkers who got up and left and came back. Some needed a cigarette. Some liked to talk things over with a classmate. My rule was no phones — except for the moms. The class worked great, but it looked chaotic.
I was observed by the dean. She said she’d never seen such a poorly managed classroom in her life.
I sat back in my chair and listened to her litany of criticisms. I didn’t even think she was a bitch. I just thought she was clueless.
For some reason I decided to fight back. I asked her, “Have you ever taught writing? Have you ever taught a class that people did not want to take? Have you ever taught a four hour class?” No, no, no. I told the dean the whys and wherefores of the class and why I had managed it as I had. I explained the difference between what she taught — lecture classes in dental hygiene — and what I taught. I told her about the individual students who’d come in with mechanical problems related to their lives (daycare, etc.), those who had learning disabilities, those for whom English was FAR from a first language, the one who had serious PTSD. I said to her, “These are people, individuals, and some how I have to take them from where they entered my classroom in January to a place where they can join more mainstream students and succeed. Learning to write is nothing but a tool for doing that.”
I, on the other hand, had seen incredible progress with those students. They were going into the next class — Freshman Comp — MORE than ready. They could bang out the ever necessary 5 paragraph essay like nobody’s business. They understood the perils of the thesaurus. They eschewed cliches. They knew how to cite sources and integrate quotations. They understood the rhetorical terms like “compare/contrast,” “descriptive,” “first person,” “thesis statement,” “argument,” “persuasion.” And they had learned how to go to college — some of them entering that classroom had NO idea. The chaos the dean observed at the END of the semester was NOTHING compared to the chaos at the beginning.
She ended up giving me a good eval, a fantastic eval, actually.
But…when I was to meet with the dean of the college over my evals, the guy forgot our appointment at 5 pm. I was left in a dark little room waiting for an hour and a half after I’d already taught six classes, beginning at 7 am. The secretary called him and then asked if I’d like him to come down or if I’d like to come back. Since getting there was a 50 mile drive from my house and 30 miles from everywhere else I ever was, I said I’d wait.
I was angry. I held inside more than 30 years of anger at all the bullshit a lecturer must go through to work in higher education. I don’t want to enumerate the bullshit. You can probably extrapolate from these two examples.
So he arrived. He met with me for 10 minutes. Said I was qualified to come back and work for them again (ever mind that I had already worked for that college for 10 years — and had taken a hiatus of five while I taught at geographically more convenient colleges).
So the word “educate” for me, this morning, was like a waving flag in front of the face of a bull. (BTW, it doesn’t have to be red; red just plays better for the crowd.)
Teaching is a joke. Teachers are tools. The pay is awful. The lack of respect is worse. The last 20 years of government interference and the emphasis on testing has caused serious harm. The fact that students believe (and maybe they’re right) they can learn more from Google than from a teacher is awful. I was conned over and over by the “I’ve learned more from you than anyone in my life” “This is the only good class I’ve taken at this college” — if I’d been paying attention I would have thought, “Wait, that’s just ONE kid.”
But the ultimate con, “If you reach one student, you’ve succeeded” is tattooed on the inside of every teachers’ eyelids. Mine too.
I wish I had my life back. I’d have taken that job with Boojum Adventures and led guided horseback tours of Mongolia instead. Yeah. I was offered that back in 1985. 😦