Are Professional Environments Becoming Unprofessional, And Are We Socially Constipated?

Professionalism— a term we throw around in work and school environments without truly measuring its accuracy. Maybe we should start investigating professionalism before it is too late.

Image from quotesgram.com
Image from quotesgram.com

A few, mostly unrelated events have made me question whether or not standards of professionalism are the same as they once were.

  1. I am hearing far too many stories of educated people in professional careers yelling at one another and making silly threats. I have actually experienced some of this treatment in a job many years ago.
  2. In colleges, students have begun to yell at professors and throw what my mom would call “hissy fits” in the middle of class.
  3. People have started to wear jeans and flipflops  on days when they know that they must present to a group of people in a so-called professional setting.
  4. Students have begun calling their professors by first name or by random terms such as “Hey you” or “Mr. Ummmmm…” and entering their offices without knocking or making an appointment. (I had a student walk in my office when the door was closed and caught me putting on deodorant once.)
  5. Some supervisory staff in “professional” settings blatantly ignore the input and feelings of their employees who are often experts in specific areas where decisions are being made.
  6. Professionals are no longer trusted to do their jobs without constant intervention and oversight.
  7. Very few people communicate face-to-face anymore, and many “professionals” do not have the respect for one another to be sincere and work through conflict in a civilized manner.
  8. Students are entering institutions of higher education under the impression that the professors are their personal employees/servants who must entertain their every whim. If I had a dollar for every time I have heard, “I’m paying you…”
  9. An excess of political correctness has made true professionalism obsolete. For example, to be professional, we must all be able to address controversy, conflict, and issues of interest from an open-minded perspective. Now, though, we cannot even mention the conflict or controversy in the first place, which inevitably leads to suppressed emotions, distress, insincerity, and mistrust.
  10. In many professional jobs where all employees must be equally educated and experienced, supervisors still choose to see themselves elevated to the point that they would die of embarrassment if they were seen talking to an “inferior.” Lord help you see a supervisor in Wal-Mart. He/she would duck and run to avoid you, leaving the grocery cart spinning in solitude.

I am very fortunate to have an immediate environment of supportive and respectful professionals. However, I feel for my friends who do not share that luxury.

My enumeration of signs above constitute the “slippery slope.” If professionals are not expected to act professionally, then that oxymoron will lead to a greater progression of crudeness and social constipation.

To me, professionalism is a continuous respect for those around you, no matter their status, and a consideration of ethics, emotions, and high standards. Professionalism is not dancing around sticky topics, reveling in a position of “power,” making unwarranted demands of others, or considering only our convenience and needs.

If things don’t get better, I may have to yell.

 

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The Challenges of Teaching Developmental English

Image from sarahstaebler@wordpress.com
Image from sarahstaebler@wordpress.com

Apparently, the average American has lost faith in the English language.

Normally, I teach Reading courses, which are also developmental, although I do also teach courses that are college-level. For those of you out there who do not know what I mean by development, these courses are targeted towards students who do not yet possess the skills in a given area that would lead toward college success. In other words, they are not ready for their freshmen college courses just yet. In some cases, they only need a refresher. In other cases, they need to be taught from scratch.

I suppose I thought I knew how difficult, although highly rewarding, it was to teach developmental courses. Teaching reading, though, means that my students enter the college with a foundation in place, They have to have a certain score on the college entrance exam to enter the school.

Developmental English, however, requires no defined score. In other words, students may score a 0 in writing and still enter the college.

Let me give you some perspective. Students in such a course will range from ones who can write a whole essay and employ simple thesis statements and topic sentences, albeit ideas may not exhibit critical thinking, to students who cannot write a complete sentence and have no understanding of the structure of the English language.

When I gave a preliminary grammar exam, I wanted to cry. The grammar was very basic, such as identifying subjects and verbs and inserting commas. I soon discovered that many students think words like “for” are verbs and words like “the” are nouns. Depressed does not begin to describe it.

On my third week into teaching the class, I went to my friend at the college who normally teaches the course and expressed my apologies for not truly understanding what she had been going through all these years. We are actively brainstorming just how in the world we can resolve grammar and composition struggles in such a wide range of student abilities.

Students who are coming into college with no understanding of basic grammar have been cheated somewhere by someone. Grammar is and always should be important. After all, it impacts our ability to effectively communicate with one another and has the potential to completely alter the intent of particular sentences.

As a college instructor who is attempting to teach grammar basics to adults, I feel frustrated to say the least. If a grammar framework has not been laid in the early years, building it from scratch in adulthood is a colossal task and certainly one that cannot be accomplished in one semester. And let’s not even talk about the fact that I also have to teach them essay structure from scratch, in some cases.

I beg educators to revive the English language, regardless of the subject area or grade level, because if we do not, who will?

Why I Love Crappy T.V.

I decided to do a different type of post today–more personal, perhaps. However, I still plan to talk about teaching.

I shamefully admit that I absolutely adore crappy television…and crappy movies. My recent favorite is Sharknado 2. Why, you ask? Don’t you teach reading and English? Shouldn’t you spend your time reading classics and watching intellectually challenging programs?

Image from bythenumbers.zap2it.com
Image from bythenumbers.zap2it.com

Heck no. I don’t know about the rest of you educators out there, but I spend so much time reading, studying, writing, and grading that I want nothing more than a brainless activity during what little leisure time I have. Crappy t.v. is the perfect outlet. I can watch predictable scenarios and enjoy poking fun at terrible actors and substandard special effects without ever having to engage my “teacher brain.” Dexter, t.v.’s favorite serial killer, often talked about his “lizard brain.” Well, I argue that there is such a thing as a “teacher brain,” and frankly, mine gets overused during the work week. What better way to relax than to watch a computer-generated shark fall upon a chainsaw-wielding washed-up actor? And let us not overlook the karate expert scarecrow who jumps from trees on unsuspecting victims or the Sasquatch whose entire jaw flips back to eat victims’ heads. Brilliant! Well, not really, but that’s kind of the point, don’t you think?

I am tired of being ashamed of my terrible t.v. binges. I will no longer pretend I spend my time in pursuit of academic enlightenment.

My name is Krista, and I like B Movies.

The Perils of Presenting to Professors

Image from taringa.net.
Image from taringa.net.

Pardon the alliteration. It just sort of happened.

Next week, I will be presenting at the National Association of Developmental Education Integrated Reading and Writing Summit. My nerves prompted me to type up this quick little blog about the mixed feelings such bravery can provoke.

As far as presenting at a conference, the most I have ever been courageous enough to do was at the state level. That was several years ago, and I was fortunate to have a very appreciative and kind crowd. Many of them stayed after to thank me for ideas, and I ended up sharing resources with several of them afterwards. The national level, however, is much more intimidating, and let me explain why.

First, teachers are a mixed bag, especially teachers who enjoy the euphemism of professorship. I have sat through my fair share of conferences and have noted the looks of disdain and even outright disgust on the faces of educators when they listen to other teachers share their philosophies, strategies, and ideas. I have, sadly enough, been one of those educators who frowned upon the disappointing ideas spewing forth from colleagues’ mouths. However, I try to always smile and remain polite anyway. Some teachers, unfortunately, do not observe the same protocol of southern niceties that I do. I have seen educators, partners in this jungle we call the higher education system, intentionally attempt to destroy presenters with clearly preconceived questions, statistical data that speaks otherwise, and even just snide remarks. Frankly folks, it scares the crap out of me.

I have always been quick on my feet and can combat a snarky comment before it completely leaves the mouth of my attacker. But in a room filled with my peers, whom I revere and even somewhat fear, I am not so sure I want to have to retaliate in that fashion. This thought leaves me with the question of what I will actually do if I get berated at the conference. My initial reaction to come back guns blazing may not be a good idea in this situation. Perhaps I will just smile and play it off with my southern accent.

On the opposite side is the fact that many educators are thankful for every single drop of information they get that could be useful to them. The room will also contain these folks, which I know are the ones I should focus on. It is so easy to focus on the haters, as my students would say. The squeaky wheel gets the oil, after all.

Educators are often elitist, much like grammarians. Most of us feel a sort of superiority in teaching prowess that far exceeds that of our peers. I believe this trait is characteristic of people who do often thankless and/or undervalued work. We are just as important, if not more so, than people in much more lucrative professions. To comfort ourselves, we consider ourselves the best at what we do. We dislike people who threaten our security. Some of us do, anyway.

I plan to remain optimistic that everyone who attends my session will be open-minded and gentle. If they aren’t, I suppose I need to smile anyway and come back with stories for my students about all the “haters” at the conference. Wish me luck! I will post an update on how it went after the conference ends and my delicate feelings have repaired themselves.

What the heck are “best practices” anyway? And do teachers need them to make magic?

Today while my students worked diligently on an especially tortuous test, I decided to read the Journal of Developmental Education Special Issue on the new program attempts in Texas. Within the first two pages, I saw the term “research-based best practices” three times. I have long been suspicious of the “best practices” enigma, so I have decided to explore it a little in this blog.

Image from www.craveonline.com
Image from http://www.craveonline.com

Is the definition of “best practices” a labyrinthine amalgam of educanese, or is it so generic that one can scarcely pinpoint the accuracy of its interpretation? I first consulted the Department of Education website, which immediately led me to the What Works Clearinghouse, a site that apparently reviews the research on educational trends and programs. Their reviews claim to be based on “high-quality” research, yet another enigma. I followed the web trail to their section on what works for English language learners and saw a bar graph showing increases in proficiency levels for each major program or initiative in this area. I clicked on a random initiative and read a brief explanation of the program (no true details) and an evaluative summary by the Clearinghouse stating which skills were better developed by the program and which were not. The site does explain the scientific method used to arrive at the results and allows you to see the study citations.

In a nutshell, if I were looking to try out a new program, I would find the Clearinghouse website helpful in selecting from a list. However, regarding a definition of best practices, one can infer that they simply define it as study that has positive results. Okay, so I have a working definition, but what does it prove? How do I know that what appeared to work in a Texas school in a controlled group of 100+ students would work in my classroom?

Still on the trail, I decided to do it the way my students would. I “Googled” (an example of the modern day verbing happening to the English language) the question, “What do educational best practices mean?” I was led to a few random websites, so I selected the NEA (National Education Association). I clicked on their link for best practices in homework and was redirected to a page that was basically a mixture of abstracts on studies done about homework that was followed by some basic recommendations. Fine. I see the research theme, again, which I always assumed was the foundation of best practices. But I still do not know exactly what it means.

Perhaps I am beating a dead horse here, but with the relatively short amount of time I have been in education (since 1999), I can honestly say that the best practices appear to be trends based on the whim of administrators and enforced by teachers who have no choice, anyway. Sometimes I fear that education initiatives are created by politicians and consultants who have long been away from the classrooms and the students. At least the lack of logic behind some of them appear that way.

For me, best practice has always meant something a little different, as I would suspect is the case with most teachers. I try something, and if it works, I keep doing it. If it doesn’t work, I stop or modify. A clear and objective measure of whether or not it works does not exist in this world. For me, a method that works could work only because it kept a student in the classroom instead of on the streets, or maybe it means it helped a student learn to better communicate with other students and faculty. I just cannot wrap my brain around the idea that best practices must have tangible and measurable results that are statistically significant, and that only strategies that do have tangible and measurable results should be used in the classroom. I would argue that what is best practice for one class may not be best practice for another, as classes have distinct “personalities.” I believe most teachers would agree with that statement, as well. Oddly enough, some of the trends that circulated when my mom worked in the school system decades ago have now popped back up, advertised as completely new ideas when they are actually recycled best practices from a land far, far away.

I have always believed that a good teacher is always a good teacher,  no matter the time period, method of delivery, or student population. Effective teachers inherently know how to reach students. They just do. And I wish educational reformists and administrators would recognize this lasting truth rather than force practices on all teachers just to train the rest of the teachers how to do a job that maybe is not meant for them in the first place.

Whoa, so maybe that sounded a little harsh. Oh well.

Going back to my original question, I believe the definition of best practices is both overly complex and indefinitely broad. But if effective teachers know how to work magic in their classrooms, what difference does it make?

60 Is the New 0: Shouldn’t Some Students Flunk?

In many of today’s public schools, failure is not an option. Students receive a 60 as the lowest possible grade, even if they do not submit an assignment. In other words, a 60 replaces a 0, or any other grade that would normally be an F. Since students can technically graduate high school with a D average, this grade inflation means that students who have put forth absolutely no effort or have mastered no necessary skills get propelled through the grades and onto the stage.

I am no math wiz for certain, but mathematically speaking, if 60 is the new 0, then the new 100 should be 160. What I mean by this analysis is that, much like printing money, if we inflate the 0, then we lose the value of the 100. If I were back in high school, rocking my tight-rolled jeans and high-top sneakers, I would be insulted if I had worked hard and only made 40 points higher than a student who did not even turn in an assignment. According to the new grading scale, I really only made a 40. Someone please stop me if I am wrong here.

Any successful person will tell you the value of failure. Failure is the ultimate motivator. How many aphorisms have been devoted to the importance of failure?

  • “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.”
  • “I think I can. I think I can.”
  • “It is always better to fail at something than excel in nothing.”
  • “It’s not over until it’s over.”
  • “Truth comes out of error more easily than out of confusion.”
Image from news.nster.com
Image from news.nster.com

And the list goes on and on. Failure teaches us essential lessons about life. Ultimately, life is a balance between hardship and fulfillment. Like yin and yang, we cannot have fulfillment without failure. They are complementary concepts. I have always believed that without effort, we do not reap satisfaction from our accomplishments. Again, achievement without work is devaluation. The interconnected nature of failure and attainment cannot be denied. Therefore, if we want to gain intrinsic gratification from our lives, we must also taste failure. If we continue to give students something for nothing, what reason will they ever have for improvement? What will motivate them to strive for their full potential? How will they know what they are truly capable of accomplishing?

The mindset of enabling students leads to the mindset of entitlement in students. I can speak on this topic from personal experience. Every fall, I see freshmen enter the hallways of college expecting gifts to drop at their feet. I cannot fault them completely for this erroneous approach. After all, it is how they have been conditioned to behave in school settings. Let us not forget the role parenting plays in this perception of the world, either. When I return the first set of graded papers, mouths are often agape with disbelief. Some of them turn in their shabbiest work expecting an A, and others turn in their best work and believe that

Image from quotesdump.com
Image from quotesdump.com

effort equals an A, not quality. Either way, their flawed understanding of the purpose of higher education skews their self-perception and expectations. At least 4 students per class will inquire as to whether they can turn in their assignment late. A few ask if they can redo the assignment for a new grade. Some of them even argue with the appearance of the goose egg in the grade book when they do not turn in the assignment. These same students attempt to miss numerous days of class (especially now that many public school systems allow them to pay a fee to “make up” missed days at the end of the year) and are flabbergasted when they get withdrawn from class. You should see their expression when I do not allow them to enter class late on test day. The students have been set up for failure in college and the workforce, yet they have rarely experienced failure, at least not at the same magnitude. They have been given ribbons whether they won the race or not, and now they are drifting through one of the most important times in their lives, lost and misguided.

Some students deserve to fail. Those same students will eventually learn to pass of their own volition. This post is not intended to focus on students with disabilities, which is a whole different topic of discussion. Instead, I am speaking directly about the students who have never even tried because they have never had to. They are not being done any favors. In contrast, they are being stunted, disparaged by the system that was created to uplift them.

I tell my students on the first day of class every semester and reiterate throughout the semester, “I expect greatness from each of you.” Shouldn’t we all expect greatness, from ourselves and others?

Sorry, folks. Writing is a must.

If I write one more essay this semester, I’m going to blow a butt gasket. – one of my students last semester

Recently where I teach, our reading courses began to integrate more writing assignments and assessments. Both students and teachers alike asked, “Why do we need so much writing in a reading course? That question is more complex than it appears, but I attempt to answer it in this blog through a combination of opinion, observation, experience, and of course, research.

Image from duke.edu

First, let us begin with why writing is important to all people. All students, regardless of their career choices, need to have strong verbal-linguistic skills. Although writing is only one component of this skill set, students who are strong writers are often strong in verbal communication, as well. Individuals who can communicate effectively in various situations and in multiple settings tend to be fearsome competitors in the workplace. As noted on edu-nova.com, “Verbal  intelligence is the most widely shared intelligence. It helps people connect and communicate with one another, thus helping improve interpersonal relationships; because of this, improving verbal/linguistic intelligence is beneficial to all people, whether they have strong levels or weak levels of this form of intelligence. That is what makes linguistic intelligence activities so valuable.” In other words, being able to communicate is synonymous with being able to relate to people. Linguistic intelligence has been the driving force behind the popularity and success of many leaders throughout history, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Susan B. Anthony, Gandhi, and Abraham Lincoln. None of these leaders would have been able to move their listeners and readers without the power of words, both written and spoken. On a more practical level, communication helps us convey the most primal yet integral human emotions. If we cannot communicate, even though we may feel empathy, we cannot express it. Lack of effective linguistic skills means that people must guess at our intent, which leaves much room for error. Effective speakers and writers can pinpoint their own emotions and those of others.

Image from guru.com
Image from guru.com

 

Writing helps us make sense of our world. When we write, we organize our ideas that may otherwise be a jumble of random thoughts. Sometimes, once these dots are connected, the message revealed is much more profound than we ever imagined. I have often written a critical essay and, reading it again months later, thought, “Wow. I did not even know my brain held that information.” It is the ultimate culmination of critical thinking and processing. An insidehighered.com article titled “Writing to Not Print” further validates this point suggesting that “Writing is simultaneously a physical activity — the product of scrawling or typing — and a cognitive activity. Empirical research overwhelmingly shows that we learn and synthesize new information and connections during the actual act of writing, no matter how much we may think we already know what we want to say when we actually sit down to write. ” Without writing, our brains may never reach their full potential to synthesize essential information. The author, Nate Kreuter, further concludes, “We make new connections and learn what we want to say, even make new discoveries, in the act of writing itself.” Even disorganized and unplanned writing initiates this synthesis and analysis process that strengthens our cognitive awareness.

Writing is a creative process that further develops our neural networks. It allows us to unleash abstract thoughts in a meaningful manner, thereby increasing our ability to hone in on those abstract thoughts. The by-product of this developmental is added creativity. Judy Willis, MD published an article for edutopia.com entitled “The Brain-Based Benefits of Writing for Math and Science Learning.” In this article, she highlights the heavily doubted relationship between the sciences and writing. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard students say, “I want to be an accountant (or fill in the blank with any other mathematical or scientific field), so why do I need to write?” Well, Willis’s response to that chronic complaint would be, “When it comes to math and science, writing brings more than literacy and communication advantages. The practice of writing can enhance the brain’s intake, processing, retaining, and retrieving of information.” Wait–aren’t those processes also important in the sciences? Willis commends the writing process because it “promotes the brain’s attentive focus to classwork and homework, boosts long-term memory, illuminates patterns, gives the brain time for reflection, and when well-guided, is a source of conceptual development and stimulus of the brain’s highest cognition.” The brain’s executive functions, according to Willis, are all enhanced by the writing process. She classifies the executive functions as including: “judgment, critical analysis, induction, deduction, delay of immediate gratification for long-term goals, recognition of relationships (symbolism, conceptualization), prioritizing, risk assessment, organization, creative problem solving.” She even proposed that writing augments emotional intelligence, a need that many students today seem to be unable to fulfill.

On a personal note, I often see students who cannot think. By that choice of words, I mean no harm. I simply mean that their work is on a surface level, and when asked to compose thoughtful and analytic responses to reading assignments, life experiences, or any other potential prompt, they cannot seem to scratch below the thin veneer of the obvious. With more writing, I am graced with the chance to see them become better thinkers, not just better writers. They begin to evaluate assignments, events, and selections more carefully, and with enough practice, they develop into critical thinkers. If a student can think, a student can succeed. And research is clear that writing makes us think. Now think about that.

Works Cited

Kreuter, Nate. “Writing to Not Print.” Inside Higher Ed. 19 Aug. 2013. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.

“Verbal/Linguistic Intelligence.” EduNova. 2012. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.

Willis, Judy. “The Brain-Based Benefits of Writing for Math and Science Learning.” Edutopia. 11 July 2011. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.

 

Is Reading about Seeing?

eye
Image from siliconangle.com

On the first day of my reading classes, I tell my students:

“If you cannot picture it, you are not reading it.”

Well, Peter Mendelsund, associate art director of Alfred A. Knopf, disagrees with me in many respects.

In his book, What We See When We Read, Mendelsund attempts to convince the reader that visual images of the reading process are limited, misleading, and even non-existent. I would like to highlight some of his key points from the first half of the book and critique/comment on them one-by-one.

“You may feel intimately acquainted with a character…but this doesn’t mean you are actually picturing a person” (16).

Mendelsund argues that even though the author may focus the reader’s attention on several key physical traits of a character, none of us have a clear mental representation of that character. If we do, it is often either a copy of someone we know or some odd amalgamation of people we know. The image we form bastardizes the character, strips him or her of her originality and meaningfulness, because no medley of other people can ever truly equal that character. Mendelsund refers to this process as one of “dissonance” (27). I must admit that, as an avid reader of fiction, I tend to imagine people I have seen before–acquaintances, movie stars, and even students sometimes–as the characters I see. I like a clear mental image of the people I am now close to through the reading process. Does that false perception devalue the character or the book itself? In my opinion, no it does not. Does it devalue the author’s intent for the character? Possibly, but I choose to believe that authors know that their characters are open to imaginative interpretation, visual reconstruction repeated in a different manner by each reader.

…I wonder now if our images of characters are vague because our visual memories are vague in general” (26).

What an intriguing comment from an artist! Mendelsund claims that people and items we have actually seen before become clearer upon concentration, whereas with a character, “the closer you look, the farther away she gets” (26). He further concludes that we are more likely to remember how the character behaves or moves than how he looks. It is the intent of many authors, I would think, to paint a more vivid representation of personality than of looks, although in classical literature physical traits are often synonymous with personality traits. For example, moles, warts, and birthmarks were often signs of wretchedness. As a visual learner, I am not so certain that visual memories are all that vague. I suggest that Mendelsund may be overgeneralizing with this assumption. Visual memory as a whole differs from visual memory of images simulated through the reading process. For me, the words are much more memorable than the pictures, although I see the words on the page, just as I would an image. The difference may be that the words are represented by stable symbols (unless you are a deconstructionist or Derrida fan), and the images are not. Mendelsund contends that “we hear more than we see while we are reading” (39). Now, I will be the first to admit that I do hear myself read, so to speak, but I also argue that I see the words to hear them in the first place (quite logically speaking) but I also picture the words and their arrangement on the page, which somehow adds to my overall recollection of the reading experience. Wow–I think I have entered a maze from which I can never return!

“The world in front of me and the world ‘inside’ me are not merely adjacent, but overlapping; superimposed. A book feels like the intersection of these two domains–or like a conduit; a bridge; a passage between them” (58).

Now, you are hitting on something, Mendelsund! To be lost in a book is to be lost in a world that is connected yet separated from your own. I often intertwine reading experiences with my dreams. If the book engulfs me, it becomes the setting of my dreams, or the plot melts into my dreamscape. I see myself in the characters, their flaws, and their adventures (I did not use the word “see” on accident there, by the way.)

“All books open in doubt and dislocation” (60).

The art of a good book is in how quickly that “doubt and dislocation” can fade away into clarity. If a book remains in that convoluted state for long, the reader is lost forever, wandering aimlessly through a path of pages that will surely never lead to the finale.

“When we read, we take in whole eyefuls of words. We gulp them like water” (88).

Mendelsund compares reading to music. One note alone is meaningless; context and harmony are everything. It stands true that we read in lumps–segments of words are processed simultaneously. I have taught students who read word-for-word, either because they were taught that way or because they have a learning disability that slows them down. Either way, they rarely take meaning from what they read. The words separately do not mean the same as they do together–there is no symphony when only a solitary note is played.

“If books were roads, some would be made for driving quickly…[some] would be made for walking…” (96).

I have a serious issue with this metaphorical section of Mendelsund’s book, and here it is: It is practically plagiarized from Francis Bacon’s “Of Studies.” Here is what Bacon says:

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be                                 chewed and digested.”

Okay, Mendelsund, your metaphor changed from food to roads, but the concept remains unoriginal. Does this faux pas make your book less meaningless? No, unless you are, in the words of Francis Bacon, a cymini sectores , or a hair-splitter.

Overall, Mendelsund’s book is a visually stimulating and original collection of ideas that are a both a quick and thought-provoking read. Although I do not agree with some of his points, I do intend to complete the book, and I may even blog about it again.

When you read this blog, did you see this?

Image from boredpanda.com
Image from boredpanda.com

 

 

Education Served with a Smile: A Dark Rant

Students are the reason educators exist. Without them, we do not have meaning…or jobs. I believe these statements. But they can be taken too far.

Today I heard the familiar student adage, “I’m paying you to teach me.”

service
Image from fusetalk.com

Since when did education turn into pure customer service? Is this a college or a fast-food restaurant?

First, let me clarify that I in no way think that teachers should be incessantly grumpy, bitter, pessimists who abhor their jobs and their students. Instead, I feel strongly that teachers who hate their jobs need to move on to a more fulfilling career, both to benefit themselves and their future students. Yes, teachers should be held responsible for their behavior, integrity, and level of professionalism. Of course they should be dedicated and concerned for their students’ well-being.

On the other hand, students should not pursue the mindset that the customer is always right, and neither should educators. The customer is not always right, and if teachers are no longer allowed to point out student mistakes, then we will perpetuate a cycle of unprepared and entitled students who will simply never be able to hold down a decent job. Although student tuition does pay the majority of faculty salary (unless the students have financial aid, of course), teachers should never be assessed based on like-ability or popularity. They also should not be assessed on how far they are willing to bend to student will. Instead, they should be evaluated based on performance and adherence to course and college standards.

On several occasions, I have heard the “I’m paying your salary” excuse when I have given a student a 0, refused to accept late work, or asked a student to behave appropriately in class. Some students have concluded that because professors are public employees, students should be able to call all of the shots. I believe people take the phrase “public servant” a bit too seriously. The idea is preposterous. If a teacher can no longer be a leader in the classroom, setting the stage for learning and professional behavior, then we may as well go home. Yes, I understand that education is a business, technically, but it is about long-term results and not short-term enjoyment.

More often, I fear that education is leaning toward the full customer service model–one in which we would eventually have to lower our standards, make too many exceptions, and succumb to the whim of students. I have seen this model already impact public schools in a negative fashion–students no longer get zeros for blatantly not doing work, they are allowed to make up all of their work at the end of the semester, and they can pay to “erase” excess absences from their record. How is this educational mentality going to prepare them for the future? How is it teaching them the discipline and commitment it takes to survive in the real world? I can provide a partial answer to my own question–when they get to college, they are flabbergasted and often angry by the sudden implementation of high standards. They send inappropriate emails to professors demanding to be given higher grades on assignments that clearly did not meet requirements. The lists goes on and on.

I have worked retail in several different businesses over the years. When my teaching job becomes only slightly different from a sales associate position at Fashion Bug, it will be time for a major decision. I hope that such a gloomy future never arrives, both for educators and students.

I will continue to tow the line. I will remain tough but fair. I will never compromise my philosophy of education. I will always do what I believe is right by my students to better prepare them for the future. Or at least that’s what I tell myself…

Edutainers?

Should my classroom look like this?
Should my classroom look like this?

As I was watching television last week, I heard a teacher referred to as an “edutainer.” At first, I thought the comment was meant to be complimentary. I mean, it was said in a favorable tone, and clearly the American people value the idea of entertainment.

But then I thought about the other connotations of such a word. Entertainment invariably involves a lack of seriousness, a focus on fun rather than learning. If a student refers to my class as entertaining, my initial reaction may be to smile, but I believe I will soon follow-up with a question about what, exactly, that means. Is it true that many students expect teachers to also entertain them, or allow them to entertain themselves in some fashion? Doug Johnson’s Education World article titled “Engage or Entertain” argues that teachers confuse the terms “engage” and “entertain.” He points out some crucial differences between entertainment and engagement. Mainly, according to Johnson, engagement should

  • work with important issues
  • create long-term results
  • focus attention on learning tasks
  • solve problems
  • allow for student creativity
  • be active rather than passive

I am not convinced that today’s kids need constant entertainment any more or less than any of us do. But they are more insistent on learning that is engaging. – Doug Johnson

In theory, I agree with Johnson’s claims. First of all, I completely agree that there is a difference between engagement and entertainment. I like to believe that I engage my students without resorting to base slapstick and frequent movie-watching. The notion of entertainment inherently suggests passive reception of information. For example, when we watch movies or listen to music, we are rarely a part of the show. Instead, we are fed the information that is intended to amuse us. There are exceptions to this model of entertainment, of course, but engagement requires an equal participation from all involved parties.

In reality, I see students each and every day who really do expect to be entertained and not engaged. Now, they may not be the majority. I choose to continue the archaic belief that students come to college because they want to be here. In so doing, I also must believe that invested students prefer engagement to entertainment. After all, entertainment can be attained much cheaper elsewhere. Despite this philosophy, I see some students who do not expect to participate in class at all. They expect the knowledge to be delivered straight to their temporal lobe without ever having to lift a pencil, talk to anyone, or even read. These students resent engagement and accuse teachers of not doing their jobs if they ask for student participation or conduct a student-centered  class. Unfortunately, I believe I see more students with this mindset as the years progress. Still though, I try to balance engagement with humor and fun, being very careful not to tip too far over in the fun-yet-hollow department. Besides, who says that only one teaching method is the key to successful student learning? I have heard brilliant lecturers who kept me just as engaged as those teachers who forced me to play socially awkward games with random classmates. I have also had teachers who took engagement too far and made me pine for the days of the lectern (I’m reminded of the college professor who had us throw imaginary balls in class and asked us to speak through puppets on occasion). Then again, I have heard lectures so bereft of joy and passion that I left the class drained, as if sucked dry of all enthusiasm by a vampire in a bow tie. Can’t a healthy mixture work? Isn’t is acceptable to combine new techniques with the old ones? Engagement is in the eye of the beholder.

It is important for teachers to stick to the goals for the class while also facilitating student learning and making the class enjoyable, memorable, and challenging. Easy, right?

Work Cited

Johnson, Doug. “Engage or Entertain.” Education World. 16 April 2012. Web. 26 August 2014.