Monday, November 15, 2010

Annoying or Amusing?

I had the genuine pleasure this past Thursday of speaking to 150 new faculty members in the Virginia Community College System. It is always a treat to work with people at the very beginning of their teaching careers. They have such a wonderful opportunity to help change the world.

One of the themes that I explored with the group was the idea of improvement. If you continue to improve as a teacher, year after year, you will get very good and eventually become great. And, the amount of annual improvement doesn’t have to be huge. In connection with their teaching, I suggested that every person work toward making a mere 5 percent improvement per year. That is doable and at that rate, in not too many years, you can become the best teacher in your building.

However, a great majority of teachers get better for awhile but eventually plateau. Many people who were B- teachers two decades ago are still B- teachers. I find that troubling. Why doesn't a B- teacher eventually become an A+ teacher?

There is a point where it simply becomes easy to say “I am what I am and I am never going to get any better so I’m not even going to try.” As you can imagine, that is not an attitude that I like. As far as I’m concerned, if I am not dead, I should be working to get better.

The question comes up, then, as to what causes a teacher to plateau. I have known a fair share of people who were good teachers and then suddenly began to become disgruntled. After that, they never got one bit better.

When does that happen? I have a theory. When you first start teaching, it is easy to find your students amusing. My students are all about 19 years old and I occasionally refer to them as puppies. They are just beginning to try out the responsibilities of adult life. As with growing puppies, this time can often be a very humorous period of transition.

However, there can come a time when those same students and those same actions can become annoying. A student will say something bizarre and instead of finding it amusing, the professor finds the student’s ignorance to be annoying.

In fact, if a professor ever says to you, “students simply aren’t like they used to be,” that is a clear sign that they have gone from viewing students as amusing to annoying.

If you find students in general to be amusing, then you are willing to do the work that is necessary to continue to improve. Five percent improvement is clearly a possibility. But, if the students have started to annoy you, then improvement becomes a much more difficult task. It is very easy, at that essential moment, to hit that plateau where your days of improvement cease.

So, wherever possible, I try to view the actions of my students as relatively amusing. And, even though they do incredibly dumb things at times, I try to avoid staying in a constant state of annoyance. The reason is fairly obvious. I really do want to get better. I want to get 5 percent better by this time next year. And, that is hard to accomplish if everything the students do seems to annoy you.

Monday, November 8, 2010

We Shouldn’t Take It For Granted

Topic One: On this coming Thursday, I will be having one of the great pleasures of my life. I will be leading a 3 1/2 hour teaching workshop for 150 new teachers in the Virginia Community College System. When you are given the opportunity of working with 150 new teachers, you realize that you are looking at a group that can truly make a difference in the lives of an almost countless number of students for decades and decades to come. This truly is an honor for me.

Topic Two: This past Friday I sat in my office for about 30 minutes and talked with an official in the Afghanistan government. That certainly is not a traditional part of my job. However, his daughter is a student at the University of Richmond and he was on campus visiting her. Because I knew the daughter, she brought her father by so we could meet.

We talked about the progress being made in Afghanistan and he immediately started talking about the problems caused by illiteracy in his country. His point was that for nearly 25 years, the country was without a formal education system. First under the Russians and then under the Taliban, schools as we know them were often nonexistent. Can you imagine, he asked, what it is like to go 25 years without education? An entire generation is lost.

Instead of producing doctors, engineers, accountants, and the like who could serve as the leaders to help pull the country out of poverty, an entire generation basically went without education. And, what can most people really do without education? I do not know if this is accurate but I found the following on the Internet: “The overall literacy rate in Afghanistan is reported to be 28.1%; according to an Afghan Ministry of Education report, ‘In rural areas where 74 percent of all Afghans live, however, an estimated 90 percent of women and 63 percent of men cannot read, write and do a simple math computation.’”

That is a staggering set of statistics. If you simply stop and think of how limiting those numbers are for the people, the challenges faced by the entire country seem overwhelming.

How hard it must be to try to create a peaceful, prospering country with those kinds of statistics working against you.

There is a lot of criticism of the educational system in the US and, most certainly, improvements can be made. However, regardless of what you think of US education, no one can deny how important it is to the growth and prosperity of our country. Sometimes it is easy to say “oh, I’m just a teacher” and view the job as unimportant but those of us in education need to constantly remind ourselves of how essential our job is. If you are a teacher, never take it for granted. Our country needs great education. As teachers, we each have students who are depending on us to help them read and learn and go out into the world and make a difference. And, through that learning, they will be able to help continue the building of a great nation.

I couldn’t help thinking, as I sat and talked with the Afghan official, that I wished every teacher could hear what he was saying about the total loss that comes from lack of education. There are a lot of the world’s problems that I cannot do a single thing about. However, when it comes to helping to educate the next generation, that is a challenge that I can personally address—even as soon as Wednesday—when I walk back into class and make a little difference in the lives of my 64 students. I want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Teaching Is Serious Business

I was asked, about four years ago, to write an essay on teaching. The following was my response. I believed this then. I believe it now. Joe

Teaching is serious business. We have wonderfully bright and talented students at every school. They have almost unlimited potential. For most, this is their one shot at college; they deserve nothing less than an excellent education,
an academic experience that challenges them to excel from their first day to their last.

Faculty members have a responsibility to the world to coax the very best from their students because they will certainly become the next generation of leaders. Where they go from here, what they accomplish, how they impact the world, depends in large part on how much we are able to push and nurture their development. I want every student to leave my class at the end of the semester saying, “I had to work very hard but I am so amazed by how much I learned.” Anything less is unacceptable.

If a teacher challenges students to think and do their best, word gets around campus quickly, but having a tough reputation is both good and bad. When students walk into my class on the first day, they tend to be very quiet and pay attention right away. On the other hand, I am always so disappointed when a student says to me “I hear you are a good teacher, but I didn’t take your class because I know you are very demanding.” Isn't that just incredibly sad? I think all of college education (as well as the world in general) will be better when students become convinced to sign up only for classes where teachers push them each day to do their best.

During each semester, I occasionally point out to my students that the grade of A, according to the University catalogue, reflects “outstanding” work. A student does not earn the grade of A for a good effort, only for consistently outstanding work. That’s a great goal; it inspires a wonderful level of effort. Grade inflation has hurt college education across this country and could be fixed simply by faculty members saying, “You earn an A when the work that I see is truly outstanding.” Don’t fool yourself; students are well aware of the difference between “good” and “outstanding.”

I use the Socratic Method. I call on every student every day in class. I don't ask them to regurgitate material; I ask them questions that I believe will cause them to think and reason—on the spot. That is what adult life is like. I then follow my initial question with others based on their answers. If I don’t get good replies from a student, I don’t just nod and smile; I demand better of them. A student once compared my class to a contact sport. Students should be ready, willing and able to discuss and debate issues. This is college, not high school.

I want a reasonable effort from my students because students get back based on what they put in. I expect them to study four to six hours each week outside of class so they’ll be ready to participate in class discussions. I use carrots and sticks. I say, “Good job!” when a student gives me a thoughtful, well-conceived answer, and I say, “Listen, you can do better than that!” when a student gives me a bad answer. I don’t view that as being disagreeable, although I do realize that it injects a bit of tension into the class. But this is not Sesame Street; a bad answer is a bad answer. There is only one primary goal in my class: to improve each student’s ability to think, reason and understand. Students realize how capable they are, but human nature loves to take the easy path.

A good basketball coach adapts to the talents of his or her players. A good teacher does the same. You cannot take an identical approach with every student. Some love to be pushed and pushed hard. They enjoy “in-your-face” challenges. Others are more fragile. You have to coax and nurture them. So toughness comes into my class where toughness is necessary. You teach each student, not each group. However, every student needs to be willing to prepare and to think. That is not negotiable.

One of the keys to becoming a good teacher is learning to walk into a room of students and “see” what is happening to the individual members: Billy needs a few extra seconds to formulate an answer, Susan loves to be called on, Andy doesn’t know what is happening right now, Ellen is not prepared. You have to be able to adapt to your students on the spot every day. What a wonderfully exciting job.

Our students can do amazing things, but if we don’t challenge them fully, they will never realize what marvelous talents they truly possess. Signing up for demanding classes might hurt a student’s GPA, but which is more important: developing a good mind or a good GPA?