Why I Teach

“It takes courage to grow up and be who you really are.”  e e cummings

I love to teach. *

I love it because I enjoy learning, and I love it because I can pass on what I’ve learned as well as my passion for learning.

Being a teacher is a lot more than being a subject matter expert. You not only need to understand your subject, you need to understand how your students view that subject. You also need to be able to influence their views of it. I find that the barriers that most people have with mathematics aren’t from lack of ability. Most people can grasp math concepts. Instead, people struggle with social or psychological barriers that keep them from learning and enjoying math. My job is to teach math concepts while helping my students get more comfortable with learning. Here is how I typically teach my classes: engage the students, present them with concepts and skills to practice, and reinforce their new skills with feedback and support.

A big part of engaging the students is personality.  My students love my enthusiasm and clarity in the classroom.  I am acutely aware that I can give students information, but they are the ones responsible for learning it.  I am responsible for making the work palatable and outlining their skills and set of knowledge required to succeed.  It requires clear communication and keeping things entertaining and engaging.  My main goals are:  (1) get the students invested by encouraging their intrinsic curiosity and (2) appealing to their self-interest as a drive to learn.   Once they have these traits, they build the habits of independent and lifelong learning.

Inside the classroom, being a good teacher is about giving accessible information and creating a strong classroom community. I like giving students a forgiving place to try out new skills and ask questions.  Patience is more than a virtue, it is an utter necessity! Organized lectures and class discussions are also a necessity. Planned discussions are good, but I also find that the discussions that come out of student questions are equally beneficial. Some students need more challenging material, while others need to focus on basics. It helps that I am able to judge the class’ demeanor, and teach responsively. Are they interested or bored?  Will alternative techniques help them learn?   How quickly can they grasp the skills/concepts that I am teaching?  What changes will keep the class active without being disruptive?

Outside of the classroom, being a good teacher is about preparation and giving useful feedback.   I go to great lengths to provide helpful and positive feedback for the students.   To learn from their mistakes, students first need to know about them, and they need to have tools they can use in the future. Negative feedback isn’t helpful, and I have found that students need both encouragement and empowerment to be able to succeed. The work I assign and the feedback I give not only reinforces the concepts and skills we go over in class, it also encourages the students to be conscientious and responsible.

I love seeing my students learn.

ity in the classroom.   I am acutely aware that I can give students information, but they are the ones responsible for learning it.   With this in mind my job is to make the work palatable and clarify their needed skills and set of knowledge.  This is also why I believe that a necessary part of teaching is keeping things entertaining and engaging.   There are two main goals to this:  get the students invested by encouraging their intrinsic curiosity, and to engage their self-interest (and hopefully additional drive to learn).   Once they have these traits, they can go about fostering the habits of independent (and lifelong) learning.

Within the classroom, being a good instructor is about being engaging and giving accessible information. The difficulties that most people have in learning isn’t lack of information, it is in the presentation and the classroom community.   I like giving students a forgiving place to try out new skills and ask questions.   Patience is more than a virtue, it is an utter necessity!   Organized lectures and class discussions are also a necessity.   I find that the best (guided) discussions are the ones that appear to be spontaneous (but they don’t need to be!).       It also helps to be able to judge the class’ demeanor.   Are they interested or bored?    Will alternative techniques help them learn?   How quickly can they grasp the skills/concepts that you are teaching?    What changes will keep the class engaged without being disruptive?

Outside of the classroom, being a good teacher is about preparation and giving useful feedback.   I go to great lengths to provide helpful and positive feedback for the students.   People learn from their mistakes, but first they need to know about them, and have a better tool or technique to help them in the future.   Negative feedback isn’t helpful, and I have found that students need both encouragement and empowerment to be able to succeed.    The work I assign and the feedback I give not only reinforces the concepts and skills we go over in class, it also encourages the students to be conscientious and responsible.

I love to teach, because I love to see my students learn.

 

 

*  Note:  for those of you who know, this is my semi-official “teaching philosophy”  statement.   But I thought it was possibly worth sharing.   People who have read my blog for a while will recognize all of the pieces of this, but this is my condensed teaching philosophy.

Now, I go to teach the hell out of my Summer quarter class.

Excuse Bingo!

Lets play a game.

Say a student doesn’t show up for class, and you get the email later saying they had a family emergency.   The next class, a student tells you they weren’t able to show up because their childcare cancelled and they weren’t able to get a replacement in time for class.   In your other class, you have a student out for the national guard, and another who is getting surgery.

Congratulations!   You are scoring pieces for Student Excuse Bingo!!!   Scoring a “bingo” means getting an entire line (vertical, horizontal, or diagonal) after receiving those excuses for that term.   Excuses may be either sincere or fake, so long as they are covering for an actual absence or late assignment.   The “Lame Excuses” square can include anything that is almost too bizarre to be real, from “my dog ate my homework,”  “it caught on fire,” or “I got bitten by a radioactive spider”.

I will also say, I have collected some of the more interesting excuses already, but send me more!  Send your excuses to:   excuses@evilleagueofteachers.com.

So lets play.     Download the following PDFs for you and your colleagues.

Student Excuse Bingo 1

Student Excuse Bingo 2

Student Excuse Bingo 3

 Let the games begin.

Bang head here

Finals week is a time with a certain amount of expected drama.   All of the courses wind to a close, with projects and tests cranking up the stress of the students.   It is also a time when procrastination comes home to roost.   Students who tell themselves, “it’s okay, I’ll learn it tomorrow” find that they are out of tomorrows, and still need to know things.

This long preamble is just me saying that students get stressed out, and will sometimes act out.  It seems every other quarter there is a student who bursts into tears or has a panic attack during a final exam.   It comes with territory.

This finals week has had some drama.  A few days before there was a spate of emails confirming when we had the final exams, asking about grades, panic over topics, and so on.   Then a few minutes before the final one student tells me that he was due in court shortly.  I couldn’t hold it back, “Really? You should have let me know before today.”  He said he knew, and that he would try to make it back as fast as he could.   And the student who had medical issues the week before, who missed a test.

And… and… and…

The final starts.   Ten minutes into the test the website hosting the final assessment crashed.   I ask the students to be patient, and after about 5 minutes the site comes back up… sort of.   The site is up and down over the next 20 minutes, so I’m busy reassuring them and encouraging them to refresh the site.   Finally, the site is stable, and the students are getting back in the groove.    Nobody is bursting into tears.  Halfway through, a student waves me over and tells me that he just got a text that his wife is going into the emergency room, and needed to step out (“Okay, go be a good husband”).

The test goes on.

After the last person finished, I drop off class material at my desk.   Then I check my mailbox to find a note from another student, and wondered if they could take it at home.

Really?  It seems my students saved up their drama for the final.   I want to bang my head against the wall now.

But I will get to bang my head against grading and stuff.

Send a search party if I don’t regain consciousness by Monday.

Finals Week Playlist 12

Spring quarter is almost done, which means that I get to dive deep into grading for a while.  This has been a great quarter:   good students and minimal classroom drama.    My classes were mellow, which has been nice change.   I did hear that one of my colleague’s students literally tried to get her to reteach an entire lesson (to the whole class) because he was absent.

I can’t make this shit up.  It’s funny in retrospect.

Still, grading takes a toll.   As much as I want all of my students to succeed, some students won’t make it to their next class.   I’m not fond of failing people, but some students haven’t clued in to the fact that I only present the material, I can’t understand it for them.   (Hmmmm… maybe I do still have a little snark leftover after all).   I also get an absurdly short break (a little over a week off) and class prep for the Summer term!

While I’m grading, contemplating my week off, and planning for next quarter I have a nice little set of tunes to occupy and distract me.   This is a little more eclectic than I usually go, but what the hell… here goes!

  • Carl Sagan – A Glorious Dawn
  • Puddles Pity Party – When You Rock and Roll With Me
  • Joan Jett – Bad Reputation
  • Justin Bieber vs Slipknot – Psychosocial Baby
  • Misfits – Angel Fuck
  • CHVRCHES – Bela Lugosi’s Dead
  • Jill Tracy – The Fine Art of Poisoning
  • Joan Jett – Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap
  • Pomplamoose – I’m the S**t
  • Godsmack – Voodoo
  • The Wombats – Tokyo (Vampires & Wolves)
  • M.I.A.  – Bad Girls

 

Buckle up, Buttercup.   We’re ready for finals.

Pushing Points

I’m going to share with you a dirty little secret.*    I haven’t always been a teacher.   Once upon a time, I was a professional Tarot reader and Palmist.** ***   Aside from the technical aspects of the job (like knowing how to read Tarot cards well without freaking out your customer) was being able to read your customer.    Getting a feeling for how well the reading was going was a good indication.

That skill is invaluable as a teacher.   I think any performer can tell you when their audience is entertained, bored, or lost.   The same thing should apply to teachers, but anyone with experience as a student knows that this isn’t always the case.   This is one of the reasons that I say at least half of teaching is entertainment.   Once you know what to say, knowing how to say it in a way that it gets across is important.

There is another aspect of keeping a class engaged though, and that is keeping them challenged.   There is a balancing act in every class between keeping the material relevant to students who are struggling with the material as well as keeping the interest of those who are already past it.    If you can’t keep them interested, then no amount of entertainment can keep them studying.

  • Once you have given your general instructions, then you can give more and more difficult examples to show the utility.
  • You can preview future material for those who are already ahead (note:  definitely revisit the material later, because not everyone will be capable of keeping up).
  • Keep it real!     A lot of students get bored in a math class if there isn’t an obvious application.   If you can give them examples of how the math they learn can be used in the world, they will retain the information more and be more interested in other topics.
  • In order to be interesting, you need to be obviously interested.   If you can find the topics that energize the students, talk to those topics.   I find lecturing on zombies is a lot of fun, but I’ve talked on everything from lasers to video games will often keep the student’s attention.
  • One-on-one time.    For students who seem to be getting ahead, I like to ask them if they’re getting bored.   I have a file full of exercises I call “next level,” for students who are ready to work on more challenging topics.

Every class is different, and each class will have it’s own personality.    I have very obedient students this quarter****,  and they have worked faster than I had anticipated.   I’ve had to advance their lecture schedule, and advance it again….  But every class is different.   Keeping them in balance is one of the main challenges we teachers face.

It is important to know when to push them.

I love my job.

 

*   Get your mind out of the gutter.   This isn’t that kind of blog!

**   I quit doing that a long time ago.   Part of the reason is that I became an atheist.    And the tips kind of sucked.

***   Any student who asks me for a reading will immediately fail.   So don’t even try.

**** It is so weird!   And kind of cool too — they listen for the most part, and they do their work.

Responsible vs. Entitled Students

While teaching at a community college I get to witness a rare intersection of cultures:   I get a mix of students who are right out of high school (plus some running start students) as well as non-traditional students returning to school after 10 to 30 years.    Because I teach developmental math, I typically get students who are unpracticed at math (or are convinced that they are bad at it) or who are unpracticed at being a good student.    I enjoy teaching students who are (hopefully) mature enough to appreciate learning, and who know who is to blame if they fail.

No student is tabula rasa (a blank slate), however.  Some students are easier to teach than others.     While intelligence helps, what I really love to see in a student is a student who is conscientious and responsible.   These are the students who will show up, do the work, and who keep working until they have the competencies they need.  Add some intellectual curiosity….  and we have a seriously cool student who adds to the entire class.

Then there are the students who come in and know it all already.   They just need this class as a prerequisite for what they really want.   Then they ask if attendance is necessary, and whether they can test out of the class.  These are the one ones who have lessons other than math to learn.    One phrase that I hear out of some of these students is “I really need to pass this class” as if I were the one who were responsible for making that happen.

Expectations

I’m clear about my expectations for my classes from the get go:   show up, do the work, be respectful of the class, and ask questions!    People will rise (or fall) to the level of expectations put on them.    There have been students who express astonishment at the level of work that I expect (which is actually not that much… 1-2 hours for every hour of class time is pretty standard).   When the class gets going, they realize that I’m not kidding about the amount of work needed to succeed, or even just keep up.

Teaching adults does have it’s drawbacks, because your class won’t be the only responsibilities they have.    The more you can work with these students to help them fit your class into their lives, the more they are willing to work (I have found).*

As for the those who feel that they are above it, failure is always an option.

Consequences and Responsibility

For those who show up and do the work, there is often unexpected consequences (unexpected for them, perhaps).   They often find themselves enjoying math, where they never did before.

And yet every term I find that I have to tell people that I won’t accept late work.   Giving a zero as a grade is often a sobering experience for students who aren’t used to needing to work.   One student, after arguing with me for a while said to me “wow, you really are serious?  Nobody else has cared.”   While I doubt that was actually the case, I’m glad I got through to them.

Showing up (periodically) isn’t enough.   That is a hard lesson for some people to learn.

The Lessons we Teach

Setting the stage (and stacking the deck) for students to be responsible and to learn the concepts and skills they need isn’t always enough.    I am acutely aware of the fact that, no matter how I present the material, they are the ones who need to learn it.   Just as much as that,  they hopefully will learn that failure is an option if they don’t take responsibility.

I’ve been pleased with my classes this quarter.   The students who aren’t doing well have told me that it is because they haven’t put in the necessary time instead of the expectation that I will pass them “because I need to pass this class!”

This is why I love to teach adults.**

 

*  Once upon a time I asked someone whether they would like to have a spectacular career and a mediocre home life or vice-versa?   They blew me away when they said they wouldn’t need to choose – they’d take both.   It was a lesson I took to heart.    Something is wrong when we expect that we need to make sacrifices of the things that are important for us, for no other reason than we think that it is a matter of one thing or another.     It’s all important.

**    That, and I get to have a personality… I’m too weird for corporate America.   But I’m memorable as a teacher.

Excuses du jour

In life, things happen.   There are things that disrupt the flow of our lives.   I’ve had a few of those the past few weeks (some bad, some amazingly good),  which I’m going to blame now for not posting last week.   (Remember:  good stress is still stress…)

This has been a good term, for the most part.   By the middle of most quarters, I usually have a few people who make me want to be an oyster, and just wrap those irritants up tight.   I find myself over halfway through this term and happy with both of my classes.   They work hard, and I’ve only been getting apologies from students who aren’t as far ahead as they want.    Earlier in the quarter, I asked them to do more work… and they listened.

I like my classes this term!

I don’t know if this is true for other instructors, or if this is just a pattern that occurs in my own classes.   Every term seems to have it’s preferred excuses for absences.  Two quarters ago, it was “Sorry, I had a family emergency” or “my kid/husband/wife got sick.”   After the fourth different person told me this, I took note.

Yep, we needed a headshot after she came back as a zombie.

Last quarter, it was “my mom/dad/grandparent has cancer, and I’ve had to help them with [treatment/life].”   I will note, that this only started happening after I revealed to one of my own students that my mother was undergoing treatment for cancer… and I suspect she told others, which generated the wave of sympathy seeking excuses.   Not particularly nice on behalf of those students if that is what they were doing, but that is also why I require doctor’s notes.

This quarter it is “car troubles, and I can’t make it in.”   This would bother me, if it weren’t my best students telling me this (my not so good students don’t show up, but they don’t bother making excuses either).

There are reasons why I keep the attendance policies that I do:   I give some allowances for life, after that, I want real documentation.    The stories that I get told I get told do move me, but I will also say that I stick with my policy.    You may be a good mom/dad/husband/wife/whatever, and that is good.  But I only judge you on how good a student you are… it isn’t anything personal.

So, I will understand if you decide to judge me for not posting last week.   My excuse is still:  stress.   (Good stress and bad stress)    If you want to judge me as a bad blogger… that’s fair.     Otherwise, I’m still a rockstar teacher.

Sick days

Ever look at a teacher, and knew they weren’t well?    You could smell the cough drops, or hear the congestion when they spoke… there were times I used to wonder why they came to school.

Not anymore.

Gone are the days when I could wake up, realize I had a fever and a cough, call in and go back to bed.   As a teacher that doesn’t always work.  Injury?  Meet insult.  The things that stay the same:  waking up sick, and calling in.   Instead of going back to bed though, you look at your class (or classes) are at,  make up lesson plans for a substitute and email them (for each class)… then you can go back to bed.   When you wake up, then you can do things like answer your student emails and get a jump on your grading, because you know you are going to be swamped when you get back.   You can do the same thing tomorrow, too.

It is so much work being sick, that most teachers don’t have the time to do it. **

Teachers get exposed to 30 to 100+ students every day, so getting sick is inevitable.    This is why I carry my little mini-pharmacy.   It has cough-drops, pain killers, Benadryl, and enough Dayquil to get me through a day.    Along with soothing tea, it has gotten me through a couple of rough days.  Altoid tins are a good size, and I have a small stack at home that I can grab on my way out the door.

There is the good news if you are teaching sick:  you are the teacher.   You can tell your students (periodically) that there will be no homework and give yourself a break.   The bad news:  you are the teacher.  You can’t do that too often.   It is going to take extra work to get your classes back on track after you are out for a day or two.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying, I hate being sick.  I don’t like it, and frankly I miss my classes and my students.  I would so much rather be there, than stuck at home, recovering from whatever it is that I have.   Zeus help me, I even miss grading homework at this point.

Sick Days

** This also applies to parents.   Not quite the same… I at least get to go home at the end of the day.

Evil League of Teachers, now EXTRA STABBY!

Many changes are incremental: one, two, three…

Some changes are more transformative: one, two, chrysalis, butterfly…

Evil Butterfly

I’m hoping that the Evil League of Teachers is out of it’s plodding phase, and is moving into its chrysalis.   Soon, we can be a beautiful butterfly, spreading doom even as we pollinate young minds.   Which is to say, I’m making some changes to our site that will hopefully transform us into a powerhouse of EVIL!   READY FOR WORLD DOMINATION!!!  Just after I get my coffee.

Some things will never change, of course.   Students occasionally learn their lessons the hard way after they discover that procrastination is not a winning strategy.  And teachers learn from their students (hopefully) new winning strategies for their students.  Which is to say that learning isn’t always easy, and requires a healthy dose of humility from time to time.   Which sucks, because I’m not especially humble.

Which is why I’m here a the end of the week, and I’m feeling extra STABBY.

Partially because I’m being pushed out of my comfort zone (which is good), but also for more personal reasons.*   But I will say, this is about growing.  Busting out of caterpillar status, and moving on to be a scary evil butterfly!  And now I’m going to lay this belabored butterfly metaphor to rest.

So you can continue to count on continued things like finals week playlists, midterm misanthropy, student and teacher horoscopes, as well as our going critical (critical thinking) segments.  We can look forward to some new things like confessions from an ex-corporate whore, more teaching advice from a dominatrix, and maybe (let’s say it softly) a new blogger or two? The Evil League of Teachers marches on,  with a new look,  weapons-grade sarcasm, and extra stabbiness!

Now go forth, educate, and use your powers for whatever the hell you want to… they are your powers.

 

 

*Honestly, I don’t like it when the people I love get sick, and there is nothing I can do to help them feel better.   It’s a kind of helpless feeling.   Also, migraines suck.

Potpourri of Crap

There is a lot of things I could write about today.   I could write about this week’s proud teaching moments, this week’s lame excuses, the danger of oversharing with students, or the willful ignorance that is predominant in American Culture.   I just find myself drawing a blank when I start to write these things today.

Sorry Evil League of Teachers, I’m just distracted.  So I’m going to ramble instead.

My life, how I love thee…

So many irons in the fire, and not enough time to tend them! Here is a general list of the stuff that keeps me preoccupied:

Here on the Evil League of Teachers:   we may be getting a new blogger or two, but I’ll need to revamp the site a bit before that happens.   (1) First up, our disclaimer statement… since much of our material is satire (I don’t abuse my students, I don’t in fact fill my red pens with their blood, and I don’t own a student skin coat!) it is good to have a statement on here saying as much.     Which brings us to (2), we will hopefully be getting a new look.   If you know any graphic artists or web-page gurus who would be willing to work for beer money, let me know (click the comments section!).   (iii) My pie in the sky dream for the ELOT would be setting up an LLC for the League, and associate with some fantastic other educational sites… maybe publish books of teaching with zombies…

At school: (d) if I get a decent microphone and capture software, I’ll start making my own education videos.   This of course means that I will pay out of pocket, teach myself video and audio software, and host the videos.   (fiVe) I’m trying to plan my “other duties” centered on accreditation, as well as maintain having a social life in between quarters. And there is also () maintaining content for my classes and refreshing myself on the esoteric subjects that I tutor twice a year.

The rest of my life: (Libra) I’m digging myself out of debt so I can go back to school, and officially be either “Doctor” Evil. Then there is also (1001) applying to teach in the Seattle Community Colleges (because a 4 hour daily commute is less fun than it sounds). But I also need to (10) finish my physical therapy so I can (XI) start training for a marathon.   And (M.) learning guitar.   I even may be able to play a video game or two now and then.

… all of which are less important than maintaining my relationships who get the bulk of my free time. That and taking over the world.

My life, how I love thee!