Feedback Loop

It is amazing how much my opinion of the world improves after I finish grading.

There are a lot of positives to being a teacher, but grading can be one of the more difficult pieces. I can think of at least three reasons for this:  it is tedious and repetitive to look over an assignment 30 (or 50, or 100) times, it isn’t easy to watch the people you care about struggle with a subject that you care about, and it sometimes can feel like your students haven’t been listening to your lessons. Beyond that, there are students who feel that grades are negotiable, as if their performance on an assignment was not input enough and there should be some other types of merit that deserve credit on an algebra assignment.

I can’t remember the person who told me “You don’t have to take it personally to take it seriously.”  I have tried to pass that on to a few of my students who took my feedback as a personal insult rather than as a guide to improvement.  I have to remind myself of that at times, especially after a marathon grading session. Giving feedback is an important piece of teaching, and being able to find your own mistakes isn’t an easy exercise for people of any age.  This also goes for me as I have to grade… I remind myself that I have taught these lessons dozens of times, but they may very well be learning it for the first time.

Feedback can be a bitch

As teachers, we need to remember that our voices get amplified.  We speak from positions of experience and authority, and that can be devastating if it is heavy-handed, and quite empowering if it is encouraging.  I have said it before:  patience isn’t a virtue, it is an absolute necessity.

Which is to say, I need to forgive myself for getting frustrated by my recent round of grading.   Holy crapnuggets, I don’t know for whom it was worse: them for having to do only semi-understood material or for me to go through and try to give them feedback.    And I feel that restraining my sarcasm may deserve some sort of medical intervention some days.

So when grading:  Breathe in.  Breathe out.  And remember to swear to yourself.

Burn it Down

Some days in teaching are beautiful transcendent days where students and teacher are in an almost mythical harmony, exchanging ideas and bringing goals ever closer to fruition.  Days where progress is palpable.

This is not one of those days. Today, I feel stabby.

This is a day when multiple students misunderstand that Summer classes do not mean optional classes. Or that a short quarter does not mean less work. Or that scheduled meetings with your instructor should be honored. Or maybe just saying that they will do their homework isn’t the same as turning it in on time.

Today is a day where I have to either listen to death metal or turn on a slasher movie to keep from grinding my teeth while I grade.

Today I get to unleash new levels of academic invective at poorly executed problems. The red ink will flow, and I will direct the flood.

Today I lower my expectations, because I don’t want to be disappointed later by student entitlement coupled with laziness.

Today, I want to watch the world burn.

Tomorrow, I will remind myself that however flawed they are, the students want to better themselves. And I will remember that as frustrating as a few of them are, they are not the majority.

Love hurts y’all.

It must be nice to have Summer off

Of all the banal and untrue things said to me, this one garners a balanced reaction between laughing maniacally, sobbing hysterically, or calmly and thoughtfully stabbing the speaker while explaining the realities of an adjunct on “Summer Vacation.”

First off, the reality of being an adjunct instructor (at least in my state) is that if you aren’t teaching then you aren’t getting paid.  Unlike full time professors our pay doesn’t get distributed over the entire year. Our contracts are limited to one term at a time, which means that when finals are over…. hope you have savings!

While it is technically true that an instructor can pick up part time work between quarters, it isn’t a simple prospect.  Also, you can collect unemployment … but you can count on unemployment agencies to misconstrue having classes lined up for the next quarter as having “a guarantee of work.” Washington State has privatised, which just seems to make them less helpful.  Tip for instructors:  you will need to emphasise that classes are a provisional offer of employment, based on enrollment, funding, or program changes, and do not construe a reasonable assurance of future work.  I have taken to bringing copies of class cancellation notices to these meetings. Also, if you are teaching less than half time you can (hypothetically) collect part of your unemployment as well.

Shut up Wesley

So once you know you aren’t going to starve, then there is the other difficulty: you will need to work on prepping your next term. Teaching isn’t just lecturing and grading, there is a lot of planning every single term.  Buckle up, because unpaid overtime is coming!  For me, it means scheduling my topics, setup of my online resources, and writing/updating my exercises.

Teaching often has odd hours, especially if you teach at multiple schools, so there are a lot of other projects that we put off until between quarters.

My “time off” is spoken for this Summer.

So maybe instead of saying stupid things to teachers, why not buy us a cup of coffee and thank us instead.

Finals Week Playlist 17, grading drama edition

Something that I was never warned about as a teacher was how dramatic grading a final can be.  As much as I can play up how important it is for students to have the option to fail, it doesn’t help to watch as they do.  I’m not quite as callous as I would let my teaching persona be… which is to say, I feel invested in my students lives.

Beyond the regular frustrations of grading there are also the almost marathon aspects of final grading.   There is a swell of last minute assignments, as well as the time pressure deadline of grading (in my case) comprehensive exams.   One test took me over 5 hours to grade.

There is also the part where I’m looking forward to a week where I don’t have to get up at 5 am to come in and teach.   So… lets just say, I’m ready to be done.

And I still am me.  I like my students more than most other people, but I’m at heart a misanthrope.   I don’t suffer fools gladly.  So now I give you this quarter’s grading playlist:

Enjoy you Summer, if you have the luxury of having time off.

Patience/Forgiveness

It seems only appropriate that we follow up last few weeks posts with a few notes about patience.

Patience in teaching isn’t just a virtue, it is an absolute necessity. A frustrated teacher sends all the wrong signals to your students: that they aren’t trying, that they are stupid, or that they aren’t worth teaching. As a teacher, learning to control that reaction for long enough to find a new explanation for a topic or to track where the student’s understanding stops.

There are reasons for students to have difficulties, and reasons other than academic ones for a teacher to get irritated. Both in school and outside of school, one thing that has perplexed me.  People constantly apologize for biology.  Needing to use a restroom is natural, so why apologize for it?  Everyone poops… they even made a book about it.  Just don’t fart at me, and we’re cool.

Similarly, people apologize for their brain chemistry. Anxiety, depression, autism, or executive function disorders…. so long as it doesn’t become a get-out-of-work-free-pass, all is well.  I can understand why people apologize here, even if I feel it is unnecessary.  Thoughts-as-symptoms can feel very personal, and behavior around them can not entirely feel like it is under control… and it certainly can feel abnormal compared to the perceived social “norm.”

It is with situational things that sometimes I need to periodically remind myself to be patient. This is where I need to remind myself that everyone’s journey is their own, and their own experience has got to guide/teach them.  Students will oversleep, traffic happens, and sometimes childcare falls through… but unless it becomes a persistent excuse that I stop believing that people haven’t changed their behavior to adapt to ongoing circumstances.

Why do I need to read the syllabus?

For students who are clearly telling tales in a futile attempt to get out of work… you are cheating nobody but yourself.  I just won’t let you turn in 5 weeks late homework after you didn’t show up or bother to email me.   Just sayin’.

But being a student means that you are still a human being. So I understand that things happen. Sometimes.

 

Sadism: Reflections on being a Teacher

“I only hurt you because I care.”   Every sadist, ever… also every teacher.

I have said before that teachers all engage in a special form of schadenfreude.  I love to make my students think, and push them beyond their comfort point to where they are questioning what they think they know, or think in entirely new and novel ways.  And I love doing it over, and over again.

This is part of the job of being a teacher.  You have to push people in order for them to grow.  The only question is how painful does the process really need to be.  This leads to the inevitable question: does being a teacher make me a sadist, or does being a sadist make me a better teacher?

While this question remains open for many instructors, I think that it is a truth that it can certainly help.  At this point, I also want to point out that there is a lot misunderstood about sadists. Most that I know don’t enjoy inflicting undifferentiated pain, they enjoy consent. Pain is a great teacher, but in many ways it also marks great progress.

“No pain, no gain.”

Let’s examine the parallels between personal trainers and sadists for a moment.   Every fitness trainer and physical therapist I know understands that pain is an indicator of progress.  They will measure how much their clients (read: victims) can take as a measure of their ability.  And as soon as their disciples have crossed the threshold that certain exercises are no longer challenging, they will devise new and different things to challenge their students.  The exact same thing is true of all the sadists or Dom/mes that I know.

There is also the symbiotic relationship we have with students. They know that the process of learning is uncomfortable, and yet they continue to sign up to learn. For many this is simply because the discomfort of ignorance is worse than the discomfort of learning.  There are others who want to learn just for the sake of learning… and these delightful perverts make my job a delight.  No matter how much work I pile in front of them, no matter what details I pick on, no matter what grueling course I have them learn they keep coming back for more.

I love these students who never use their safeword.

And for a final parallel: in (consenting) sadist/masochist relationships it is the masochist who holds the power.   They can make everything stop simply by saying no and leaving… but they enjoy the process as well.  The sadist provides imagination and shapes the scene.  The same thing is true of teaching a class.  Students show up because they want something.  Sometimes it isn’t fully defined, but teachers will help them find it.

I get to help students find themselves.

So there we have it… teachers have to have a certain willingness to push people out of their comfort zones.  But in order for us to do that, the students have to want it.

Oh how I love my job.

 

Midterm misanthropy: I’m not with Stupid

I wish stupidity hurt.

A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.” (Sam Clemens)

To be clear, I wish I didn’t get hurt by the entitled and ignorant actions of others… I think those consequences should be limited to the perpetrators themselves. Unfortunately, their stupidity can cause grief far beyond themselves… the best the rest of us can do is try to locate a minimum safe distance from the havoc they cause.

This quarter has been a welcome respite: I have great students who seem to be taking responsibility for their own actions. Excuses have been reasonable, and (so far) extended absences have been accompanied by doctor’s notes.

Which means that most of my misanthropy has been directed at people I don’t get to fail, per se. There is a world of difference between naïve and stupid. I love teaching because I get to give information and skills to those who want it. If only I could find a way to disarm wilful ignorance and motivated reasoning outside of class, I would be fantastically happy.  Ironic that I understand why so many misguided evangelists me promise that I will go to hell as an atheist… I understand that they are engaging in a type of wish fulfillment fantasy.

I understand that my wishing it were so won’t make it happen, but I think it is fun to fantasize anyway:

  • I wish that people who honk less than 1 second after a light changes would have their car stall in that moment.
  • … or need to pay an “unnecessary honking” tax.
  • … or be afflicted by a sudden fear of car horns.
  • I have a special wish for rabid anti-vaxx folks to be bitten by a rabies infected critter.  (Dually ironic because the first treatment is get a rabies vaccine or become literally rabid).
  • … I’ll add this treatment to folks who abuse their pets… just let them know after the treatment window had closed.
  • … and for the folks who shield child abusers/rapists (yes, I’m looking at you Pope Frankie).
  • How about we castrate the self labeled “incel” bros.  Maybe less testosterone would make them less misogynistic…
  • … and lets take away their internet access.
  • … and if that doesn’t work, I’m sure they would make excellent fertilizer.

I will not kill people and wear their skins… I will not kill people and wear their skins…. I will not kill people and wear their skins….

 

 

 

Service Culture Redux

We live in a culture that honors soldiers.

On the surface, there is nothing wrong with this. These are people who go into a job knowing that they could be shot to… “defend our liberties.”  Now we can discuss how attacking people overseas who hate us makes us safer. Many hate us for our politics, much of which seems to be about how we like to interfere in world politics and support regimes like the ever peaceful Israeli states (where is my sarcastic font?).  Policy makers inadvertently perpetuate cycles of violence and distrust. Differences in religion don’t help either, but for whatever reason everybody seems to think that God is on their side.

Also, most of the soldiers I know tell me that it is mostly getting too little sleep and too little pay to do boring and menial work.

And to be clear: thank you for your service.  You signed up to take risks for your country.  I have no problem with you fine folks… politicians are another matter entirely.  But now is not the time to open that can o’ worms.

So lets change gears and I’ll ask you: when was the last time you were surprised about hearing about a school shooting (in the US)? Teaching is not a profession without risk anymore.

Sometimes people tell me that teaching is a noble profession.  But I have also had friends ask me if I am nervous about a shooter coming to my school… and I admit I am. But I’ll stay because I love to teach, and that I do it well. Lets make no mistake though, schools are not off limits to mass murderers.

I would like to imagine a culture that honors teachers the same way that it honors soldiers. Can I get my teachers discount at the restaurant?  Or allowed to board a plane early? Can we have parades? Or people on the TV saying they support their teachers in service? Or asking for more money for schools? How about celebrating the families that have several generations of educators?

Imagine a world where literacy, art, and science are valued more than violence.

Imagine a world where we can explore ideas and cultures, without needing to be behind armed barricades.

Imagine a culture that celebrates intellect and invention as protectors of democracy, more than military might.

Imagine.

The importance of failure

“Failure can be the jet fuel to success.”

Some days are easy, some are not.

I say it frequently in my classes:   making mistakes is not failure, it is just part of the process.   The willingness to make mistakes and continue to try are hallmarks of great students.

As a teacher, it can be more complicated.  I continue to try, but do I consider my students who don’t pass the class failures?   Yes and no.   I know that there are different ways to reach these students.   Some require special handling, some mere encouragement, and others may lack some fundamental skills.  That is always part of the job.

Behavior problems are more of a problem.  A lot of mistakes stem not from skill deficits, but from social ones.  A common problem for adult teachers:  what do you do about the student who would rather talk through your class and learn from their friends than from you as a teacher.   This would be fine, except the friends in class don’t have a complete skillset either, and often is a distraction for more than them.   Depending on the situation, you may want to appeal to either the student who is asking questions of their friend, or the one answering them.   There is a time and a place.

Please tell me we are turning the corner...

Then there are the mistakes you make as a teacher.

We are only human, we make mistakes. As teachers, the sooner we acknowledge mistakes the better.  When teaching a skill, if I spot an error that I made it turns into a new teaching opportunity. “See how this happened, and what it will do to the work that follows?”

Beyond mistakes, failure as a teacher can mean two things.  First, failing a student who could have been helped but who wasn’t. Life is busy, and hard, and there are other students to care for, but all of the students need you. The other failure is the student who passes who doesn’t have the skills to succeed.  These are the ones who pass, and don’t deserve it.  They will be a burden to their future classes, and they move forward with a false sense of confidence in their abilities.

Making mistakes is not failure.  I hope my students make mistakes, and continue to learn from them.  I intend on not making it too easy for them until they move on.

 

Late edition Playlists

 

I’ve been out of touch for a while.   Quite a while… so here are some of the catch up videos I’ve been grading to for the past few quarters.

My winter quarter playlist was a little… angrier than some of my previous ones.   I blame the election.   Nothing like a Russian elected president to get my blood up.    This stuff is soothing to me.   Trust me.

 

Fall quarter was a little easier.   I was able to take some time to make a nice and easy playlist, with some old favorites along with some new ones.   I was much more optimistic.

 

 

More later…