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I had all sorts of useful things to say at the beginning of this week.   Full of encouragement and good feelings… and then I got done grading.

I like to give folks every opportunity to succeed.   I give them the chance to excel.

I give encouragement.

I give feedback.

I tutor students.

I work insanely long hours.

I am patient.

I even accept (some) late work  with the lamest of excuses.

I have no problem dealing with people who are having difficulty understanding, so long as they try.   Some students are willing!  I have a few very dedicated people in my classes.    Let me say, I appreciate these students!

As for the rest of you… Seriously students?

What I hate is apathy.   If you aren’t willing to try,  then you don’t deserve to pass.   Good intentions don’t matter.   What matters is if you are willing to work at understanding until you actually understand.     If you miss questions because you skipped class,  don’t try to make it my problem.   Quit complaining, it just makes you sound pathetic and I have no sympathy for you.

Why, oh why?   Why the fuck are you wasting my time with so much half-assed work?    I have no problem failing you.   I will fail you.   And you will deserve to fail.

So… Here are my midterm misanthropic  fantasies.

  • I want a burn barrel in class, so I can gleefully torch work that turned in late or incomplete.
  • I want to lock my poor achievers together and have a cage match fight to actually stay in class.    Top 3 can stay, if you can successful factor a trinomial.
  • Instead of giving the thoughtful, reasoned, and encouraging response to the question:   “So what are we going to use for?   I mean really in the real world.”  Just tell the student “You’re right.   You won’t need this. You don’t need to pass a basic math class if you just want to push a broom.”
  • I want to show up at the workplace of a student the next time they tell me after the midterm that they scheduled themselves for work that day, and be the most annoying customer EVER.    Then get them fired from their job.   Then fail them, and laugh maniacally when they beg for change on the street.
  • I want a box of scorpions… for educational purposes.

 

I will not kill my students and wear their skins.    I will not kill my students and wear their skins.   I will not kill my students and wear their skins…

 

 

We all need a reality check sometimes.    Teachers need it, students need it, politicians  needs it.  (I have to say… seriously voters?   Are we even on the same planet?)    I joke about handing out fast food applications with failing tests, but the sad fact is some folks are already headed that way.    The truth is that not everyone is going to succeed.   As teachers, we want our students to be smart, capable, and competent.

Truth is hard, but it preferable to comforting lies.

One of the reasons that I have adopted the persona of a and villainous math professor is because people like to project their own failures on their instructors.    Learning isn’t an easy proposition for many folks:   it entails a combination of hard work and painful self-honesty which doesn’t come easily to many students.   Since I already had some inclinations in the direction of evil-genius, I just ran with it.   Humor is a great way to both engage tough topics and disarm them at the same time.   You can hide behind your scars, or wear them as a mark of honor.    I prefer the latter course.

When the time comes to talk students about their grades, my best advice is honesty.   Tact is called for, of course.  If you alienate your students, there is no way they will be willing to listen to you.   Some people will take it well, and some won’t.   I’ve had students beg, bargain, and threaten me for telling them that they were failing.    For those willing to listen, I tell them what they will need to do to pass the next time:  whether it is just doing their homework or to re-learn their mis-learned math facts,  or figure out how to follow written directions.

To those students who thanked me for the wake-up call:   thank you.   You have demonstrated self-honesty and strength of character by you willingness to examine your mistakes.   You have learned from your mistakes, and that tells me more than anything that you are worth teaching.

 

 

…   And to the person who recently needed to tell me to “chill out” (and very nicely told me that I was acting like an asshole), thank you.   I know that wasn’t an easy conversation to have.  I value the honest assessment, and I think more of you rather than less because of it.   My sincere apologies for my behavior.

After a while as a teacher you get comfortable.   You can manage your classroom, you know your talking points, and you are confident in the classroom.    Everything seems to be together, but somehow your students still miss out on key material.

Don’t get too comfortable.   You’re going to need to re-examine your class.

It is easy to mistake our own comfort with the educational experience with our student’s confidence and comfort.     It is a natural mistake to make!   We see in others what is most clearly in ourselves.    It is still imperative to focus on what is important:  don’t lose sight of the teaching for the pedagogy.

One of the hard lessons that I’ve had to learn is that every class is unique, and that no matter how well the previous 4 or 6 classes absorbed the same material,  there is no guarantee that your current class will.   It may even be useful to go back over your catalog of lesson plans.    Maybe even write a few new ones, to cover those intermediate topics that your particular classes may need.     Revisiting some of your original ideas for teaching gives you a chance to better adapt and revamp some of your material.

One thing that I never want to do is to ossify.   Getting comfortable is one thing, becoming sloppy is another.

If you don’t want to consider this going back to your basic teaching principles, how about we just call it “maturing” as a teacher.

 

So for myself, here are my basic rules for teaching:

  1. Don’t cripple your students by going easy on them.
  2. Patience isn’t a virtue, it is an utter necessity.
  3. Have a plan for your class.   If you don’t, they will.
  4. Make it fun.   “Learning while asleep” is science fiction.     At least half of teaching is entertainment.
  5. Don’t waste your time trying to convince a student that they need to learn.   Let them convince themselves that they need to learn.
  6. When the time comes, give your students the grade they’ve earned.
  7. Never give up on a student.   If you do, then they will too.

 

Now go forth and educate, or something.

Teaching really has its moments.   There are times you strive for, and there are times you have to be patient.   There are also times when students say things that make you question why education is a good idea.   Is everybody worth teaching?

Most of the time, I just take a deep breath and remind myself that I can help students with their ignorance even if I can’t help them with gross stupidity.

It comes down to the fact that teachers are mentors.   Which periodically makes us confessors after a fashion.   Teachers do like to share the things said to them.

Here are some fairly commonplace statements:

Will I ever use this?

No, I’m teaching you stuff for purely whimsical reasons.  Or maybe because it is a precursor to more practical skills.   Although you can avoid needing advanced mathematics if you want to spend your life working in fast food.    Good luck with that.

 Did we do anything important in class last time?

Sorry, I’m afraid we just talked about the latest episode of [sitcom] followed by a brisk discussion of [sportsball].   We delayed relaying important information or having skill related discussions until you returned to class.

Do I need to take the test?

You are a grown up.   You can decide to take the test or get a zero and fail.

You know, this class has made me start smoking again.

Aw shucks.   Students say the sweetest things.  I feel the same way about you sometimes.

 

Some statements are in an entirely different league:

 

I’m not really getting this stuff, but I think its because I’m really high right now.

I think I figured out your difficulty in class.  Your education should start with your life choices.   Would “sobriety” work for a homework assignment?

I couldn’t do my homework because my husband is home now and keeps expecting me to perform my ‘wifely’ duties.

I honestly couldn’t tell whether she was complaining or bragging.   She was definitely trying to get me to give her extensions on her homework though.

Note:  bragging about you sex life will not garner you sympathy or get you out of doing work.

I know it’s the last week, but can I turn in all of the homework and makeup all of the tests?

I have to admit, this was my all time favorite.   In large part because I was able to look him straight in the eye and say:   “No, you cannot make up the entire class in the last week.   You skipped all of the tests, and attended less than half of the classes.   There is no way for you to pass the class.  I honestly don’t know why you bothered showing up this week.  If you decide to retake the class, you will need to show up.”

 

Sometimes, I am laughing with you.   I make no promises though, I may laugh at you.   Be honored that I listened.

Being a teacher means encouraging your students.  They need encouragement to get over the tough process of making mistakes.   Sometimes you need to remind yourself that this is the process of learning.

Doubt will kill their dreams more than incompetence will.

Of course, it also is difficult to encourage students when they are in the midst of making mistakes…  I mean they can really try your patience at times.  I’ve said it before, and I will continue to say:   patience isn’t just a virtue, it is an utter necessity.   People tend to rise (or fall) to the level of expectations, so if you give up on them then they are that much more likely to give up on themselves.  Slap on that smile and cheer them on, because if they give up now then the next time it may be worse.

Occasionally, it is nice if they cheer for you too… but that happens later, after they forget making mistakes.   Hopefully.

For now, bring on the pom-poms.   Break out the cheerleader outfit.   Keep them going.

The show must go on.

 

Remember:   they will say worse things to themselves than you can say to them.

(Now I need to watch some horror to cheer me up.   I can only take so much “positive attitude” happy-clappy crap before I want to watch the world burn.)

Whenever my students complain about the amount of work that I assign them, I remind them that while they have to do them once, I get to do them 35 times.    At which point they laugh and get to feel nominally better about the whole proposition.

So let me back up a bit.    Most quarters I get to use some online homework, but it looks like my (free) system deactivated my account after the site was hacked.   So I’m back to all paper homework for the quarter.   I scheduled myself some time to deal with it… and I’m still a little swamped.

I did a marathon grading session today.  I also watched a horror movie marathon at the same time.     I’m not sure whether the screen or student papers had more red on them.    I know for certain that I was more distressed by my quizzes than I was by zombies.

Mmmmm…. Headshots are pretty.

Soothing, soothing violence.

 

So I’ve been incommunicado for the last few weeks.    Sorry about that, life happens, and sometimes internet connections are squirrely.   My summer has been a good one:   bungee jumping,  travel, Netflix marathons, playing my way through a few video games, and parties that I can never discuss with my students.    I have to admit that I’m ready to go back to school though.

I’ve been neck deep in writing my syllabi last week.    I like to make certain that everything is in place for the coming term:   planning the lecture schedule, homework, acts of cruelty, classroom policies, and other classroom tweaks.    One of the questions I have to ask:   how evil will it be?   Online homework, or paper?   Do I give bonus points?   What should I make them sing if their cell phone goes off in class?   How much flex time can I build in?

Spelling things out explicitly in the syllabus is a very helpful tool for instructors and for students.   I make sure to spell out everything from classroom expectations, grading scales, and the ever important disclaimer “classroom policies may be changed to suit the needs of the class or the instructor.”

I feel a little like I’m laying traps for my students.

They are waiting for me at school now.

 

Game on.

You may be able to get by without math, but you won’t be able to get by without integrity.

Everybody lies.  This is a pretty well established fact.    The bad news is that we don’t realize most of the times we lie.   We constantly edit the narrative of our lives to better fit… ourselves.   Whether we know it or not, a great deal of our own memories and sense of self is constructed in order to make ourselves feel better.   People justify their own actions and emotions at any given time, and as time goes on we also revise our own memories (or even just the stories we tell) to paint ourselves in a better light.

As far as I can tell, this is just a natural part of the human psyche.   If you think about it, you’ve probably witnessed others doing it.   If you think about it hard, you can spot where you’ve done it yourself.  Humans are social animals, and this isn’t just an individualized phenomenon.   From groups as small as a junior high school clique, to bigger places like megachurches, and even nations do these things.   They filter information and color experiences through their own collective bias, sometimes with horrible results.   (On a global scale I can think of AIDS denialism, as one example)

This is why it is so important to be able to have the cognitive and intellectual tools to evaluate new claims.   Or old ones.

There are countless tools to this:  you can use a therapist to help you through patches of cognitive dissonance, and this can be good.   Or you can educate yourself, and use some of your own tools.   The point is that you can’t always trust everything you think.    I like to think that as a teacher I can help to give my students some of these tools.   Critical thinking is hard skill to master, and not one that is always comfortable to use.   How often do you honestly think about the quality of your own thought?

There are some pretty good signs that you may be deceiving yourself:   absolutes concerning people are a good one. Reliance on one viewpoint without examining counterarguments is another.   And of course, if you honestly feel that your sense of identity or way of life is threatened by more information, then something is wrong. It isn’t easy changing your view of things, but it does mean that you have a clearer picture of the world.

One thing that I admire about the sciences, is that when they are wrong, they revise their worldview to incorporate better information. They aren’t always quick, but they are good about self-examination.

So… I’ve been wrong about stuff before.   I will again.

… just not today.

 

Well, it is final’s week for summer quarter at last.   I have loved my class this quarter, they have done fantastic work and made some pretty remarkable breakthroughs.

So here is what I’m going to be doing my grading to this quarter:

 

And now I go apply for unemployment.   Woo*fucking*hoo.   Summer vacation (hopefully without starvation).

“Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…” Ralph Waldo Emerson

How often have you wanted to learn something, and just didn’t know how to proceed?   Or desire to get fit, but no real plan to do so.   I’ve heard people say they want to “learn naturally” and not want to have any barriers to their education.   And then they may complain as to not having appropriate material to suit their incredibly vague needs.

One of the barriers that a lot of students face is the necessity of structure.   From setting aside set times to meet and study, to a (hopefully organized) calendar of topics to cover.   Sprinkle in to that regular practice and some benchmarks and you can actually make progress towards learning something!

It goes way beyond classrooms though.   What do you do without a plan?   How well does that work out?   Even if you don’t stick to your plans, at least they give you a jumping off point. Once you have a pattern that you can learn from, you can then adapt it for other things!

Let me be absolutely clear: there is a world of difference between the regimented world that Emerson talked about, and the necessary structure of our daily lives.   Structure isn’t a straightjacket holding you back, but climbing harness… not comfortable but necessary.

(wow… I suck at analogy…)

I understand that freeform classrooms can be interesting.   I can see how a lot of emergent things can be created in a classroom, and some very interesting creative projects can happen as well. (But also notice: there is still an underlying classroom structure!   Muahahahaha!)

So with all due respect to Emerson, bite me.   Even creative people keep a schedule, and even consistent people can be misunderstood.