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.
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.