Encouraging Words

Teaching is so much more than being a subject matter expert.  

This isn’t the first time I have said this, and I’m sure that it won’t be the last.  Teachers are part entertainers, counselors, dictators, researchers, event coordinators, and cat-herders.  There is always more for that a teacher can improve to help out their students, and there are almost no limits to what we’ll do for our classes.  I have spent time, money, and raw emotion and brain power trying to make my classrooms a safe and fun place in which my students can learn. 

I do all of this for an embarrassingly small salary.  I actually had someone ask me what I did for a “real” job.   I was polite enough not to stab him in the dick.  (The truly awful thing: he had been a school administrator)

All of this means that there needs to be more recognition given to teachers.  During the last few months around the nation teachers have gone on strike to get some fair pay and working conditions.  And we have made some progress, but the vitriol that has been directed at teachers has also been epic.

As a teacher, I recognize how much my words can impact the lives of my students. I work hard on being kind and encouraging, because in no way does impatience or frustration help. I have had student’s weep with gratitude when they realize that they have someone who won’t give up on them as they struggle with the class material.

So, why is it so hard for people to thank teachers?  To elect school boards and congress people to pay teachers?  To get school boards who don’t try to force teachers to teach from a broken ideologues point of view (I’m looking at you, Texas)? To support teachers or students financially (I’m looking at you, Ms. DeVos)?

Morally bankrupt billionaire

I’ll wait here for your response to these questions.  This homeland homework will not be graded on a curve, you don’t get points just for trying, we want to see real results.

Please submit your final answers at the ballot box.

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.

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.

 

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…

Election Fatigue

I have been absent from my blog for a while.   There are a few reasons:   first, my scheduled writing time went away.   Also, every time I sit down to read and write I find myself assaulted with such awful discourse that it becomes too difficult to write.   I was tired of this election over a year ago… I even wrote an open letter to Donald Trump.

Part of being a teacher is trying to think and talk logically, offer other points of view, and teach others to think critically.   I have had no end of opportunities to do that over the past year.    But I am so tired… separating my personal feelings from my professional life.

My predictions:   if Hillary Clinton wins, there won’t be big changes.   Her main crime in most people’s minds is that she is a centrist.   If Trump wins, I think that good people will try to keep him from starting world war 3, and that his name will be attached to the “Trump Depression.”    But I won’t have to worry for my safety… mostly because I am a white man.   People of different color, faith, and women all would have to deal with a culture that will shift (quickly or slowly) to someplace hostile towards them.   I will keep fighting for critical thinking and reason regardless.

Whatever the outcome, the election will be done soon.   There will be fallout, but hopefully there will be room for more civil discussion.    Yes, that seems like a lot to ask.  I know that “civil” is not something that I can expect after the trajectory of this election, but I can hopefully stop the monitoring of this awful election.

In the meantime, I hope to be back to more regular postings soon.

Old Hat Tricks

I like to say that I have a Velcro brain, in that stuff tends to stick to it.  Being an experienced teacher, I find that I haven’t lost my enthusiasm for teaching, but I can focus more on it now that I have a complete-ish library of teaching materials.   I also have a regular venue for airing some of the stranger or frustrating pieces of teaching so it doesn’t stick around to haunt me…

There is a familiarity that comes with teaching when you have been doing it for a while.   It is simultaneously very comfortable, and a great deal of fun.   I have been teaching for about 6 years now, and I it is still the best and most rewarding work I have found.

Fall quarter brings this out of me especially.   It is the start of a new academic year and students are filled with hope and optimism, so I get to encourage their passion for learning.    More and more, I find that I have my tools for helping people learn.   Keeping my class entertained and engaged keeps them asking questions.  I can keep them coming back, and knowing that they have a safe community where they can get support.

I will admit that I watched other teachers struggle with burnout, and I wondered if that was where I was headed.   At least for this term, the answer is no… I love teaching too much, and I’m too damn good at it.

 

Also:  even though “Summer break” is fun to have (my classes unexpectedly canceled… welcome to the life of an adjunct!) I have missed teaching, blogging, and Zeus help me, I’ve even missed grading.

It’s good to be back to school.    Does anybody know of any Back-To-School tattoo deals?