Snark Week, 2018

Summer quarter attracts certain types of student:  those who are driven to get things done before Fall quarter begins, and those who like to think that “Summer” quarter means that classes should be easier (or optional).  For my younger students who are changing from high school transitioning to college can be a culture shock – the workload is higher, and just showing up isn’t enough to allow you to pass.  For my older students who have a work ethic, this can mean that I expect you to unlearn some of the mistakes that you have been practicing over the past 5 or 10 years.

Try showing up to class more than half the time.

Which is to say, that at the halfway through Summer, the excuses are piling up.

The majority of my students are working hard and learning well, and for those students: thank you!!!   I have a special few who seem to have a singleminded desire to fail, and attempt to bring others with them.  So for this special Summertime edition of midterm misanthropy:

  • It would be nice to get overtime to answer questions… that I had just answered 5 minutes ago.  Payable by the student.
  • …with interest (rates go up with respect to the student’s level of disrespect to the class).
  • Sharks can be very educational.  For example, I think it would be educational to have students swim with a shark that was last fed at the due date of the homework they are turning in.  So a student turning in work 3 weeks late could swim next to a 3 week starved shark.
  • For students doing the previous while neglecting their current work, I think multiple starved sharks would be motivating.
  • With this in mind I may give the nickname “chum” to students who show up late on test days.
  • Students who only show up on test days may have their legal name changed to “Chum T. Unemployed.”
  • Dead eyed students who inexplicably ask for a passing grade (or grade increase) without earning it could be used as an extra in the live action remake of “Sharknado.”

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…

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.

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.

 

Confrontations in the Classroom

Nobody likes confrontation, but confrontations happen.

Anytime that someone feels like they aren’t being heard, are being misunderstood or mistreated, or are feeling anger (righteous or otherwise) they may end up having words.   Students get stressed out from time to time, and will act out.   It doesn’t make it right, but it can be expected from time to time.

That much is understandable.

And…  confrontations can suck beyond the telling of it.  I’m a fairly together guy.  But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have triggers, and last quarter a student pulled one of mine.  The sad thing is he wasn’t even my student, he just kept barging into my class while we were still in session.   Trying to verbally denigrate me in front of my class doesn’t sit well.   I have had students escalate violently before.  Yes, I have been assaulted in my classroom (during a final exam, no less).

My adrenaline gland is a big jerk.   It reacts much faster than my conscious mind can act.

Which means that (in this instance) I got to teach my next class while trying to manage an anxiety attack.   Not my best teaching experience ever.

Intellectually, it is easy to remember how to deal with confrontations:   stay calm,  listen,  and try appealing to reason (or even emotion) before resorting to authority.   That being said, when your brain starts reacting, you need to give yourself a moment to assess the situation and recognize your own state before proceeding.   Don’t ignore your instincts, because they have kept the species alive!   But those instincts don’t care about false positives (most classroom arguments are not, thankfully, life threatening).

There are also people like to work in the world confrontationally.   They come off as aggressive, but they don’t mean to be assholes.  Believe it or not, these people can be some of your best students – if you can handle them right.   Here is what can work:   (1) Do NOT meet them head on, this will only make them blow up and it gets uncomfortable in a hurry.   If you move closer and turn down your personal volume, they are forced to lower their own in response, and spend a bit more effort in listening.  (2)  Once they are done with a diatribe, use Socratic questions.   They are unlikely to respond to information or reason from outside themselves.  So ask them questions that will lead their thinking into challenging themselves.  And finally (3) these folks are rarely “all attack, all the time” so you may want to have a chat with them about how to behave in a classroom,  or how to choose their language more carefully.

These students will often come back and apologize when they realize they have been disrespectful or disruptive.    Some things are harder to teach than others, as much as I hope that people will learn to be thoughtful and reasonable.

I just can’t fix stupid.

(But I will make fun of it)

Worry

Being a good teacher means a lot of things.   Good teachers have a couple of traits in common, passion for the subject matter as well as caring for students’ lives.   It goes beyond just a job, it is personal.   There are a myriad of things that will trigger concern for your students.   Failing grades, absences or unexpected lateness, or changing personalities.

Remember the expression about the road to hell?

Pressure

You can’t help everyone.

That care for students can cut both ways.  Caring for students gives a sincerity and a fire that they will recognize and appreciate.  Students will try more for someone who will try for them.   Caring also can be a ticket to neuroses and burnout, if you start to feel ineffective.    The downside of things can be worry, and while it is useful to identify what/who needs your attention it is also good to have boundaries.

It would seem that “not caring” would be a solution, but then you lose a valuable tool.   But this is one of the paths to burnout…   you don’t always get a choice in what you feel, and trying to divorce yourself from care isn’t really an option.   Giving up on the students just reinforces the underlying feelings of ineffectiveness.

So how do you solve the conundrum of caring for students?  The only way out, is through!   Caring is only the first step on the road.     Communication and action are the next steps… which empowers both the teacher and the student.   Working on solving the problems (above and beyond how to “solve for x”) is good.

You don’t have to have all the answers.  Who does?   Well, being a good teacher also means being a good researcher.   And someone who can interpret and guide people to the appropriate resources.   If the student has some ideas already in mind, even better.   A lot of the time students have ideas but no idea how to follow through.   Whether it is support or accountability, teachers can provide.

And I like getting thank you letters from students who got into the schools they wanted, or passed their class even when they lost their house, or ….  whatever.

You can’t help everyone, but you can help a few.   And being able to reach out to those few will relieve the worry.   You aren’t powerless.

Teachers are always in the fight.

Working Hard vs. Working Smart

I like teaching the occasional gifted student, but who I really value in class are students who are willing to work.   Those who are willing to put in the time and effort, and who go over the subject matter is a wonderful thing to have in any class.   There is a big difference between hard work and smart work however.

brain games

With regard to learning mathematics, rote works.   Repeating basic facts and methods is one of the things that cannot be replaced in teaching.   Familiarity helps students get comfortable with specific processes in math, but it has a limited utility.   After a certain point repeated practice is tedious, doesn’t help to convey greater understanding of underlying concepts or help in refining technique.   At times I see students who try to learn every single possible variation of an equation.    Grinding through question after question trying to memorize patterns isn’t the goal.   Students need to apply some critical thinking, and learn broader scopes of methods.

There are some crucial differences between simply working hard, and working smart.   The easiest difference to spot is knowing what steps to skip… and this is where there can be a hand-off between rote work and critical work.   Getting familiar with the basics is one thing, but showing every little detail is just busy-work.   Memorization is a good foundation.  After a certain point critical thinking needs to take over.

The bigger difference between memorization and critical work is play.   When students start noticing differences on their own without prompting, then they start to play with variations.   Curiosity more than need drives students to go off script and expands (or deepens) their understanding of the topic.

Minds at work only examine what is in distinct categories, but minds at play will color outside the lines.

No student is going to perfectly follow a teacher’s script to learning.   That is as it should be!   If a student finds a path by themselves, they will remember it better.   One of the hard things for a teacher to do is to stress the need for discipline to get work done, but also leave enough flexibility so students can grow on their own.   Even in classes with prescribed online work, this is possible.   I like to emphasize looking at off site resources and time spent over working on specific objectives.

Getting into learning mode is one thing – this is one of the hidden uses of rote work.   Starting work with some simple practice, then move on to some simple process questions.   As strange as it sounds, boredom can be helpful.   It is really satisfying to see students start looking for more interesting or more challenging questions.

Discipline and curiosity are not at odds, they are the hallmarks of the best students.   Hard work and play really need to go together.

Snark Week

Some weeks I should get an award for self restraint.    If I can keep this up through the next election cycle, I will call it as one of my miracles on my path to sainthood.

…but I so long to sink my fangs into someone or something stupid from time to time.

One of the things that was going well last quarter was I had very few people making excuses.   Somehow, I seem to be making up for lost time this summer.   I didn’t mean my “Student Excuse Bingo” to be predictive.  What the actual fuck?  I shouldn’t score a bingo until at least two weeks go by.

I can deal with student excuses.  That is one reason why I have a syllabus… “Sorry you forgot there was a class, did you check the website to see what was due?   No?   Then I’m afraid you are out of luck.”  I suppose it make sense that I’m feeling put upon this quarter, since last quarter was so exceptionally good.   Honestly, I’ve got good students this quarter… there is just more drama somehow.  One of the few reasons I like teaching is that there people are trying to make themselves smarter and more capable.

What I have been having more trouble with is people outside of school.

People at bus stops.  People on the buses.  People in the store.   People, people, everywhere!  Seriously, who the hell brings a yapping dog on a standing room only bus?   Why is it so hard to drive down the road without texting and running other drivers off the road?   Is it really necessary to block an entire aisle at the store while you browse types of soup?    Or do you expect me to listen to you while you scream at everyone why you think Obama is responsible for SCOTUS (do you understand there are different branches of government)?

*grumble*mumble*Grump!*stupid*

Evil geniuses, it is time to unite and take over the world!  Join the ranks of my minions for adventure and benefits!  Loose the battle drones!  Set up the education camps.  (I say education, because frankly we are just undoing the damage of apathy and inane media misinformation).  Let the smarter ones live.  If nothing else, a culling the population will make traffic easier.

Okay, deep breath.  I haven’t hurt anyone, despite my general attitude of stabbiness.  I don’t even push the big, shiny, personal buttons that people show me.

 

Don’t think you’re safe yet, though.   Stupidity just makes my fangs itch.

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.

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.