Excuses du jour

In life, things happen.   There are things that disrupt the flow of our lives.   I’ve had a few of those the past few weeks (some bad, some amazingly good),  which I’m going to blame now for not posting last week.   (Remember:  good stress is still stress…)

This has been a good term, for the most part.   By the middle of most quarters, I usually have a few people who make me want to be an oyster, and just wrap those irritants up tight.   I find myself over halfway through this term and happy with both of my classes.   They work hard, and I’ve only been getting apologies from students who aren’t as far ahead as they want.    Earlier in the quarter, I asked them to do more work… and they listened.

I like my classes this term!

I don’t know if this is true for other instructors, or if this is just a pattern that occurs in my own classes.   Every term seems to have it’s preferred excuses for absences.  Two quarters ago, it was “Sorry, I had a family emergency” or “my kid/husband/wife got sick.”   After the fourth different person told me this, I took note.

Yep, we needed a headshot after she came back as a zombie.

Last quarter, it was “my mom/dad/grandparent has cancer, and I’ve had to help them with [treatment/life].”   I will note, that this only started happening after I revealed to one of my own students that my mother was undergoing treatment for cancer… and I suspect she told others, which generated the wave of sympathy seeking excuses.   Not particularly nice on behalf of those students if that is what they were doing, but that is also why I require doctor’s notes.

This quarter it is “car troubles, and I can’t make it in.”   This would bother me, if it weren’t my best students telling me this (my not so good students don’t show up, but they don’t bother making excuses either).

There are reasons why I keep the attendance policies that I do:   I give some allowances for life, after that, I want real documentation.    The stories that I get told I get told do move me, but I will also say that I stick with my policy.    You may be a good mom/dad/husband/wife/whatever, and that is good.  But I only judge you on how good a student you are… it isn’t anything personal.

So, I will understand if you decide to judge me for not posting last week.   My excuse is still:  stress.   (Good stress and bad stress)    If you want to judge me as a bad blogger… that’s fair.     Otherwise, I’m still a rockstar teacher.

Hungry Minds

Two questions have plagued me for my entire life.  How and why?

Before curiosity kills it, the cat learned more of the world than a hundred uninquisitive dogs.  ~Tom Robbins

There are two things that I always associate with intelligence:   perception and curiosity.   Awareness of the world is a trait that is undervalued, I think.   Beyond that, the desire to know more is what drives people to learn – not just because it means that they will be more skilled, have better job prospects, or whatnot.   Just the desire to know for the sake of knowing.

“I don’t know” isn’t an admission of weakness, it is a first step towards strength… if you choose to.   Curiosity drives exploration.   The thirst for knowledge will drive a person to find new answers.  And along the way, new questions.  Eventually, if you search long enough and hard enough you either find the answers you are looking for, or you can find out that there aren’t answers.  Yet.

 

Curiosity filled the cat

I like questions in my classes.   A class is supposed to be a safe place to learn… and I know that I’ve had a few challenging students who just wanted to know.   I remember those students far more than those who just wanted to get through to get their degree.

Curiosity isn’t just a first step, it is a bonfire, burning in the leather armchair of the soul.   It doesn’t let you get comfortable.    I know how to ask questions better now than I ever did… but eventually I come back to the basics:  How?   Why?   And I want my students to keep asking questions – I know that it is difficult to keep letting them at times.   Admittedly I also know that students in my developmental math classes may not go on to find the secrets of the universe, but I like to think I can help the overcome their fears about asking the questions they’ve wanted to ask.

I want them to keep asking: How?   Why?

And as for myself… I’ll keep searching for answers.

 

Mental in the Classroom

One of the reasons I love teaching in a community college is that my students want to be there.   The biggest hurdle I think any instructor can face is the indifference of a student.  In order to learn, a person has to want to learn.   Otherwise, there isn’t the motivation to put in the time and effort that is necessary to learn and grow.   People often bring their own obstacles to learning, both inside and outside of the class.   Scheduling, family and work obligations make up a good part of these obstacles, but the subtle problems of mental illness can be more challenging because they are obstacles we can’t directly see.

Accepting mental illness

The first hurdle with dealing with mental illness is bringing it out into the open.   It’s common for a person (not just students) to think that they are stupid, lazy, or incapable of focus when they have a mental illness.  One of the things that I like to emphasize is that brain and body are all one piece, they cannot exist without the other.

Aristotle should have been drowned after proposing mind-body duality.   You aren’t the ghost in the machine, you are the machine.   Get over it.

It makes no sense to tell a person with a broken foot that they “just need to try harder to run” or to call a diabetic lazy for not producing enough insulin.   The brain is a complex organ, and it can malfunction as well.  Our brain creates our sense of self,  so when there is a problem blame can get misplaced on the ‘mind’ rather than on a misfiring brain.   Too often mental illness is a disease that tries to tell you it isn’t a disease.   It is victim blaming at it’s worst, and misunderstanding outsiders will often reenforce that misconception with their own myopic judgements.

To these students:   stop shoulding all over yourself.   It’s messy to experience, and it is awkward to watch.   You can get help.  And to those others who think it is all a matter of willpower, or that they can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” I would kindly invite you to piss up a rope.   Be supportive, or get out of the way.

Getting help

I know a lot of folks tend to think of treating mental illness as just taking medications.  Taking medications can feel foreign, like an admission of weakness, or a crutch.   Pharmaceuticals may be a step, but they are only part of a treatment.   Counselors, psychiatrists, and psychologists use combinations of mindfulness, cognitive behavioral therapy and a host of other things to help a person overcome or work with their mental illness.

Medication may be part of ongoing treatment.   Just like a diabetic can’t produce enough insulin, there are times when you can’t produce enough (or produce too much) neurotransmitters or other hormones.   No shame is attached.

real courage

Teaching Needs

Again and again, patience isn’t just a virtue it is a necessity.  Remember that people under stress may act out in different ways.

Many students don’t know what they need in order to learn.   Standard scaffolding and reinforcement may not be enough to help students with special needs, but they also won’t hurt either.   Different students will have different needs… it seems self evident, but I find (some) teachers will keep pushing one tactic without exploring others.   Not all of students in a classroom have the same strengths.

ADD or ADHD and other executive function disorders:  often the instruction of “sit still and listen” is untenable.   One or the other is often the choice for these students.   Having something physical to do is often what is necessary to let them cope in class – this can be anything from chewing gum to tapping their fingers (quietly) against their leg.   Having a class notetaker is also very helpful, because these students especially will have difficulty following a lecture and taking meaningful notes.   If you have a quiet environment for testing, that can be helpful for these students.

Anxiety & Depression:  Combinations of stress, low-self esteem and guilt often send these students into a spiral.  So as much as possible, take the pressure off!   If you can soften deadlines it can remove some time pressure.   Praise is essential for these students.    I like to give them some easy exercises to begin with, to help them get started.   A little bit of forward momentum will really help these students.  Getting students to build their confidence (and over prepare) outside of class can also help during exams.

Dyslexia/Dyscalculia:   Dyslexia is often misunderstood as well as being misdiagnosed.   The classic notion of reversing letters or words isn’t accurate, it simply takes a longer time to process and parse information (and frequently bad behaviors of second guessing themselves is also reenforced).   Trying to take notes and understand what is going on can be incredibly difficult for these students.   If you can, arrange for a note taker, or allow the student to record lectures.     An additional trick is to limit the focus of the student:  too much input can get overwhelming, so while working an expression or equation I will block out all but the current step with a piece of paper.    Finally, where reading and symbolic manipulation may be difficult for students with dyslexia, you may find that they have good kinesthetic or verbal skills so you can show them how to “walk” and “talk” their way through a problem.

Often we see students get frustrated with repeating the same techniques over and over again.   If you have time, talk to them and get them to try different styles of problem solving.   Getting these students to work with their strengths is a win for them, and for the classroom.   It diversifies the problem solving methods that all of your students can use.

Attitude check…

There is a world of difference between the students who need help because of a mental illness and those who are failing because they don’t want to put in the work.   If a student complains that they aren’t getting the material, the first thing I ask is how much time they are putting in per week.   If the student is putting in 15-20 hours per week, then there may be a problem, and the student can get what they need.  Then there are the students who tell me “Oh, I dunno.  I spend an hour or two.”   Then they may complain that they have a learning disability.   ADD, depression and dyslexia can be overcome, but self-indulgent laziness are much harder to  deal with.    My ability to give a fuck is reserved for students who give a fuck about learning.

*grumblemumblelazyentitledgrumble*

So to all of my students:  the ultimate responsibility for learning rests with you.   I will work with you, but you have to be willing to work.

Mental illness is very real, but don’t let that stop you.

Rage is better than coffee

Teaching is one of those professions that will take as much time as you can give it.    Unless you are perfect about managing your time, it is near impossible for teaching not to intrude into other parts of your life…   and the rest of your life will demand attention too.    Grading, making new lessons, answering emails, then scheduling time with family and friends.  *

Sleep isn’t always the top priority, which makes coffee is an important part of my day.   Certain types of problems require coffee to solve.   The real thing that will wake you up though?  Rage.

I made the mistake of typing “feminism” into the search bar of YouTube.  Half of the links were criticizing, lambasting, or parodying feminism.  They ranged from stupid rants laced with contempt and sexism, to slick productions with misleading statistics.   A few of the others (from the feminist perspective) also included some good arguments, but there were catharsis seekers there as well.    If you want rage, try it yourself.   Type in your favorite topic:  vaccines and autism, teaching evolution in schools,  women’s rights… there will be someone there saying horrible things.

Outrage will wake you up.  **

There are other things that will wake you up as well.   Teachers, you know those students who should be classified as an allergen because everything they do is an irritant?   What happens when one of these students makes a statement like “I could teach this class.”

Thinking isn't your strong suit.Set aside the fact that the student may barely pass.   Set aside the classroom disruptions they cause.   What goes through my head: You think you could teach this class?   Let me tell you about what teachers do:   we are subject matter experts.  That means that we know multiple ways to do most types of questions that you know one way to do.   Can you, on the fly, come up with example questions that work, that are progressively more challenging, and lead 30+ people with different backgrounds and understanding to learn?   Can you set aside personal crises, family and personal illnesses, and other worries, in order to teach effectively?   Do you think that you can work a 10 hour day before trying to energize a group of people? Are you capable of disciplining someone your own age or older?  How about remembering 75 student names, what their specific challenges are, and have a sense of what they collectively and individually need to succeed in class (and in the next class)?  Who has child care and work issues that impact their attendance?  Who needs individual attention?  Can you maintain a balance of a fun and functional class while not being overly disciplinary?  How are you cat herding skills?  Do you want to be on call on your days off to answer student questions?  Do you want to work a second part time job to survive while you do this?  Do you have the fucking credentials to teach a discipline like math?

If you can, do, because there aren’t enough of us.   If you can’t, then shut the fuck up about what you think you know.

Grumble grumble entitled ignorant grumble  grumble…  ***

 

* The people I love get the majority of my free time.   I don’t mind this, but it does mean that I rarely get time alone.

** You may also despair for humanity.  The thing that gets me is that people don’t WANT to hear the other side.   If more folks worked on having a dialogue instead of creating a chasm between the two points of view I think we would have a much nicer world.   Not a perfect world, but certainly a nicer one.

*** By the time I have posted this, Spring Break will be here, and I will be much more relaxed.

Smash Passive

I had a student come up to me last week, just as a test was about to start   I was nice enough not to laugh.

“Do I need to take the test?   I don’t know the material.”

“Okay.”

“Why can’t I be tested on the stuff I already learned?”

“Because this is a subject test.   This is the material we’ve been going over for the last few weeks.”

“I don’t know this stuff.”

“Okay.   How much time have you been putting in?”

“About 5 hours a week.”   (I recommend 8 to 16 hours for most students)

“So I think you should spend some more time working on the material.”

“Fine, I’ll take the test.”

 

One thing that constantly perplexes instructors at every level:   students who want to be passive receptacles for knowledge.   Some students don’t realize that they need to work/study/read/listen in order to know things.  I admit, it makes me sad.   Part of me wants to blame our culture which encourages passive entertainment, and a media which spoon feeds people sound bites to support opinions that they already have.     Or by people who reward minimal effort and actual achievement equally.   We protect people from the consequences of their actions.

How does that work again?But I’m a college professor, and soldier on.   I make my lectures entertaining.   I allow people who are willing to put in effort to keep trying.

Ultimately I come around to this:   students are responsible for their own learning.    I can give them the information and showcase the skills, they are the ones who actually need to apply it.

This brings me to one of the things I’m happy I can do as a college professor.   I fail people.    I think of this as the “other kind of educational experience.”

I have a personal philosophy:   There is no such thing as a right without a corresponding responsibility.      (I should also say, there are MANY responsibilities that don’t grant you special rights.)

Students have a right to be taught, but they have a responsibility to learn.

*sigh*   I can fix ignorance.   I can’t fix stupid.

 

Tipping Points

Things don’t always go as planned in a classroom.   It happens when students miss some key piece of understanding and end up falling farther and farther behind.   The atmosphere in the classroom can become tense:  the instructor tries to keep things on track, but the students who are behind feel bad that they aren’t up to speed and the students who are ahead end up resenting them because the instructors need to slow down.

So how can students get back to a happy medium?

I admit, I like to play games with the way people think.   I experiment with different ways of explaining, and different ways of getting people to behave differently.  I rely a great deal on my understanding (and remembering) emotional cycles when I was a student.

Procrastination, Shame and Blame

The beginning can be something innocent.   A late night, a bad lecture, or missing class for some reason.

Whatever the reason, the student finds themselves with a gap:  their work isn’t done and their understanding isn’t up to the task either.    To fill the gap, it will take an extraordinary effort, and being a little behind doesn’t seem that bad.

The gap in skills starts to affect other work.   The other students seem to get the material, but it doesn’t click for the student.   They feel bad, but it is hard to pinpoint where they lost control or how to get it back.    The instructor is ahead and new material doesn’t make sense.   People who try to help may come off as condescending, or frustrated with their slow progress.   The person blames themselves for the problem, or starts to feel like they aren’t “smart enough.”

As frustration mounts, the person tries to make sense out of the situation.    They rationalize that they must not be smart enough to get the concept, or that the instructor isn’t very good.  They start to feel powerless.  They will blame others for their failures, at the same time that they justify their own insecurities.

When someone feels resentful, hurt, ashamed, or angry, it is easy to put off work in lieu of other distractions.  Which reinforces the skill gaps, which reinforces the negative self-image/sense of inadequacy, which ultimately leads to a sense of futility.

To be clear:  it sucks to watch, it sucks to go through, and its hard to clean up after.   But it is a cycle that can be broken.

Breaking the Cycle

The good news is that people can be brought out of a spiral like this, but there is no easy fix.   The hardest thing to combat is the sense of powerlessness that can accompany falling behind.    As students, it is imperative to recognize that it will take sustained effort.   As instructors, we need to recognize that students don’t always have this self-knowledge.

So here is what I find works as a teacher:   (1) Prioritize skills, and cut lossesEnforce deadlines rather than pile on more work.     This basically comes down to identifying the key things that a student needs to work on rather than the complete past assignments.   Nobody likes to lose grades, but the boundaries helps students break out of looking backward and into looking forward.   (2) Praise and patience.  Acknowledging even the smallest of steps as progress is helpful, and helps relieve the sense of shame.   It also helps to acknowledge that struggle is part of the process, but making mistakes is not failure.    (3) Set out a plan with incremental steps.   The hardest part of breaking out of a procrastination cycle is the sense of being overwhelmed, so having simple (minimal) work is a good way of getting going.   Having a few things to do means that once one thing is done, then the next tier or goal can be reached.   Then the next goal will seem easier to reach.

Finally, momentum can carry the day.

…. and the horse you rode in on!

The funny thing about this is that this applies equally to teachers as it does to students.    Teachers get frustrated and will feel like they have lost touch with their class just as much as students may feel lost in the class.    It is easy for teachers to blame lazy students for not doing their work, but there is shared responsibility:  students need to be encouraged if they are going to get engaged.   It is okay to have a bad day teaching from time to time,  and sometimes you won’t be able to give it everything you want.   Focus on the successes, and it will be easier to be patient.

So:   keep up the good work.

Never give up.

I’ll have to put off procrastinating for another day.

Yes, I’m judging you

Ah!  That magical time of the year.   The air is crisp, and people spend their time hoping and praying.   Some people are dreaming of a better tomorrow, and some try to coast through with as little effort as possible.  The season can be stressful, but promises better things to come.

That time is finals week.

Good students don't end up in shallow graves.In spite of fervently hoping for the grading fairy to arrive, it didn’t.   I was relatively pleased with how my student’s performed on their final exams, with a few notable exceptions.    In a break with my usual grading habits,  I switched from listening to aggressive music to watching the Friday the 13th series of movies.    One thing common to both grading tests and cheesy horror flicks:   stupidity gets punished.    I’m nicer than the Voorhees family, though.   I just mark your questions down.   Although I now have the urge to go camping.

 

Callous remarks aside,  I want all of my students to succeed.   One of my steadfast rules is to give people the grade that they have earned.   Sometimes the greatest service I can do for a student is to fail them.     As much as I know many of them would love to have a teacher who always gives passing grades, they won’t learn from that sort of teacher.   Your students have chosen you to teach them skills, and evaluate how well they perform them.   So:  yes I judge you, but only because you asked me to judge you.

I lose sleep not over the number of students who fail, but what I could have done to help them learn more.

There are also the students who feel that they should be rewarded for effort and for showing up.  Those are the ones that I don’t lose sleep over.   We judge ourselves on our intentions, and others on their actions.   Since my telepathy is broken, I have to rely on the work that a person does.   Or in other words:  I won’t praise mediocrity.   Earn your own self-esteem.

I occasionally need to remind myself that while I can fix ignorance,  I can’t fix stupidity.

Now, I can take a little break.  Which way to Crystal Lake?

Midterm Misanthropy, Again

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…

 

 

Necessary Roughness

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.

Facepalm worthy crap students say

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.