We are supposed to have a bad March snow storm tomorrow. The campus may be closed, but it may remain open. Sometimes the bad weather is out and away from the campus, so the campus remains open. We will see. But this reminds me of what another professor said to me last year: “Don’t you suspect that lots of times off-campus students use the ‘excuse’ of bad weather not to attend class?”
I replied, “Possibly. Maybe so.” But here is the thing—it does not matter. Bad weather is up to the students. The decision to drive to campus is up to the students. Even if the sun is shining brightly into my office, if a student says he or she believes the roads might be bad, that’s it.
It always has to be the student’s call. To even suggest to a student that I think the roads are fine is not something I would consider doing. I say this because I know faculty who have encouraged students to travel on the highways after the students have stated they are concerned about travelling.
And when a student asks, “Well, do you think I can make it OK?”
My response can only be one of two things: “I would advise against travelling,” or “I cannot make that call for you, that is your decision—and I will respect whatever decision you make.”
For what it is worth, I believe the above absolutely.
(By the way, I believe, too, that if I look out the classroom window and see bad weather, I say three simple words to any students that I know have to travel: “Hit the road.”)
The hardest thing I do in the classroom is time travel, or, actually, remembering to do the time travel thing. In almost every class, it seems I am put upon to enter this little time machine that I keep beside my desk at the front of the room, push the yellow, green, red blinking lights, flip a few switches, and settle back for a trip into my past. Actually, the trip only takes a split second, and the students in my class, thanks to time shifts, space expansions, wobbly continuums, galactic warps—or whatever ( I teach social work not physics), never realize I was gone. But I go—most of the time anyway.
Here is an example of how it might happen: time to hand in homework. A student says that she did not get the assignment done. There—that’s enough. The little thrust burners ignite on the time machine. I smell the smoke from the little combustion chambers. (If I do not smell the smoke or hear the machine rattling, then something is wrong—not with the machine but with me.) So, before I can make an unfavorable comment to the student, I jump into the machine.
A voice immediately says, “Remember when you were a student? Thank you. We hope you enjoyed your memory.”
(Wow—more than once I did not do what the teacher expected of me. And I think more than once I had some teachers who also did a little time travelling for my sake….)
And I jump back out of the machine and say to the student, “OK, I understand. Try to get it to me later today.”
That machine has helped me to be a better teacher. Sure, there are times when I forget it is there at my disposal. And some of those times I have not done too well in an effort to understand a student’s challenges. Most of the time, though, that little time machine has helped me think right and speak right.
By the way, as intricate as that machine is, it cost me nothing….
A freshman student walks into one of my classes in the fall. He smiles. I smile. He is there to learn, to make it through the semester with a “B” or maybe an “A.” I believe he is in my class to improve himself. He will have done his best, even if he should fail my class.
In social work we believe that nobody sets about any task with the intention of doing his or her worst. So, should a student put his or her grade at risk by not submitting an assignment, we absolutely believe that he or she did his or her best. We do not question that at all.
The point is this: as social work teachers, like other teachers, we have achievement standards for all our classes. However, the concept that “every student is doing his or her best at all times” causes us to look at what we wanted from the student and what we got—if we did not get what we wanted, we decide how we can go about causing the student to reach the standard that we wanted.
The best that some students do cannot always be changed to the best that we want. We cannot cause every student to reach our higher expected standard. But as every student leaves our classrooms at the end of the semester, we know that each one did his or her best with what was provided to him or her. And that we did the same.
It’s a theory that causes us, the teachers, to think of how we can improve our best teaching. Instead of suggesting to a student that he study more next time, or that he complete his papers and hand them in on time, we, because of this theory about people’s behavior, will hold our tongues while we review our own behaviors, to include our teaching.
Yes, I suppose it’s odd and wacky when you think about it, but it work for us!
Sort of, anyway. At least, taking it off the campus. I’m talking about my Social Work 332 class—Elderly and Differently-Abled. Up until four years ago, I taught this class in Miller Hall every Wednesday from 11:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. It has always been one of my favorite classes. As a social worker before taking up teaching, I spent many hours, days, weeks, months, and years working for hospitals, long-term cares, home health agencies, and hospice organizations. The even let me be the boss in most of those places. So, teaching about elderly and differently-abled was pretty comfortable for me. I sat in Miller 202 and told the students what I had learned over the years. They dutifully took notes. Every once in a while, though, I would think, “Wouldn’t it be great if in this room right now were sitting elderly and differently-abled people?”
That voice, though, had a point. Students need to experience. They need to hear, see, and feel. They need to learn more than I can possibly ever teach them on my own. If the elderly and differently-abled could not be in the classroom, then the students would go where they were. (And, no, I would not be satisfied with some computerized image on a screen at the front of the room.) I wanted the real flesh, the real blood.
So now SW 332 is taught every Wednesday during the fall semester at Crest View Care Center. In the class with the students sit elderly residents. And differently-abled residents. They talk to the students, and the students talk to them.
Me? Oh, I say a word here and there, but mostly I just watch the students learn without me. It’s the best teaching I have ever done.
I consider myself an independently liberal-ish conservative-ish sort of guy. That’s a good thing to be, I think. It means if you are a politician, speak and I will listen. If I like what you say, you have my vote. If I don’t, no vote. Your party affiliation does not matter to me in the slightest. Like I tell my students: I honestly do not care if someone is liberal or conservative as long as he or she is nice to people and does good things for people. So, does political conversation belong in the college classroom? Absolutely. In any college classroom? Well, I can’t think of any class on a campus where a conversation on politics would not belong. But I do have a caveat: I absolutely believe that all people have a right to self-determination (that being a basic tenant of social work). That means I do not believe a teacher should ever persuade his or her students to be liberals or conservatives, democrats of republicans. I say that because I absolutely believe it to be right, and also, because I teach social work—and teachers of social work have often been accused of preaching liberalism. I know some do. I do not. I will never try to convince my students to be a liberals or conservatives.
But I will always try to convince my students to be nice people, and I hope I have taught them well enough to know what that means to me.
I remember graduate school only too well. This was before computers, so it meant long nights in the library, and long nights sitting up writing papers, having teachers who would not accept a paper if you had used correction tape or Wite-Out anywhere on the page—the page had to be re-typed with no corrections visible anywhere. Everything had to be perfect. A mistake on the bibliography page meant re-typing the entire page. As I look back on it now as a teacher myself, I see that that behavior by so many of my professors, while it taught me to be very careful with what I wrote, was nothing short of mean.
But then one day I learned from a teacher in my graduate program what it meant to be respectful of students. I learned a lesson that he probably did not know that he had taught me, a lesson I remember to this day whenever I am with a student. It was something he did with one hand.
It was mid-morning, and he and I had to meet to discuss a proposal I was working on. He was the chair of the department and was known as a man who expected the best from all of us graduate students, but he was rumored to be a kind man, too. This was not said about many of our professors.
We sat there, he at his desk, and I in a wooden office chair on the other side of the desk. I was nervous. Graduate school was something at which I could not fail. He greeted me politely and then asked a question about the proposal. I was responding when his phone rang. I glanced at it sitting there on the desk and became immediately quiet. I wondered if I should leave his office so he could take the call. It rang again.
He reached over and lifted the receiver so it stopped ringing and then put the receiver back down. He smiled, looked at me, and said, “That call was not important right now. You are.”
Done well, teaching is challenging. I think there is always the question: Do I teach what I know the students need to learn, or do I teach what the students think they need to learn?” It’s great when what I know they need to learn and what they think they need to learn are one and the same—but that’s not always the case. Then, I resolve the question like this: I was hired for my years of experience in the field in which I teach. I do know what the students need to learn.
As the world speeds up, it seems we have the pleasure of experiencing students who desire that same speed in their classes. They often want academic instruction their way and on their terms. Knowledge can be had almost instantly today. It’s accessible everywhere. However, what the students do not have is the personal knowledge that I have of the paths upon which they will journey after they graduate, my personal knowledge of the sharp rocks, the thorny bushes, the dangerous cliffs. I am the only one who has that knowledge. They cannot access it on the internet.
A reminder of why I was hired is all that it takes for me to walk confidently to stand at the front of the classroom and teach what I was hired to teach.
The other day I gave a SAKAI assignment to my students that seemed simple enough: “Create a questionnaire that you could administer to a group of your choosing and bring it to class next week.” This was in a beginning social work research class. It sounded simple to me anyway. What else did I need to say? Well, you would have thought I had asked the students to fly to the moon and bring back moon dust. My e-mail was burning up:
“How many should be in the group?”
“Is it a group on campus?”
“Do I hand it out or what?”
“How will I know if I am doing it right?”
“How will I know if it is what you want?”
“Will this be graded?”
“Calmness, calmness,” I replied back to them in a group mail. “You can do this. What do I want? Well, I want whatever it is you give me. Give it your best shot.”
“You mean it doesn’t matter if we do it wrong?” was the overall group response.
“There is no wrong,” was my response. “And, no, it doesn’t matter.”
The next week we went over the questionnaires they brought to class, and we came to a consensus on what makes a good questionnaire. “If you had told us how to do it, we wouldn’t have made so many mistakes,” one student commented at the end of class with an amused expression.
“That’s right,” I nodded, smiling back at her. “You are absolutely right.”
It was a bright sun, cool, but the sun made it feel warmer. The students looked towards me, but they looked through me. I was blurred at the front of the room.
I was not making any sounds that they could hear. On this day I would have to stand on my head.
I would have to draw funny pictures on the board. I would have to run in circles and do imitations. But nothing would work, of course. I knew that.
There was a beast in the room. They could feel it, and I could feel it. We all felt its lurking heaviness. It sat on top of us, crushing us with all its mangled metal and flashing red lights. We were smothering under its oil and gasoline and burning rubber.
I knew when I entered the classroom that the beast would be in there. I knew it was going to sit on us. I knew that there would be nothing the students nor I could do to defend against that horrible weight. I was foolishly angry at myself that I, their teacher, could not drive that horrible beast out of the room, that I could not save them from it–but the pervasive, somberness of the beast would overwhelm us. And it did.
“We’re not meeting today.”
When the room was empty, I looked again at her empty desk and told her I would miss her. Outside, the sun was graciously warm on my face. I walked with that old and worn bag of tricks clutched firmly in my hand. On most days, the tricks would still work.
I have learned as a teacher that students enter the classroom with an expectation that I will teach them something that they need to know as they journey towards a degree. I say that I will ‘teach” them something rather that they expect to “learn” something because I have found that their expectations are that if they will listen to me, the classroom will become a place where learning will occur. Looking back on my own education, I understand why they feel this way. Most of my time in classrooms was spent listening to the teacher. It was a pretty straight forward method of instruction that seemed to get the job done—after all, I did manage to get through school, which was the point, I guess.
But now I believe the point has to be more than that. Now as a teacher and not as a student, I go into the classroom and think, “What is it that I can do today that will cause these students to learn this lesson without my firm hand on the rudder? I suppose if the dean heard that he might begin to wonder why they are paying me…. But it is what I think works best: the students have the potential to learn more in a classroom where much of the class time is unscripted than they can from my binder of old worn lecture notes. I accept that I must do something productive in the classroom, so to that end I throw out topics, ideas, theories, often purposely distorting them, letting them crash and bang provocatively against the four stoic walls of the classroom, and then I sit back and listen, moving the rudder ever so slightly here and there to keep the ship going in the right direction….
The bottom line for me is this: never underestimate the abilities students have to steer the boat on a new and adventurous—and educational–course. If I always steer the boat, the boat will go only where I want it to go. It will not go into those uncharted waters that the students want to discover and explore if given the chance. On some days the boat should certainly dock safely, and on those days I keep the rudder firmly in my hands…but on many more days I want the boat to rock and lurch wildly, smashing into rocks here and there, as it charges towards who knows where. Hang on!
It takes courage on those days to keep my hands off the rudder.