Getting a “Staff Infection”

I’m a poet, and I often write about my students.  Some people, especially those who have never taught, think this is weird.  Some even think it makes me creepy. Others go as far as to think that I’m taking advantage of my students by doing so.  In truth, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it, so I’m doing the only think that I know how to do – I’m going to write about it to try to figure it out.

Firstly, it makes perfect sense to me to write about my students because of the golden rule of writing – ‘write what you know.’  The people with whom I spend the most time, especially when I was out in the ‘real world,’ were definitely my students.  From 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. every weekday, I was surrounded by teenage students.  That’s more time than I spent with my mother every week, and sometimes even my boyfriend.  It’s all right to write about my boyfriend (I think), my neighbors, my childhood friends, so why not my students?  Surely, I don’t know every thing that goes on in their lives, and I’m not sure that I’d want to.  But, bottom line, my students took up a huge amount of time real estate in my life, so it makes sense that they would occupy my thoughts.

Further, I CARE so darn much about my students.  Sometimes, I think I care too much.  When I write about my students, especially the difficult, complicated ones, I get upset.  Not because I think these students are awful, but because I feel for them, I hurt for all the hardships they’ve had to endure in life.  However, sometimes I don’t think this care comes across to readers of my work.  In a recent poem, I talked about how tempting it can be to complain about students.  I know that I’m guilty of it, but I know that, deep down, I still love them all.  I wouldn’t be able to keep doing my job if I didn’t.  But not all my readers know that about me.

One of my colleagues brought up an education school piece of advice that I also heard in undergraduate school – that new teachers should avoid the teachers’ lounge because, otherwise, they would catch a ‘staff infection’ and grow cynical about students.  After teaching high school for five years, I don’t disagree with this piece of advice, but I also think it oversimplifies the emotions of teaching.  It’s incorrect to assume that every teacher will love every students and that there won’t be days when cynicism seeps in.  I think denying these emotions can damage the integrity of the profession.  But are teachers allowed to admit that?  If I write honestly about my feelings about teaching am I betraying some ‘code’ of the profession?

Also, more alarmingly, am I exploiting my students by writing about them?  Do I have the right to tell their stories?  Is it different to write about people who come into our lives when the teacher/student power dynamic already gives me such leverage?  If so, does that mean that parents shouldn’t write about their children?  What about animals?  Clearly, I don’t have the answers, and the ethics of this situation haunt me every time I write.  I would welcome any feedback or commentary to keep the discussion going.

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A breaking of the rules

In one of my pedagogy courses this semester, we’re discussing diversity and inclusion in higher education classrooms.  Our professor encouraged us to avoid fostering a “measuring stick” or competitive atmosphere by asking students to share personal stories about discrimination in class.  I definitely see the logic in this strategy, so I will begin this post by apologizing because I’m going to break from that rule a tad.  I will, though, try to keep my anecdote to a minimum both because I agree that the focus should be on theory and critical thinking and because I know that my story of woe is not all that woeful at all.  That’s not to say that it doesn’t irk me, however.

With that being said, I find it interesting that it is socially acceptable, even in an intellectual and highly diverse group of people, to stereotype and demean certain types of people, especially types of people who are deemed privileged.  I’m thinking of a specific group, of course, one of which I am a part – ivy league students.  I don’t tend to tell a lot of people I meet that I attended an ivy league university for my undergraduate studies.  Firstly, it would admittedly make me sound like a complete tool if I went around bragging about my bachelor’s degree.  Secondly, and more importantly for me, I tend to get negative reactions from it, and I feel as though people judge me.  Whenever the topic of ivy league students is brought up, most seem to jump to certain assumptions, usually about affluence, pedigree, and inheritance.  For example, in said class, when the professor asked what students needed in order to get in to Harvard, the first answers that I heard shouted out were “legacy!” and “a rich family!”  While I’m sure it could cost a lot of money to attend Harvard, I, much like the professor it seemed, found it shocking that the first necessity mentioned wasn’t good grades.  Indeed, this instance is just one example of the vitriol that is often directed at the ivy leagues, and it never ceases to surprise me that people immediately assume that an ivy league student comes from money, didn’t necessarily earn their admission, and must also be conceited and condescending.  I am not a legacy (my father didn’t even go to college), I come from a lower middle class family in rural Ohio, and I don’t look down my nose at people.  Certainly, there are some students at ivy league schools who DO fit that stereotypical profile, but a large portion do not.  Nearly every time that an ivy league school is brought up, I cringe, and I typically end up feeling sheepish, or even ashamed.

In our society, I am certainly not surprised that we associate certain stereotypes with groups of people; I’m definitely guilty of it myself.  What I find most interesting (and sad) is that it seems to be a societal norm that even the educated, otherwise accepting types can spit venom at certain groups of people.  Of course, having access (whether through legacy, hard work, or both) to any high-quality education is a privilege and no tears should be shed for the cause, but does that mean that it’s all right to publicly ridicule them as a group?  I find it hard to believe that sharing stereotypes aloud about other social, political, or demographic groups would find the same amount of support.  I think the lesson here is that all students, no matter their background, should feel safe in our classrooms.  We can’t always tell what identities our students bring into the classroom with them, so we shouldn’t make blanket assumptions about ANY group.  I certainly don’t want to ever make any of my students feel as small as I sometimes feel when people make assumptions about me.

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Are My Students Smarter Than I Am?

Recently, I was given the opportunity to help lead an advanced poetry workshop here at Tech.  My adviser wanted to divide his class into two groups, and he wondered if any of his graduate students wanted to lead the other group.  I love teaching (I really do) and I’m often up for a challenge, so I accepted the invitation to help out.  Before I could launch into leading half the class, the professor wanted me to come to a class session to observe, both so that I could familiarize myself with the class and its methods and also so the students could learn who I was.  As I was sitting in the circle of students listening to their poetry and their comments on the work of others, I found myself thoroughly impressed.  Some of these undergraduate writers were just as strong as graduate-level poets!  As this realization sunk in, so did a feeling in the pit of my stomach – what if some of these students are better at this than I am?  How can I possibly be expected to help them or teach them anything when they are just as or, gulp, more talented?  Are my students going to be smarter than I am???

After the anxiety died down, I realized that, yes, inevitably, if I teach long enough, I will encounter many students who are just as smart or smarter than I am.  But what  I also realized is that it really doesn’t matter.  Just because a student might have knowledge or a knack that comes more easily to them than it did or does to me doesn’t mean that I have nothing to offer.  I have experience, years of practice, and teaching skills under my belt, all pieces that are unique to me that I can offer to the students in the class.  Furthermore, it’s a part of my teaching philosophy that students should be teaching the rest of the class – and that includes me – while also learning throughout the course.  So it’s okay (actually, it’s preferable) that students have elements to offer that seem “better” in some instances than what I could provide because it makes the class richer for the both of us and for everyone else sitting in the room.

I led the workshop by myself for the first time on Monday, and things went rather well.  The students had engaging and important things to say, and so did I.  I hope to continue to mine the riches that the students bring to the table by guiding them to realize the worth that they possess and to share it with the rest of us privileged enough to sit alongside them.

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Should we lose the lecture?

Several weeks ago, my brother’s fiancee pointed me in the direction of a segment on NPR’s All Things Considered that discusses the efficacy of the lecture as a means for student learning.  Physics professors at Harvard have dramatically altered their pedagogical strategies in an introductory physics class, away from lecture and more toward student discovery and experiential learning.

As the article reports, the results have been quite promising.  As a product of a fairly conventional educational system, I, too, often was taught through lecture, especially in introductory level courses.  However, the classes in which I learned the most forced me to take ownership of my own learning.  It seems as though this experiment in teaching does just that as it asks students to make guesses, potentially make mistakes, and figure out why the correct answer is, in fact, correct.

It’s funny because I think that most people seem to hold on to the belief that it’s good enough to simply speak the information to students in order for them to understand even though very few of us learn the most effectively that way.  I have always suspected that the lecture holds strong not because it works best and not even just because it’s the way we were all taught, but mostly because it’s the simplest way for the teacher to prepare.  It’s much easier to spit out facts and generate basic lecture notes than it is to create learning activities that will be meaningful for students and address the same information.  Perhaps it’s time that we all begin admitting that what’s easiest for the professor might actually be worst for the students.  I’m not suggesting (nor does the article, I don’t think) ridding of the lecture entirely, but instead determining those moments when lecture would not provide the most meaningful learning experience possible.

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I Just Can’t Help Myself

Going back to school taught me that I’m a teacher.  As the proverbial “they” often say, when you find a profession suited to you, a calling of sorts, you’ll just know it.  For me, I wouldn’t say it was quite that easy.  Teaching is a difficult profession.  I often refer to my first year of high school teaching as “the time of darkness” because of how often I found myself at the end of my fuse, out of energy, confidence, and, oftentimes, health.  I sometimes wondered if I were cut out for teaching, if it truly were something that I was “meant” to do.  Even after that first year, I met many challenges throughout my teaching.  In fact, I didn’t meet my most challenging students until I was into my fourth year as a teacher.  However, I still loved stepping in front of my students each day, and I found myself caring about the lives and learning of even my most difficult students.

Then, I decided to further my own education by going to graduate school, taking the role as student for the first time since I’d started my teaching career.  Luckily, I was also fortunate enough to earn a spot in a master’s program that allowed me to be a GTA throughout my years of study.  That’s right – I was going to get to be teacher AND student!  Transitioning back to the role of student was exciting and empowering, so much so that I worried I would lose some of my teaching spark.  I even wondered if I would resent teaching as an obligation that stole away time from my own academic pursuits.  Yet, I quickly found that when I stepped in front of my freshman composition students, that same love of teaching emerged.  Even when I was stressed out about my own work, helping my students with theirs invigorated me.  Indeed, speaking and reading with my students each semester has helped my own writing in ways that I wouldn’t have guessed, showing me in a direct way what I suspected all along – that I learn from my students as often as they learn from me.  They help me to grow in ways that I could never grow on my own, and they help me do things that I couldn’t do by myself.  Thus, I can’t imagine my life without teaching or, I should say, without learning, because I just can’t help myself – I want to help them, and they give that help back in spades.

 

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