Monday, October 15, 2012

The Hardest Thing About Teaching

I just submitted midterm grades for the classes I'm teaching, all community college developmental writing classes.

When I took this position, I was told that our classes (developmental education) have a pass rate of about 50%. I heard this number, tossed it around in my mind, and moved on. I heard it, but I didn't really process it. Half. Half of my students were likely to fail. Surely that wasn't the case.

A few weeks into the semester, I began to realize why it was the case. It is not that my students are not capable of doing the work. It is not that my students are "unteachable," a term that sends shivers down my spine. It is that my students--for a myriad of reasons--don't always do the work.

Of course, I am not talking about all of my students. I have amazing students. I have students who have families, two jobs, and take a bus to get to my classroom but show up everyday and truly, truly inspire me with their passion for a better future. I have students who stay for hours after their classes end because the group homes they're staying in do not have computer access and they need to type their papers. I have students who work harder than I ever have, and when people call them lazy, I get angry.

But I also have lazy students. I have students who have not turned in a single homework assignment--not one. I have students who have missed over half of the classes. I have students who seem to have dedicated themselves as fully to not succeeding as some of their classmates have dedicated themselves to succeeding.

Neither of these groups of students are the hardest thing about teaching. It's inspiring to watch students work hard and earn the futures they want. It's frustrating but expected for some students to decide not to succeed.

The hardest thing about teaching is the students in the middle. These are the students who come into a 50 minute class 40 minutes late because they were kept over on their shift at work. These are the students who turned in half of their assignments with earnest effort, but completely ignored the other half. These are students who are mostly trying but missing the mark. And they break my heart.

I posted this link of Tyra Banks screaming at a contestant on America's Next Top Model on Facebook to explain how I felt about grading these midterms:

It was meant to be funny since Tyra's "I was rooting for you! We were all rooting for you! Learn something from this!" has become a pop culture slogan, but there was also some raw honesty in it. I am rooting for these students--all of them. I honestly, with everything in me, want them to succeed. When they fail, it hurts. 

I try to walk the line between being understanding and being tough. If I'm completely honest, my heart bleeds for them. Every single explanation they bring to me, I want to accept. I want to extend deadlines forever and excuse all the absences and raise grades for effort. I want them all to succeed. 

But I can't do that. 

My job is not to give them sympathy. My job is to give them preparation. They have dreams. They want jobs, to transfer to four-year colleges, and to build better lives. If I send them forward without the foundation they need to reach those things, I truly have failed them. 

So I listen and I am lenient when I can be, but when I can't be, I put on a calm face and explain the policies, explain the grades, explain the rules--even when I want to let it slide. 

That's the hardest thing about teaching. 

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