Sunday, March 1, 2015

If We Don't Believe in Our Students, What's the Point?

Last night I came across this post from Jesse Stommel and felt a little leap for joy as I read it. See, he's taking to task the Chronicle of Education's recent blog series called "Dear Student." In this series, professors are asked to write responses to infuriating student-teacher situations. 

The series started a month ago and has so far enjoyed four entries:

Dear Student: Should Your Granny Die Before the Midterm. . . 

Dear Student: No, I Won't Change the Grade You Deserve

Dear Student: It's February and You Still Don't Have Your Textbook?

Dear Student: Sorry You're Too Late to Sign Up For My Class

The entries consist of emails written to these imaginary students, and while there are moments of educational reflection and maybe even some helpful ways to approach difficult situations, it's clear that those aren't the point of the series. The point is snark, cruelty, and a smug self-congratulatory air of superiority over the power instructors wield.

Maybe this is coming from a space of insecurity. Maybe facing down online lectures that make some of the most powerful classrooms freely available to the world coupled with the rapid availability of tools that allow students to undercut the power dynamics traditionally found in student-teacher relationships (sometimes in cruel, problematic ways of their own) is too much to take.

Whatever the source, though, those "Dear Student" posts dug deep under my skin. Every time they popped up in my social media feeds, I felt compelled to click, and every time I was met with deep disappointment and anger. Stommel identified the source of this feeling perfectly:
What everyone working anywhere even near to the education system needs to do:
Treat the least privileged among us with the most respect.
Recognize that the job of a teacher is to advocate for students, especially in an educational system currently under direct threat at almost every turn.
Laugh at ourselves and not at those we and our system have made most vulnerable.
Rant up, not down.
"Rant up, not down."


I have faced every single one of those situations mocked in the "Dear Students" series. I teach developmental writing, and my students often enter my classroom with no real sense of college expectations and very few habits of academia. Does this sometimes irritate me? Of course. Do I sometimes rant about it? Absolutely.

But key to my rant is an attempt to return to the center, an attempt to remember why I do what I do, an attempt to find a path that will lead that student to success, even if that success is clearly not going to happen this semester in my class.

The day that I feel the need to climb onto a pedestal of my own making to smugly look down on the students who I got into this profession to serve is the day I need to find new work. That's not so much a marker of my superiority as an instructor as it is a letter of warning to my future self. If I lose focus of that core respect and belief in my students, I can't possibly do my job.

And losing that focus is a real possibility.

As Adrienne Rich discusses in her article on teaching in an open admissions institution, "a fundamental belief in the students is more important than anything else." But she also admits it's not easy to maintain:
it is a very demanding matter of realistically conceiving the student where he or she is, and at the same time never losing sight of where he or she can be.
It's really hard to watch a student make deliberate, infuriating choices that practically guarantee his or her failure in the course and maintain hope in that student's future potential, but that's the job. That's the point. If we, the people tasked with guiding them through the obstacles between them and their desired futures, don't believe it's possible, then what's the point?

Many defenders of the Chronicle "Dear Student" series say that students need this dose of reality because people aren't going to treat them with kid gloves in the "real world." Of course students need to learn that their actions have consequences. Of course students need to learn about rigid expectations and firm deadlines. Of course students need to cultivate maturity and problem solving skills. Isn't that why they came to us?

We've already seen that there are online courses available for free on just about every topic imaginable. Students can go on Amazon and buy textbooks to teach themselves any course content they want. Our contribution to education is not and cannot be merely the knowledge we carry because I promise you there are streams of information that carry it better and more accessibly. If we're going to set ourselves up as knowledge-based competition with ever-improving content delivery systems, we will lose. In fact, we already have.

But what we can and should provide is a path to navigate that content, a respectful prodding into the right habits, a practice space for that "real world" that is both rigid enough to set up realistic expectations and flexible enough to allow for mistakes.

That means we have to stop seeing our students as the enemy of education. They are not diluting the power of knowledge. They are not destroying our institutions. They are simply trying to exist the best they can in a web of technology, inequities, and expectations that change faster than any of us can catalogue. They come to us for help, and we told them we'd deliver it.

Yes, I've been infuriated by a student who didn't have a textbook in February. I've also been awe-struck by a student who had an epileptic seizure in my classroom, was treated by EMTs, and then returned to class that day because he didn't want to fall behind.

I've been frustrated with a student who missed the deadline on an assignment after I talked about it in class, put it on the syllabus, created a separate assignment for it on Blackboard, and sent out a reminder email. But I've also been stunned into silence by a student who comes to my class after just having worked an overnight shift at a fast food restaurant and is leaving my class as soon as it ends so he can walk four miles to the store and start his next shift.

I've been angry when a student tries to hand in a handwritten draft instead of submitting a typed document online as instructed, but I've also been humbled when I found out that the reason the paper wasn't typed is because staying on campus to use the computer lab would mean not arriving at the homeless shelter early enough to secure a place to sleep on a sub-zero night.

I've written a slanted "A" with gritted teeth in the attendance box for the fourth consecutive class period before learning that the premature birth of my student's daughter has left her hospitalized and scrambling to find care for her other children.

Are there times that students are simply lazy? Sure. Are there times when they're abusing the financial aid system just to get a check with no intention of completing classes? Frustratingly, yes. Are there students who are immature and disrespectful? You bet.

But even those students might figure it out. Even those students have the potential for it to click into place, and I've seen it happen. It is my job, above all, to believe in that possibility, to fight for it, and to make them aware of it, too.

So I err on the side of belief. That is my job. And if I need to rant, I do it quietly; then I get back to work.

Photo: yusunkwon, Snapshooter46

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