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It is trivial to state but this is very true that teachers influence students in a profound way. They look at us a kind of role models and might adapt some of out behaviors strategies in theirs life in a way children adopt behavior strategies (often ruinous ;-) from family members.
One important thing that many professors forgot is the time when they were students. After teaching classes for 10 or more years the impressions of your own student life and especially problems that you experienced in classes became too distant and almost completely forgotten. Actually it is pretty easy to master the subject after teaching it three or four semesters and stop understanding why those students can't learn elementary things that are so easy :-). One thing is to demonstrate professionalism. The other is to be a petty tyrant pushing into down the throat way too complex and probably not so useful in their future professional career staff.
Even within severe restrictions of what can be done in 15 lectures one semester course many teachers including me overload the course with the material and this way destroy the course and poison student experience.
Putting 20 pounds into 10 pound bag was a real problem form me, the problem from which my students suffered greatly.
By teaching less and concentrating on more fundamental things we might achieve greater success as a teachers and higher student satisfaction. This is the age of information overload and it has profound consequences on teaching. For example teaching Unix shell, HTML, Web programming, or C++ it is easy to get into some esoteric areas as sticking to basic is way too boring. That is a district danger in this and I can attest that nothing ruin class faster that excessive complexity of the course.
There is a difference between college class and Sun professional 5 days training course on the same subject that I often failed to appreciate.
The other intricate problem is the problem of fairness. What means being fair to your students? That's a loaded question as on one hand you need to get the best the opportunity to distinguish themselves from the "mass" and on the other you work in the conditions that often prevent most of the students full realization of their abilities to being too harsh is not a fair course either.
The Baseline Scenario
with 58 comments
Daniel Hamermesh points out a Wall Street Journal article on how colleges and universities are trying to increase accountability and productivity by measuring costs and benefits quantitatively. The "star" example is Texas A&M, which created a report showing a profit-and-loss summary for each professor or lecturer, where revenues are defined as external grants plus a share of tuition (if you teach one hundred students, you are credited with ten times as much revenues as someone who teaches ten students).
Let's not argue about whether our colleges and universities are doing a good job. Let's not even argue about whether we need more transparency and accountability in higher education. Assuming we do, this is just about the most idiotic way of doing it that I could imagine. No, wait; there's no way I could have imagined something this stupid.
The "professor P&L" is an attempt to bring private-sector "efficiency" into higher education, but I can't believe anyone who actually worked in the private sector could think this could work. At my company, we* thought a lot about the problem of software productivity and how to measure it. And the problem is, there really is no way to do it on an individual level. Measuring lines of code is crazy, because ideally you want to solve a given problem in as few lines of code as possible. Measuring classes or methods is equally crazy. Measuring what some people call "function points" is crazy, because they depend on what you call a function point. Most fundamentally, measuring quantity of output is crazy, because quality is much, much, much more important than quantity. It's better to write a little bit of software well, in a way that doesn't break anything else, can be tested reliably, and can be expanded on in the future, than to write a lot of software badly. So instead, we look at whether the software does what it is supposed to do, whether it can be tested, and whether it does what our customers want it to do. That's how the private sector works.
And if you can't measure software productivity, how are you going to measure educational productivity, which is much more complicated? What is the unit of output you are going to measure? More fundamentally, what is the output you are trying to produce?
What is Texas A&M measuring? The fact that you are teaching someone–not what you are teaching, or how well. In some fantasyland, you might think that the "free market" for college classes will make students flow toward the professors who teach useful things well. As anyone who has ever gone to a university knows, however, students flow toward (a) required courses and (b) professors who give easy grades. And they are measuring the grant dollars you bring in, not what you do with those grant dollars. So, for example, computer science will do worse than mechanical engineering, simply because it is less capital-intensive.
If you're going to measure outputs, the places to look are whether students graduate from college knowing things, whether they are satisfied with their educations, and whether they are able to do the jobs employers need them to do. We could have a reasonable debate about whether those things can be measured, and whether they are worthwhile to measure. There is a lot of evidence that this kind of testing has harmful unintended consequences at lower levels, and it seems even more inappropriate for college, but that's something that could be debated and tested.
So where did this idea come from? The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank. Apparently they didn't even finish first-semester economics. They got the bit about how market forces are driven by profits and losses. But they missed the bit about why markets work: markets only increase social welfare if the prices of things reflect their value, not if they are completely artificial.Ted KGreat post.
It really is so difficult to quantify what it is that makes a good teacher. My father was not only the first person in his family to get a University degree, but also went on to get his Master's. He then worked in Public education for over 20 years. So this is one thing he drilled into us growing up (frankly over-killed to the point I almost grew to hate institutional education because of his incessant harping on it).
Later on I performed the duties of a teacher for some relatively lengthy period of time, although I never really considered myself a "real" teacher because I wasn't certified. The exact details aren't important to this particular point, so you'll just have to take my word on it. I nonetheless took it as an almost sacred thing because of my father's influence. I spent many a day pondering what made a good teacher. I basically came up with 2 answers:
1) Your students should know that you genuinely and sincerely care for them and their lives. The feeling that you care for them should "emit" from you in some form or fashion (of course depends on your personality, but they should somehow know this. And that you are available for them, within reason, when they need you.
2) To give them the maximum amount of useful knowledge in the time allowed. "Useful" here being defined as something they didn't know before they entered your class, and would be most probable to use in their life after they left your class.
I spent many hours literally thinking about in my off duty hours during the time I was teaching. To this day I have no idea if those were the proper goals, and even if they were the appropriate goals, how close I came to achieving them with my methods. I know I did some very good things in individual circumstances, but how much better I could have done generally, I have no idea.
When I read this story in the LA Times it touched me very very deeply.
Are we to think this guy would have performed better with "Incentives" and bonuses for students' performance or bonuses for meeting other benchmarks this guy would have been a better teacher??? I don't think so.
In the federal government we are infected with the same thinking, and it was codified into law under President Clinton as the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA). Every quarter, federal agencies have to report on their "Progress" under numerous GPRA measures, all of which are supposed to somehow measure the societal outcomes of the things government does nationally. For those of us who do GPRA work, its our biggest challenge. Why, because counting widgets – benefit checks delivered, Endangered Species Act consultations completed, students reached by curriculum innovations – is easy. But measuring outcomes can be nearly impossible because many of the outcomes take decades to become apparent.
And none of this is used to actually decide where and how money flow sin the government, nor does it have any connection with personnel practices, etc.
Ritholtz has an interesting link about how we think of education: http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/2010/10/changing-education-paradigms/ .
Colleges and universities are essentially diploma and research mills. Their structure hasn't really changed since the Enlightenment. The age grouping of primary education is gone, but much else is the same. Agreed that this is stupid.
It's a shame that Aggies are living down to their stereotype. The Aggies I've met are usually a notch above the average college graduate in intellect. They sure are a confident bunch.
Ugh, this is so retarded. A part of the bigger debate on education in the U.S., which, thank God at least is starting to happen. All this crap talk about quantifying the work of teachers. Haven't any of these people ever worked for a normal company? Your boss gives you a performance review every year. There are quantitative factors and subjective factors. Do people complain about performance reviews? Sure, all the time, but you have them. What else are you going to do? Not have them and base your salary on time served? Ugh. You just hope your company is smart enough to have a decent performance review system. Many are not. --[this guy does not understands that in companies performance reviews is such a joke that they cannot be discussed without using expletives]
But I digress. . . Most of this crap talk about education is just the old trick of people trying to remove themselves from the chain of responsibility. God forbid a teacher's boss (Principal, Head of Dept.) gives them a performance review and that performance review influences the raise and bonus they get. What's wrong with these people in our educational system? Of course, these are all rhetorical questions.
We know what's wrong – it's basic competence.--[ This guy does not understand that reviews are actually tool to hide incompetence as good relations with the boss can do wonders] You get someone competent in charge (eg, Michelle Rhee) in DC and you see what happens. Same thing happens at really bad companies in the private sector – in the rare case that a competent person gets to be in charge they usually don't last long. But most companies that have to answer to shareholders don't have this problem. Wow, Michelle Rhee was such a revolutionary – a tough, demanding boss that tried to hold people accountable. But hey, you can't complain about the incumbents. If I were a mediocre teacher (and by definition, most people in any profession are mediocre and below) I'd fight tooth and nail against meritocracizing (yeah, I just made that up) the profession.
And for full disclosure, I am teacher part time. Do it 'cause I love it; certainly not for the meager pay.
Seemingly it is believed-erroneously I might add-that popular business practices are effective. For example, Arne Duncan's (Secretary of Education) The Race to the Top is fashioned after what leaders of business organizations often do-create competition, manage by results, incentivize and devise pay-for-performance schemes. However the popularity of these practices is not sufficient evidence to support their effectiveness. Yes they get people to do something, but getting movement is not quite the same as realizing lasting systemic improvement. These tactics have never proved to be lastingly effective even in business.
The educational system is not performing as desired and it appears consistent in this regard. It seems reasonable to conclude that the system is designed and managed to produce what it is delivering. What it produces are people who (for the most part) enter the system eager to learn and exit the system not knowing how to learn and not finding learning joyful.
The issue should not be whether the learning experience provided returns a profit or whether it is materially productive, but rather whether it is a meaningful and humanly productive experience. This is why throwing money at the educational problem we face or treating it as if it is a mechanical process is just misguided.
In education we shouldn't spend anything, yet we must invest everything-hearts, minds and money. You don't get proper investment by treating people-teachers and students-like cogs in the education machine. You don't get it by seeking efficiencies at all costs-learning, like creativity, is not a efficient activity. This is not to suggest that we ought to be carefree and careless in employing the resources we have.
We must seek to make the learning experience a value-added human experience-materially and humanly productive-and one that engenders joy in learning.
Learning is foundational to our viability as a society (and as a species). We must learn to embrace it. The better we are at learning the better we are poised to sustain our viability.
tippygolden pressIt was refreshing to find the philosopher Michael Sandel arguing that it is - improper - for free markets to be the exclusive arbiter of the common good.
Check this out: Michael Sandel, Harvard Professor of Government, delivers four lectures about the prospects of a new politics of the common good.
James, I am stunned that a university would actually do this. Talk about mismanagement. The best way to determine if a professor is teaching well would be to have an independent expert in his area of taaching conduct oral spot exams on randomly selected students at various times during his tenure to determine if students are learning the material effectively. Standardized testing doesn't work for obvious reasons. However, this method would be so expensive that it would only serve the professor and not the school. Schools might want to do this to help professors understand their weak areas, but for no other reason. Not to mention the fact that only required courses must be taken, but, since the entire college educational experience is voluntary, it should not be subject to scrutiny except to determine if the students are getting their money's worth, and that is something that an objective third party would do, in order to assist students in determining the best place in which to spend their money, and, in fact this actually happens now.
Actually, the same logic applies to all education, except that the public education yardsicks are and should be much simpler. Sadly, though, the success of our education system is largely reliant on student motivation. Unless schools and teachers in public education can motivate and inspire successfully their success will be limited. In the case of higher education, there actually should be classes on appropriate motivation (like picking fields based on interest and talent, as opposed to earning potential).
Bruce E. Woych
so next step = censoring?
Supermarket classrooms that herd information into market efficient money mills for the academic service sector. The factory corporate model of mass production becomes a threat to the sensitivities of the established academic fortress? Does anyone remember that the 50s revolt was agains the financing of colleges by big business to create product? Does anyone remember that the revolt of the anti-intellectual establishment was essentially not anti-intellectual at all…that it was against the strait jacket shirt and tie business cloning of american individualism into individuated market zombies in black and blue suits of conformity?
The issues are clouded and the questions are rigged. You raise concerns about the mass production of students because the student to Professor ratio is now hitting a leveraged proposition against the quality of the teachers' lifestyle…NOT the quality of this mass profiteering business model of brokered exploitation? The bias is insidiously and the priorities are skewed towards vested interests and the dumbing down of America. So censure all you want!
Bruce E. Woych
AAUP: AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF UNIVERSITY PROFESSORS
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Association_of_University_Professors Contingent Faculty
In recent decades, the AAUP has added a focus on addressing the dramatic increase in faculty positions off the tenure track. An increasing percentage of faculty has become "contingent," or non-tenure track. Many are hired into part-time positions, often multiple part-time positions which together equal a full-time load or more, but with dramatically lower pay, little job security, and few or no fringe benefits. As of 2005, 48 percent of all faculty served in part-time appointments, and non-tenure-track positions of all types accounted for 68 percent of all faculty appointments in American higher education .
The AAUP has released a number of reports on contingent faculty: in 2008 a report on accreditors' guidelines pertaining to part-time faculty and a report of an investigation involving alleged violations of the academic freedom and due process rights of a full-time contingent faculty member; and in 2006 an index providing data on the number of contingent faculty at various colleges. also in 2006, the AAUP adopted a new policy dealing with the job protections that should be afforded to part-time faculty members. in 2003, it released its major policy statement Contingent Appointments and the Academic Profession. The statement makes new recommendations in two areas: increasing the proportion of faculty appointments that are on the tenure line, and improving job security and due process protections for those with contingent appointments.
Quality considerations indeed belie the Texas P&L balderdash. An earnest of the quality that they appreciate is furnished by (if memory serves) our current secretary of "defense," an imperialist hack of an altogether unremarkable sort, fetched from the presidency of Texas A&M. Using "business methods" to rate our professors of culture is ludicrous, given the mass culture otherwise inculcated by business society in this twilight period of US capitalism. Texas, like the South generally, is a leader of the race to the bottom–witness their recent right-wing mugging of textbooks to provide a nicer image for greed, racism, etc. –- They used to be called the Ugly American. They're still ugly (and fat), but now add Stupid American. Unfortunately, the rest of the world must pay for American stupidity, given the lethality of same (from nuclear weapons to environmental destruction to a culture of mendacious greed).
I talk a lot in my workshops and on this blog about how to manage your classroom. However, sometimes we as professors do things that irritate our students and cause us problems. Examples include:
Changing the syllabus after the semester begins. The students look at the syllabus the first day to get a sense of the workload of the class, what types of assignments will be given, when things are due, how you will grade them, etc. Adding to or changing this will upset your students.
Requiring expensive textbooks that you do not use. If you have a textbook, be sure to give readings or assignments from it that you take up and grade.
Sharing too much personal information. I had a colleague years ago that had several dogs that were essentially her "children." She brought up the dogs in every class. The students started rolling their eyes whenever she mentioned them. Sharing some personal info is ok if it is relevant to the class. However, the students are not your friends and don't need to know the details of your everyday life.
Reading to the students from the book. I'm always surprised to hear that some faculty conduct their lectures by going over the chapters in the book page by page. Don't. Another tip: use examples from another textbook or from journals rather than the book your students are reading.
Lack of timely feedback. The students want to see how they did on exams and papers as quickly as possible. One way to set expectations is to tell them when you will be giving them feedback. For exams, aim at the next class period. For papers, I tell them it will be in two weeks. That way, if I get these done early, they're impressed but they don't expect it.
Having rules for them to follow that you don't. If you want them to turn off their cellphones or come to class on time, make sure you do also.
Assignments that they see as "busywork." Try to make the assignments interesting by relating examples to the "real world." Show the students how doing the homework will help them be successful in the class.
Perceptions of favoritism. When you are asked by a student to make an exception to your classroom policies such as accepting late papers or giving extra credit, think about whether this would be perceived as unfair by the other students.
Students DO talk to each other and do look at us as role models. We need to demonstrate our professionalism in the classroom. By doing so, we will have fewer problems with classroom management.
For fun, I conducted a very informal poll of my Facebook pals: "How do you avoid being a jerk in the classroom." Here are some responses plus a few more that are legendary "Professor Jerk" behaviors:
- Having a bad day? Car didn't start this morning? You spilled your Starbucks on the way to work? Your spouse is divorcing you? Your dog died? Your life is not your students' problem. Don't be a jerk and take your frustrations out on them.
- Do you have course policies for your students (attendance, tardiness)? Then abide by the same rules. Don't be a jerk and saunter into class at five minutes after the hour (when classes start on the hour) because, after all, "they will wait for you."
- Do you have a policy that you don't accept late work from students? Don't ask students to do anything you can't do, then get mad at them for being unable to do what you asked. "The worst are professors who go nuts about due dates but who themselves are continually asking for extensions from editors and colleagues," via Doug Hesse.
- Do you have a Ph.D. (or other terminal degree)? It probably got you the job you now hold, but it's not something to wield over innocent undergrads (or graduate students, for that matter). The Ph.D. means that you know things. OK, move along. Don't be an insufferable jerk and tell students that your degree allows you to treat them any way you wish.
- Remember when you were a student? You haven't always had that Ph.D.; try to remember what it was like not to know something. (via Seth Kahn)
- Do you have a rockin' personal life? ("Member of the glitterati" is what your friends call you!) Then keep it to yourself. Sharing a little of our personal lives can be a good thing in the classroom. Over sharing, on the other hand, breeds resentment. Do students really need to know that you are late with your car payment, that you need a medical procedure (again), or that at the club last night you hooked-up with Ms./Mr. Right Now? Don't be a jerk.
- Do you use humor in your classes? Great! (Check out this post [and comments] if you do, or think you do.) Don't let your students be the butt of your jokes. Ever. (via Annie Bullock)
- Do you ever make mistakes in your classes? Admit it, apologize (especially if the mistake was aimed at students), and move on graciously. Don't be a jerk; learn to laugh at yourself. (via Risa Gorelick-Odom)
- Do you assign work for students to do outside of class? Then return it in a reasonable amount of time. Students work hard (usually) and they want to know how they did. Don't be a jerk and make them wait weeks and weeks for feedback because you "just can't bear to read that crap," via Barbara L'Eplattenier.
- Do you say things like "I can't bear to read that crap" about student effort? Maybe another line of work would suit you better? "Don't talk shit about your students outside of the classroom. That attitude is harder to switch off than some teachers seem to think. And the rest of us don't want to hear it anyhow," via Mike Garcia.
So, how do you avoid being a jerk in the classroom? It's really quite simple, and it's something we all learned in grade school: the golden rule, or the ethic of reciprocity. Remembering the four tenets of the ethic of reciprocity (kindness, compassion, understanding, and respect) go a long, long way in keeping us from exhibiting jerky behaviors. Treat students with kindness. Understand that they are often young and inexperienced in your discipline. Know that they will make mistakes and that's how they will learn. Remember what it was like when you were a student. Did your professors make you suffer through boorish behaviors? There's no reason to continue that tradition. Respect what the students bring to the classroom, as it's rich and interesting. Remember, they are looking to you to be the model of professional behavior. Or, to put it simply: students look to you to be the grownup
What are some other jerky behaviors we want to avoid in the classroom? Clearly, there are more than the 10 ill-advised behaviors listed above. Please leave your suggestions of jerk-like behaviors from faculty in comments below. Additionally, let us know how we might avoid those potential problems.
1. delaneykirk - August 25, 2010 at 08:37 am
All good suggestions that will help us be better teachers.
Here's some more things to avoid:
Ways That We Irritate Our Students - Ask-Dr-Kirk
2. stolee - August 25, 2010 at 10:46 am
If you DO make the mistake of insulting a student, or calling them out on some mistake (but you are mistaken yourself) be sure to apologize in front of the class. It's not enough to quietly admit you were wrong in your office or by email.
3. natekreuter - August 25, 2010 at 02:30 pm
This is a great post. I put my obligations "not to be a jerk" into a student/instructor contract.
Here's an example: http://www.natekreuter.net/courses/engl-101fall2010/studentinstructor-contract
4. crankycat - August 25, 2010 at 03:49 pm
Keep to the scheduled time; don't habitually lecture past the time class should end. Your students may need to get to a class on the other end of campus - give them a break and the time they need. Sometimes this requires an on-the-fly edit of a lecture, or rethinking how much time to devote to a topic. And if you want students to be interactive, don't ever make fun of an honest question, no matter how elementary.
5. literateinit - August 26, 2010 at 07:17 am
I often have a "fall guy" in classes, the one whom I can bounce stupid humor off of and who can usually trade (lighthearted) barbs when the mood needs to be lightened. But a year ago, I discovered that my fall guy was, in fact, deeply offended by what he took as consistent public rudeness toward him on my part--and he didn't say anything until well into the term, when unfortuantely, he also thought that my "dislike" of him had affected his grades. I was mortified! I'd become the jerk I'd so tried not to be! I do think twice now about the practice, although it was always useful before that instance.
7. ksledge - August 26, 2010 at 09:38 am
I think a good general principle is to ACTUALLY respect the students. Put yourself in their shoes. See where they are coming from. Expect a lot from them. Don't feel you are superior to them. If you actually have those feelings genuinely, the actions will follow. You don't have to be a pushover when they are twerps, but don't go into the classroom on the first day assuming they will be twerps. By expecting them to be responsible, professional, and hard-working, they will be much more likely to rise to the occasion.
9. 12039333 - August 26, 2010 at 09:54 am
Don't enforce excessive formality, but don't require or excessive informality either. I was most put off as an undergrad by the prof who started off the class by saying, "My name is John. I don't want you to call me anything else." It felt like instant intimacy, and I resented it.
10. lsalin - August 26, 2010 at 09:57 am
All of the above have merit. Treat students the way you want to be treated. That's a simple lesson that works in most environments. Twenty years ago, I had a student who went to work in the Michigan State Prison in Jackson. I asked him what it was like to work with the criminals, and he told me something so simple, that I have told students about it many times since then. He told me that he had to remember that the prisoners were people too, often with families waiting for them to be released, and that they would treat him with respect as long as he reciprocated by treating them with respect. While students are not prisoners, I have learned much from them over they years, and that respecting them brings me respect as well.
11. jhanks - August 26, 2010 at 10:12 am
Thank you, lsalin. I am bone weary of colleagues who continually whine about the slackness of students. That hasn't been my experience, and I suspect that we see what we're programming ourselves to see. I both like and respect my students, and they, in turn, generally respond with hard work and genuine effort.
12. mwcramer - August 26, 2010 at 10:52 am
I am not a professor, but the one thing I hated far and away most of all when I was a college student was professors that didn't check their political opinions at the door and used the classroom for attempted indoctrination and as a soapbox bully pulpit to push their views (and worse, to denigrate those with opposite views). Definitely jerk behavior!
13. profwhodrives - August 26, 2010 at 11:57 am
@6 I used to use a "fall guy" as well, but at some point I realized that there were often a few others who didn't get the joke. They thought I was just being mean. So even if the fall guy is ok it just isn't that great an idea.
@7 You are of course right about some students, but standing around complaining about doesn't make it better and just embitters us. Try to create assignments that minimize the shoddy work, grade the poor work fairly, and move on. You will get bitter otherwise.
By Brendan Halpin, 8/3/2003
Many of my colleagues prove more complicated than my first impressions of them. Bob, a science teacher and recently divorced, eats lunch every day surrounded by a gaggle of teenage girls to whom he talks about his love life. He's not hitting on them or anything, so it's not as if it's illegal or even immoral -- it's just creepy and kind of sad. I hear him in the hall one day calling out to a 15-year-old female student: "Will you marry me when I grow up?"
Then one day Bob brings his son to school. His son has autism, and this guy is just so affectionate and patient, and the very idea of having any kid at all, much less an autistic one, fills me with terror at age 24, and I am really impressed with Bob. But I still think it's creepy that he talks to teenage girls about his love life.
Whatever my opinions about my colleagues, I am able to put all those concerns on the back burner once classes actually begin. Having three level-three, or bottom-track, classes is pretty standard practice for new teachers -- everybody foists all the classes they don't want onto the new guy.
One of my level-three classes is a group of sophomores I see first period. This class ends up going pretty well, overall. They are good-natured kids, and class starts at 7:30, when they're still half asleep.
Actually, one girl is frequently more than half asleep. She has a newborn son and comes to school two or maybe three days a week, says something like "My son is sick -- he was up all night," and promptly falls asleep on the desk. I don't have the heart to wake her up. I'm kind of in awe of her -- a 17-year-old single parent. After a while, she just stops coming at all.
My second level-three class is fifth period, right before lunch. It's a group of ninth-graders, 14 boys and two girls. The first day, one of the students looks around at all the kids in the class and says, "So, I guess this is the retard class, huh?"
One of the kids in this class, Rick, is actually a 16-year-old sophomore. He failed ninth-grade English, so he takes that with me and 10th-grade English with somebody else. He seems to have some legal difficulties -- he comes in from time to time after having been absent with a note saying he has had a court date. One day he comes in, practically hugs me, and says, "I got my chins dropped!" I am too new to teaching to know he's talking about a Child in Need of Services order, a court mandate issued to kids in trouble.
Rick is also really, really smart. He is in level-three English, though, because of his behavior and legal troubles. One day he does something unacceptable -- I think punching a classmate -- and I kick him out of class. He literally throws a desk. I don't want to say he throws it at me, because he just does it out of frustration, and I don't think he means it as an attack on me, but I do have to do a quick sidestep to avoid being hit.
Rick's placement, I will find, is pretty typical of level-three classes; there are always kids in them because they have behavior problems, and putting them in a class where the pace is too slow for them doesn't usually help their behavior problems, and their behavior doesn't help the kids who are in these classes because they have a tough time learning.
Thirteen of my 16 students have IEPs, or "individualized education plans," which means special education.
Students on IEPs are required to be mainstreamed -- that is to say, they must be integrated into the regular program and not segregated in "pullout" special-education classes. So my students have all been mainstreamed into the same English class, effectively making me a special-ed teacher.
I have no special-ed training.
o the deck is stacked against me, but I also do my share of messing up. I have the students write for a few minutes at the beginning of the class, and I tell them it is their time to write whatever they want. What I mean is that I'm not setting a topic, so they can write what's on their mind. So a kid decides to test it on day three and writes something scatological about the way he feels. I object, and he says, "But you said we could say anything we want."
And here is where thinking too much kind of screws me up. I think, well, this exercise is about having them overcome their fear of writing, about empowering them to feel that writing is a form of communication that is real for them, and how can I do that if I stifle their authentic voices? How can I gain their respect if I go back on my word?
I am tortured by this for the whole year, and in the meantime, they are swearing when they read their "freewrites," and I am doing nothing about it. I'm sure this doesn't make it any easier for me when I try to get some order in the class, and I am so befuddled by this dilemma that the solution -- write anything you want, but you can only say things that are appropriate for class -- doesn't present itself, and indeed the very idea that I have the authority to insist on appropriate language and even to define what appropriate language is doesn't occur to me, because I am all about student empowerment, man, because these kids have been beaten down by the educational establishment (true enough), and they need me to do things a new way and to help them own their education.
I make the terrible mistake of reading Jonathan Kozol's The Night Is Dark and I Am Far From Home, which is all about how the people who perpetrated the My Lai massacre were mostly taught in public schools, and how we shouldn't be training kids to be unthinking war criminals (I'm paraphrasing), which is OK, and which I guess I agree with. I mean, I'm as antiwar-crime as the next guy, but when you are trying to teach something to 16 kids who think they're stupid, you really do need to be somewhat in charge, or all hell breaks loose.
But, philosophically, I want to empower them. I want them to be free citizens rather than obedient automatons, and so I am just terribly uncomfortable with the reality of my authority. So, basically, my authority has no reality in this class.
I demonstrate this vividly in the first week, when I make the mistake of mentioning to Bruce, the vice principal, who's new on the job, that I'm kind of struggling, that a couple of the kids keep trying to provoke Rick to make him go off for their amusement. "I'll give you some theater," he says, and the next day he comes up and literally screams in these kids' faces -- his voice echoes down the entire school. I mean, people who teach on other floors ask me what happened later on, because they heard the commotion, and one of the offenders, who was just being goofy, almost starts to cry, and the other kid just looks really, really hard.
A fellow English teacher comes up to me the next day and says, "Jesus, what the hell was Bruce doing? That was embarrassing." Yep, and ineffective, too. Strangely enough, yelling in a kid's face and publicly humiliating him doesn't always turn him into a model citizen. And it's all very fine for Bruce to come in and scream at kids, but I'm the one who has to spend 45 minutes with them every day, and now they know I called this storm down on them, and so I look weak and don't even have the advantage of appearing to be on their side. So nothing changes.
I try all kinds of different seating arrangements, assignments, and structures, and nothing really works. Until the end of the year, this will be the class I will dread, the class that makes me cry at the end of the day, the class that makes me feel like the biggest failure. It is not at all unusual to lose half of my class time to disruptions. Students swear, students punch each other, students don't listen.
I have to send two kids out for sexually harassing the one remaining girl in the class. I write "sexually harassing classmate" on the little slip they take to Bruce, and later Bruce confronts me and says that if I use the words "sexual harassment," there is this whole legal procedure that he is obligated to go through. And I say, OK, well, this is a pretty clear-cut case of sexual harassment, so go to town with your procedure. And whatever the big, scary legal process is, it never seems to result in any consequences accruing to the offenders, apart from the standard two detentions they get for being kicked out of class. By this point in October, they have already gotten enough detentions from all their classes to take them through Christmas.
By springtime, the two students will be untouchable -- they are already assigned detention through the end of the school year. At this point, though, they will have started to come to class high, and though I will be ashamed of this later, I don't really do or say anything about it. They are heavy-lidded and unusually cooperative, and unlike when they are not high, they are not stopping anybody else from learning. And it is the worst-kept secret at Newcastle High [the fictious name of a high school, an hour or so from Boston, where I taught in 1993] that kids get high out where the school grounds extend to the woods. My two sexual harassers are a pretty small percentage of the total number of stoned kids.
Still, these kids are 14. And they are getting high in school. I look the other way and do nothing to try to help them, because it's much easier for me. So much for my heroic-teacher movie.
ne day it's almost the end of fifth period, and we are sitting in a circle, and at the same moment two things happen. First, Dennis, a short, 10-year-old-looking kid prone to making up stories about his ninja training, shouts to his classmates, "Hey, is anybody else here in the KKK?" His classmates, all white and no beacons of racial tolerance themselves, react with immediate and sort of surprising anger.
"What the hell?"
"Let's beat him up!"
And on the opposite side of the circle, Henry, a kid who dresses all in black and wears his hair in a black-dyed Mohawk, pulls out a box cutter and slices down the length of his arm. His arm begins to bleed, and Henry makes a great show of licking the blood off. His classmates respond with predictable shock and disgust:
"What the hell is he doing?"
"Oh, that's sick!"
"Let's beat him up!"
At that moment the bell rings, and everybody runs out of the room for lunch. I go straight to the vice principal and tell him about the box cutter, and he goes into the lunchroom, where Henry is calmly eating with his friends as if nothing has happened. The vice principal demands the box cutter and hauls Henry up to the school psychologist's office.
This is before the days of "zero tolerance." If Henry tries this stunt again after 1995, he will be summarily expelled from school rather than taken for counseling.
So Henry now has mandatory counseling, and he is furious. He glares at me through every class; he is a black cloud sitting in the corner, sending off waves of hatred. This, I will discover, is a typical pattern for the troubled teen: "Here is my cry for help!" quickly followed by "How dare you heed my cry for help! I hate you!"
One of Henry's friends comes up to me a couple of days later, giggling, and says, "I heard Henry cut his arm in class to make you think he was a psycho!" All I can think to say is, "Well, it worked," but I manage not to.
A week later Henry walks up to me at the end of class, gets right in my face, and says, "Mr. Halpin. You don't like it when I cut myself, do you?"
"No, Henry, I don't."
"Well, how do you like this," he says, sticking his left thumb in my face, grabbing the nail with his right hand, and ripping the nail right off.
I manage to respond with atypical aplomb.
"Well, Henry," I say calmly, "I don't like that either."
I write up the incident and give a copy to the vice principal and the school psychologist. A few days later, Henry stops coming to school.
hat's the worst thing that happens in this class, and it's usually not that bad, but it's usually at least pretty bad. I barely know what I'm doing, and the class is out of control for at least part of every day, but strangely enough, we do get some real learning done. Unlike Nancy across the hall, who reads everything aloud to her level-three classes (so it's basically 45 minutes of story time, and the kids never actually read the books), I insist that my students read, and some kids do. I insist that they write, and all the kids do. Nobody else in this place does this with level-three classes.
I photocopy packets of their writing, which they proudly read aloud to the class, and as much as I've screwed up, I am proud of what I've done, at least compared with what I know my colleagues are doing with their classes. The kids getting story hour or work sheets might have been a whole lot quieter than mine, they might have sworn a whole lot less, and they probably threw fewer pieces of furniture (they were probably stoned in similar if not greater numbers, though), but they also didn't do any reading or writing.
And this is the trade-off I will continue to make throughout my teaching career. Though I will get better at the discipline stuff, I am fundamentally a marshmallow, and I will trade a little bit of chaos for a little bit of student involvement. It's pretty easy to run an orderly class, but if you want kids to really write and to really get involved, it gets messy.
In the springtime, I get to assign the kids to their next year's English classes, and I bump to level two anyone who I think has even a hope of surviving academically.
The following year, when I am no longer working in Newcastle, Tom will call me and tell me that Rick has been running around the school going, "Where's Halpin? Bring back Halpin! What did you do with him?"
The year after that, one of my students will mention that she is dating one of my period-five students from Newcastle. "He says he really liked you, that you were a great teacher." It's nice to hear this, but it also makes me sad. I knew nothing. I couldn't keep order in the class. What does it say about his other teachers that this kid remembers me as a good one?
Brendan Halpin, author of It Takes a Worried Man, is a teacher at Brookline High School. This article is excerpted from his new book, Losing My Faculties: A Teacher's Story, copyright © 2003 by Brendan Halpin. Used by arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group.
This story ran in the Boston Globe Magazine on 8/3/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.
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