I asked my students to voice their opinion on anything school-related, and one of them actually did reply to me via email, so I posted it as a comment on my student voices invitation. I would like to draw attention to his post because he makes a valid point regarding homework. I think assignments, all assignments, have to have a purpose that makes sense to students. They don’t have to like everything they are assigned, but I think it’s reasonable for a student to be able to make a connection between process and product. If they see the product of school as being tied only to grades on tests, then it may be difficult for them to see any intrinsic value in the activities leading to those grades. Now, it may sound far too idealistic to suggest that students will find meaning in everything they do in school, but why not? I don’t mean that every lesson has to be dazzling nor entertaining, but there are overall rules of engagement that should be put into place right at the beginning of any course. For example, if a teacher assigns some work, students should be given some feedback on the work they do. It doesn’t have to be a grade, necessarily, but assignments can be seen as a conversation between teacher and student. One assignment does not need to fit every student, and doesn’t have to be fair. Assessment should be fair, using a standard of measurement to evaluate progress. But using one bar of success for assignments is not necessary. By establishing flexibility in assignments, students can have intrinsic motivation to learn, not just to achieve good grades. If you haven’t read my student’s comment (on my Student Voices posting) then please do. It would be great to give him some valid feedback. Should he be penalized for learning concepts easily? If he proves that he has mastered the concepts on the end assessment, should he be penalized for not doing the homework? Does everyone need the same amount of practice?
I had an interesting discussion about working memory with a psychologist the other day, and it made me think about an innate inclination toward analysis in Math and English. Some of the most gifted, natural math students I have known are completely stalled by the chore of literature analysis. Likewise,there are students who demonstrate intuitive insight in English class, but they are overwhelmed by problem-solving at a comparable level in mathematics. Many students have equal analytic ability in both subjects, but I often see students in my field who can do one or the other, and the difficulty they face in one realm vs the other is enough to make them detest that subject. What I have noticed is that there seems to be a similarity in the type of dysfunction in both cases. Both the “natural” writer and the “natural” mathematician are able to analyse problems at what seems to be an automatic response level of their brain. As soon as I ask them to approach a challenging problem in a systematic manner, they typically snap and become angry or frustrated. I explained this observation in my conversation with the psychologist and she said, that was interesting, as the automatic response in the brain is at one level, while the need to hold one piece of information in working memory, and consider it in relation to other factors is in another area of the brain. I know the brain research scientists have mapped all of this activity out-it’s nothing too earth shattering, but I like to look at learning disabilities as a bit of an either-or issue. It’s often the students who excell in one area that face these frustrations. Fortunately, we have patient people who can teach students strategies to get around difficulties with working memory. What interests me most, though, is the fact that these students don’t feel like they’re thinking when they slow down and follow step by step methods or scaffolded strategies. For them, thinking is at the intuitive level-anything else is equated to a brain at rest and it’s dull. If they’re lucky, these kids will get a chance to challenge their natural gifts in university, or other creative outlets. Unfortunately though, we spend a lot of time teaching them the mundane tasks that they need to get through the required coursework in their less than natural subject area. I think this is the highest risk faced in education.
I am going to open this blog up to students, to give them a place to voice their opinions on teaching. This is not a place for criticism, it’s a place for students speak about their own education. I assume that students want to be treated with respect, to be excited about learning and many more things, but I think it’s important to give students a public voice. To students: Please, avoid using names or specific references to people you know. Try to keep your comments focused on what you do want out of school, rather than what you don’t want, when possible.
I just found a line I loved in Jill Ker Conway’s book (When Memory Speaks) in reference to Mabel Lodge Luhan (1879-1962) , whom she describes as the “marathon memoirist of American modernism.” She described Luhan as “never one to give up on the idea of playing a grand role in society.” I love this line because it captures the inspiration that lures many people into teaching. Is there a more effective way to influence society than to teach children? And what if you teach in a large school, within an influential community, whose students will move on to become future leaders of the world. Playing this “grand role” is exactly what teaching is about. As Ker Conway states, it is difficult, even today, for me to make such a lofty claim, without inviting criticism about my real intentions in teaching, but I think I teach because I want to have an significant effect on the world. Is it acceptable (for a woman) to make this claim in 2012?
I’m writing because I need to write for a course I’m taking, but also because I like to write. I am reading a book right now, called When Memory Speaks, by Jill Ker Conway. I chose the book on a whim (actually, I was in the library with my son on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, desperate to get out of there before he decided he never wants to go to university..but that’s another story) when I found this one book on the assigned reading list. It actually turned out to be a fascinating book. It’s an historical overview of autobiographical writing. At the halfway point in the book, I’m struck by the limits women have faced in writing. The sad thing is, to me, that I really don’t see much progress in the female written voice. In academic writing, we are taught to speak with authority. I learned to write essays by developing an argument and backing it up with relevant evidence. The limited research I have completed throughout my education has been well received. I have looked back at papers I kept from my undergrad courses and I laugh at the presumptuous authority in my voice. Who did I think I was to speak with such conviction- I still do this today when I write. And yet, in autobiographical writing, there is a strong element of conscience. I think Ker Conway is bang-on right when she notes that many of the famous female writers (dating back to the early 1900s) would not honestly express their thoughts until their own parents had died, or until they knew of their own near death. Why do we censor our thoughts so closely still today, in 2012? I think the inner conversations we have are brilliant, insightful, somewhat neurotic, but most definitely vulnerable to criticism. I don’t know if I am ready to face honest autobiographical writing yet-certainly not within the public arena of a blog (which I know will go on mostly unseen.) I do see the truth in the historical explanation of the female voice in writing, and I look forward to hopeful resolution, or a happy ending in this book!
A close friend of mine has been trying to teach her daughter how to drive. They have gone out driving twice now, and I’m pretty sure the job of teacher has officially been handed over to her husband. Joking around with some friends about the near-death incident involving a curb, an embankment and the gas pedal instead of the brake, I started to think about patience. One of my favourite students asked me about my career choice, and what had compelled or inspired me to become a teacher, and I couldn’t answer with anything specific. I just started teaching. This particular boy, who prides himself in his ability to test the patience of all adults asked me about my patience. He wanted me to tell him about the most incredibly horrible experience I have had as a teacher and I couldn’t think of anything. Thinking about this question on the way home today, I could think of a few students whose psychiatric diagnoses included oppositional defiance disorder. I had some success with these students- I don’t know if they learned much from me, academically- they weren’t willing to learn, but I do know that they did learn something about patience and trust from me. Teaching, to me, is equally about emotional and intellectual intelligence. I have worked with many students who have built up resistance to learning in school because of damaging experiences. I’m not blaming anyone for these experiences, but there are experiences that kids face in life that will start to build up in their memories and they quickly devise survival tactics to avoid repeating them. It’s important to acknowledge that all students are not available to learn at all times. Patience is the acceptance of this as a teacher. If students aren’t able, or available to learn what you are offering, it’s nothing to be taken personally as a reflection upon you as a teacher. When you know that they will learn when they are ready to learn, it’s easy to be patient. I guess the bottom line message that I took from my special education courses was that if a student isn’t learning, there’s nothing wrong with the student, you just haven’t found the way to teach them yet, and there are an infinite number of ways to teach.
The suggestion that teaching is a vocation may sound pretentious or ridiculous. Especially if you don’t like teachers. Many people have fond memories of teachers who had a positive impact on their lives. I suppose, however, that just as many people have no positive memories of school, or at least clearer memories of teachers who did not help them. I am sure, though, that everyone has been affected by teachers in some way, and therefore, we all have an opinion about education. I think that is why so many people espouse some expertise on teaching as a vocation. Is there any profession that is subjected to the level of scrutiny that teachers face? On the most intimate level, teachers face the reflective scrutiny of their students on a daily basis. It’s only fair; we present information and ask our students to react to that information on a personal level. There is a level of trust that must be established if we are to challenge students to think for themselves. That “conversation” that occurs between student and teacher, in a classroom full of students is allowed by students only if a teacher is teaching in response to some internal, or vocational, pull to help students. If a teacher does not genuinely want to be there, it takes about 3 seconds for a perceptive student to see through their facade, and the result is not pretty. Not all students are this perceptive, but those who do test their teachers’ level of commitment are the real leaders of education. Teachers know this. Our classrooms have always been student-centred, but the test of our commitment must also face other lenses.
The second level of scrutiny that teachers must face is that of parents. Some see teaching as a service which they are entitled to judge as consumers. Many parents regard the school with open minds, but it is difficult not to see the school through the perspective of a former student. I think the majority of parents are satisfied with the service teachers provide for their families, as long as their children come home happy, but there are exceptions. I feel strongly that parents and students have the right to critique the work of teachers, but I have no respect for people who criticize teachers in general over their perception of short work days and extensive holidays. As a teacher, I tend to ignore those types of comments (and think to myself, “you try it out for a week.”) It continues to surprise me that some people have no idea, nor care to think about the amount of work it takes to create and teach a curriculum. This second level of scrutiny is problematic to some teachers, but it’s just part of the job.
The reflection on teaching that I am most interested in (today) is personal reflection. The thing that makes teaching a vocation, rather than a job, is the personal connection that teachers have to their role. Teaching is not just what we do, it’s what we are. I can’t step out of my role as teacher any more than I could no longer be female, or a mother. If your day at school doesn’t go well, it stays with you, keeps you awake at night. Not because you might get in trouble from your boss, might not make the sale you need or complete the project late, but because all of the pieces of your day fit together into a curriculum that is developing as you go along. Teaching is like directing a play, while you’re writing it, acting in it, sitting in the audience, operating all of the audio-visual equipment needed to make the show go on and even writing the review for the next day’s newspaper. And, there’s always another show the next day. If you aren’t ready for this, then you aren’t going to have much fun teaching, but if you are, it’s the best life’s work I know of!
I started writing this blog as part of an assignment for a writing course. I’m in grad school at UBC, but I am also a full time teacher. I have been teaching for 25 years, mostly in special education, both in elementary and secondary schools,with some time in private schools, but mostly public schools in BC, Canada. I’m also a mother of four boys, with two in university, and two in high school. I named the blog notionofvocation because I had just come home from a discussion in my course, mostly centred around the job of teaching. My prof. thinks teaching is an impossible job, yet here we are, week after week, continuing to teach. Is it a vocation, or a profession? That’s where all of this started. I like to teach, and I like to write, so I’m likely to keep writing on this blog, hopefully long after my current course ends.
I took the picture of the tulips in my banner at UBC last spring, during a walk around campus. It may look like it has no connection to the educational theme of my blog, but it does indeed. I couldn’t walk by this bucket of tulips without capturing it on film. It was stunning-the lighting was perfect and every flower was at it’s peak in bloom. I am incredibly busy with work and my studies, but I do take the time to stop and enjoy life as much as possible. I keep this banner on my blog because I like to look at it, and it reminds me of how lucky I am to be a student, as well as a teacher.
If you would like to comment on any of my postings, I’d love the company. My name is Beth.