by Ish Stabosz
Center for Creative Instruction & Technology
Delaware Technical Community College
I’m a dad and I’m a teacher, and I’ve noticed a few areas where these two positions seem to overlap:
- My very clear instructions are met with blank stares. Check.
- My simple requests are answered with whining, pleading, and all manner of negotiations. Check.
- My plans fall apart as soon as they begin to take shape. Check.
Maybe I don’t need to grade papers at home or change diapers at school, but otherwise, there’s a lot of overlap. And one particular intersection between home and the workplace that I recognized recently was how my attitude can influence my approach.
If I try to discipline my four year-old with a mindset of “I’m the boss. He’s the child. So he better do what I say”, I’m going to run into some trouble. Sure, this attitude might be true, but that doesn’t make it helpful. It’s likely to lead to fights, tantrums, punishments, and some overall sour moods. It might be true that I’m the boss, but it’s also true that my son has about one tenth the experience that I have when it comes to negotiating emotions and thinking rationally. I’d probably be better off shaping my attitude around that if I actually want to make my efforts worthwhile.
Likewise, when it comes to dealing with my students, I realize that I have plenty of attitudes that might be true, but that aren’t actually worth dwelling on. Let me share three of them with you.
1. They are legal adults who chose to be here, so they should want to learn.
Okay, if we are talking about a person’s inherent free will, then sure it’s true that our students chose to be here. They are, ultimately, the ones who registered for the class. But let’s not forget that, for most of them, there was a lot of outside pressure to go to college. So, while the final responsibility for my students’ interest in learning does fall on them, that doesn’t mean I can’t help them out a bit.
I think going to the dentist is a pretty fitting analogy. The dentist could say, “He scheduled this invasive tooth drilling, so he’s got no excuse to be anxious”, and then make the visit as uninviting and intimidating as possible. I might leave the office with a patched tooth, but I don’t walk away with many good feelings or any less anxiety about scheduling my next appointment.
The same goes for my students. I could say, “Their interest in writing is their own responsibility, so I’ll just do my lecture and move on”, but this attitude is likely to leave my students feeling worse than a trip to the dentist would.
2. I laid the assignment out for them step-by-step. Why can’t they just get it right?
When I’m tempted by this one, I always remember what I heard about a professor at the University of Delaware. This professor would do a lot of problem-based learning in his class, which left students feeling uncomfortable because rather than working with nice, neat, step-by-step problems, they were forced to navigate through realistic and messy ones. In this sort of classroom, student questions are often answered with other questions, and if they are used to the traditional lecture-test-repeat model, they can easily get frustrated that the instructor doesn’t just give them the right answer.
So, as a preemptive strike against this sort of reaction from students, this professor starts every semester by asking his students to write down their dream job. After they have had a few minutes to think about it, he asks the class “How many of you wrote down a job in which your boss will always be telling you exactly what to do?”. From there, he explains why he runs his class the way he does: because he wants students to be prepared for the real world, not just for exams.
When I am frustrated that my students can’t write their papers exactly according to the outline I laid out for them, maybe it’s worth taking a minute to think about whether the problem is with the students or with my outline. Maybe there’s more to be learned in messing it up than getting it perfect.
3. Why won’t they put those stupid phones away?
I’m not really as guilty of this one as I once was, but man did it used to infuriate me to see students clicking away on their smart phones while I was trying to talk. That was back when I did most of the talking in the class. Since I began to shift my classroom to a much more student-centered model, I have noticed significantly less cell phones in class. Now, instead of infuriating me, they act as a useful gauge of my teaching style. If I see a lot of students engaging with Facebook rather than me (or each other), I know that I need to rethink this lesson for the next semester.
Furthermore, smart phones don’t bother me much anymore because I have accepted them as a reality of life. In the real world, smart phones are both a tool and a distraction, and school needs to be more like the real world if students are going to take it seriously. If students get distracted by their phones and it hurts their academic performance, that’s a lesson to them. If they can get distracted by their phones without hurting their academics, that’s a lesson to me: I must not be doing anything meaningful with class time.
Beyond the distraction issue, smart phones really are a tool for the 21st century. Never before has such a vast amount of information been available to human beings on-the-go at the push of a button. If I just bury my head in the sand and act like they don’t exist or shouldn’t exist, am I really preparing my students for the real world? I like to think of what José Bowen, president of Goucher College and keynote speaker at Delaware Tech’s recent Instructional Innovation Conference, has to say about cell phones when he discusses rethinking testing and assessment: “Exams are rare in the workplace, but assessment is commonplace. If you must have exams…don’t turn off the internet. …Test your questions against Google or Siri”.
All of these attitudes are tempting to dwell on, and there are hints of the truth within each of them, but that doesn’t mean they are going to improve my teaching.
Do you find yourself dwelling on any attitudes that don’t improve your teaching? How do you counter the negativity they foster? Leave a comment and let us know.