Caring about teh students

Mar 25 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

Last week, when I was embroiled in a too much work, too little sleep haze, Dr. Girlfriend left the following comment on my post about the students in my class not knowing their lab partner's name.

Wow! That is crazy. It is stories like this that make me question the whole teaching thing.

These are supposed to be adults who are taking classes out of choice.

Surely they need some sort of name to use cell-phones and emails? How can they expect to pass if they are not communicating with lab partner outside of class?

A professor is supposed to be a resource, not a nanny. If a student cannot be proactive in their own learning they do not belong at university.

You care too much. And I am never going to make it as an assistant professor if I am expected to pass a certain percentage, regardless of inadequate performance.

Honestly, I wanted to bring this back up because it is something that I have struggled with as a new teacher - the balance between investment in the student/class and my time and sanity. This comes in several flavors, one of which was touched on by the above comment. In this specific case the question is how much student apathy do you compensate for with you're own time and work and in reality, I don't know the answer. To this point I have done what I needed to do in order to ensure that the lectures and labs I teach can involve everyone, regardless of whether they do something right. I know that's cryptic, but when there is a project that builds from one week to the next, I feel like it is my responsibility to ensure that if students screw something up in Week 1, I have a back-up in Week 2 that allows them to continue on with the exercise. To me, that's inherent with planning the exercise in the first place because the likelihood of all students completing an exercise completely correctly the first time they do it is next to nil, no matter how straight-forward. Do you "punish" those who can't follow instructions by forcing them to watch from the sidelines in Week 2? I don't think that helps them learn the concepts, which is why I am there in the first place.

I think the same goes for class. It sucks when you spend hours building a lecture when you have a hundred other things that need to get done and 20 slides in you have two kids blatantly texting three rows back. Part of me wonders why I am bothering working as hard as I do to try and make the class interesting to them when I could just stand up there and talk straight through the figures from the book. I'm not trying to be Robin Williams in the Dead Poet's Society, but I do care about engaging the students in the material. Maybe it's stupid of me to want that at this early stage since no one gets a cookie for teaching at the expense of research, but I also don't know how to turn off that part of my brain that forces me to take pride in whatever product I put out. I have had teachers who just didn't care, for whatever reason, and I can't be that guy. But finding the balance that gets you to "good enough" is tough and it's a moving target.

Although I don't believe that the students need to be coddled, one of the hardest things I have found in the teaching game is finding the right investment balance. Too much and I can't get other essential functions done and stay up-right and married, to little and I can't live with the job I am doing in my role as "The Guy Responsible For Helping The Students Learn This Shit". Some days I get it right and some days I am way off, but it is part of the job. It may not be what we are trained to do or what we want to do, but I can't knowingly* teach poorly any more than I can knowingly leave out data that calls my conclusions into question. I don't know where that leaves me, but I guess I will find out.

*I might suck as a teacher and not know it, which is a different problem.

8 responses so far

  • Dr.Girlfriend says:

    Prof-like,I honestly do not think you (or anyone) can teach someone who does not want to learn, or does not put the effort in.The problem with the US education system is that anyone with enough money can go to college, even if they keep failing classes. If these people want to waste their parents money, then let them. The students that deserve your attention are the ones that are trying and still struggling. The best professors are not the ones who fret over apathetic students. The best professors are the ones whose door is always open and who take a genuine interest in the students that come to him for help. It seems you are being approachable and even asking for feedback and making efforts to engage your students. I am sure you do not suck as a teacher, but many of your students probably suck as students.Western kids are invariably spoilt. They are given the opportunity of a great education, and this just makes them lazy and childish.

  • Anonymous says:

    This post hits home. I've been in your shoes for the past three years. But in year 4, I started doing somethings differently and it has helped my attitude and student performance tremendously. First, remember that students actually are there to learn and do have the same goals you have and start from a place of mutual respect. For any class I teach- including labs - I ask students what they think make a good and bad learning environment. This gets them talking (if you let them). This 5 min excercise will surprise you because they will lay it all out there (hopefully they hit on topics like 'feel safe asking questions', 'come prepared', friendly environment, intellectually challenging, etc.) You then summarize the points and create a verbal 'learning' contract with the students. I prohibit the use of computers and hand-held devices after the first 5 mins of class. I explain that learning and listening requires focused attention and that these devices are not only distracting to the professors but they also distract fellow students. I end my class 15 mins early on the first day. I use this last 15 mins to have students introduce themselves to the person on their right/left... behind them... etc. This starts the building of the class community.After this- you need to externalize their learning. If you've got your shit together, have created a syllabus that strives to embrace active learning and not just a passive brain dump, and you provide a continual stream of feedback to your students - your job is done. The first year is always the toughest because you are pulling together your shit so you always feel like your behind. The next time it gets easier. But the real trick is to set up your expectations from day 1 and get the students to agree.

  • Anonymous says:

    I think you are forgetting the students who do appreciate your effort and who do pay attention. Two students are texting in the back, but what about the other 48? No amount of teaching is going to hit 100% of the students, and viewing the students as one population only highlights the deficiencies.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    Dr. Girlfriend, I don't know that this is just a problem in the US. Tuition is actually higher in the US than in places like Canada or Europe (where education is free for citizens in many countries) and unless you want to argue that there is less social stigma to class failure and wasting money in the US, I'm not sure I buy that argument. There will always be students who don't care, just like there will always be professors who don't care. But I won't become the latter just because of the former. There are always good students in the class too, and as you mentioned, I am more interested in seeing the students succeed who put in the effort. I'm not sure that stereotyping "western kids" gets us anywhere, though. Anon@10:58, I think you have some good suggestions there. I'm still learning HOW to teach as I go along and this semester has been as important an experience for me as the students. Probably more so. Anon@5:38, I'm not forgetting these students and I don't have any delusions about getting through to a whole class. I have a small class and, at least on some level, gotten to know them all. As a group, they may be one of the least homogeneous audiences I've stood in front of.

  • Dr.Girlfriend says:

    Prof-like "Tuition is actually higher in the US than in places like Canada or Europe (where education is free for citizens in many countries)" My point was that any one can get in to a college in the US. It is becoming like that in Europe too, but not every rich person can get a place at a university. I believe that admittance to higher education should based on academic performance and limited to the top achievers. It should not be like high-school where everyone is expected to go. The problem with having a great education and great teachers is that it does not teach or motivate a person learn themselves. I think many students rely too much on teachers and the best thing you can do for them is wean them fast. Learning the material on your own is tough, but doable. A proactive learner will do well regardless.A teacher works in a high-school. A professor is not a teacher.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    It's hard to blame people for wanting a degree that is rapidly considered mandatory for upward mobility. And I should point out that many of my students pay their own way through jobs and loans, so I'm not seeing the "rich kid" thing the way you are explaining it. Not every university is a $50K/year Ivy.A teacher works in a high-school. A professor is not a teacher.I'm not going to agree with you here either. If you are not going to teach, why not just assign readings and have students come by during office hours with questions? Then we could just do it online and have a chat room for questions... Is that the same as teaching in front of a small class? No. Nor do I think it is as effective. If you refuse to put effort into teaching and place all of the burden on the students to learn the material and come to you with questions, I can promise you that it will not work out well and you better rock the shit out of your research if you want to get tenure. Blame the students or the system, but it is our responsibility (IMO) to draw upon our experience in the subjects we teach to make the accessible to the students in our classes. That is the strength of the professor-teacher model and what is expected. It doesn't mean that you need to spoon-feed the students, but you do need to make the effort to teach.

  • Dr.Girlfriend says:

    Prof-like,If cannot make it on my research, which of course would depend on me being a good mentor and training people in my lab well, then I will look for another vocation. If I had wanted to be a teacher I would have trained to be a teacher! I honestly do not think the US system is for me, and I think it sacrifices depth of subject for breadth and forces people to take subjects they have no interest in."I'm not seeing the "rich kid" thing the way you are explaining it.."Not knowing the name of your lab partner is behaving like an incompetent child. Not answering a professors email is behaving like a rude child. I have no time for such people.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    All of us expect to make it on our research, but if you're going to eschew teaching at a university that expects it, you better be doing more than making it. That said, I have no idea what your field is and there may be lots of options available for positions where undergraduate teaching is a very minor component or is not required at all. All I am saying is that if one takes a job where part of the responsibility is to teach undergraduates, one should live up to that. I won't argue for or against the system, as I have no control over that, nor the energy to affect change. There are pluses and minuses to breadth of learning, but I wonder how many students pursue a career in exactly what they learned in university?

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