A little before the middle of each semester, I ask my students to fill out an anonymous one-minute paper to indicate what they would like to “stop, start, or continue” in my course. I like to think I am a good teacher, and good teaching, it is generally acknowledged these days, asks us to reflect on our teaching, scrutinize our teaching, and challenge our assumptions about teaching. We’re also encouraged to ask for and be responsive to student feedback.
But lately, I have found this to be a difficult and demoralizing exercise. While I can predict most of the comments, and the fact that they often contradict one another (“More group work,” “I don’t like group work!”; “Your lectures are too long!”, “You don’t lecture enough!”), I never expect the comments that are highly critical and sometimes nasty. “This course should be scrapped,” “I can’t stand being here,” and so on.
What was I thinking? That everyone would like me, love the material, and “get” the way I teach? Well, yes. That’s exactly what I was thinking.
Sensible people have told me to be objective. And it’s true that when I consider the classroom objectively, I can see that a perfect synergy with every student is unlikely. But I wish for it anyway, because I find it impossible to maintain the objectivity required to not let it bother me. As an active participant in the classroom relationship, I find the process of teaching and learning an intensely subjective experience. I can no more be objective about it than I can about my relationship with my closest family members. When a student says he or she doesn’t like my course, or worse, me, it hurts. And so when I receive negative feedback, I fixate on it to the point that it obliterates the majority of the positive feedback I receive. I run the negative comments around in my head like a hamster on its exercise wheel, sometimes for weeks, wondering what I’ve done wrong and trying to figure out how to fix things.
Cognitive psychology reminds us, though, that not everything is about us. If I am honest, I have to admit that to some degree my obsessive attention to negative feedback is essentially narcissistic because it means I think I control the teaching and learning dynamic entirely—that a student’s learning, engagement, and even happiness are entirely my responsibility. When I am able to step back and look at my classroom in a broader perspective, I can see that I teach in a context that often breeds student dissatisfaction, entitlement, and a lack of interest—and this context is out of my direct control.
Nearly 20 years ago, Neil Postman warned in The End of Education that education was being replaced by “schooling,” a means whereby learning becomes deeply embedded in a capitalist structure that values knowledge only for its industrial utility. In other words, education is a means to an end—getting a job—rather than an ongoing process at the heart of culture.
It’s within this context that some students have come to see education as no more than a deliverable—one that they have paid for dearly. The fact that many students accept this paradigm is made evident every day in both their comments and behavior. For instance, some students may think that pedagogical deviation from hard facts and skills is simply a waste of time. Some may even go so far as to abdicate all responsibility for learning anything, because, after all, they’ve paid for it, and as practiced consumers they are used to getting what they want as long as they lay down the cash.
However, I am a teacher not only because I love learning for its own sake, but also because I also believe in the transformative power of education for both individuals and society. Consequently, some students and I may hold conflicting values, and this conflict can reveal itself in student resistance, hostility, or (in the worst cases) failure.
Teaching and learning is a process that takes place between people, and as such, all participants in that process have roles and responsibilities. I think we tend to know this intellectually, but our beliefs and behavior often ignore this knowledge.
I have decided to refashion my thinking around the problem of challenging feedback and difficult students and rightfully abdicate some responsibility by acknowledging my role and my limits. My job is to teach; it is the students’ job to learn—and I can’t make them if they don’t want to.
This doesn’t mean I will not do my best to teach well. It doesn’t mean that I will not reflect on my teaching, accept criticism, continue to learn about teaching, or work to make meaningful connections with my students. It does mean, however, that I will not abandon my values and provide customer service in the place of education to satisfy the wants of consumer culture. I think it will help me as a teacher to acknowledge that it’s not always my fault when a student is bored or confused or fails to succeed. And telling these students the truth will help them in the long run. It’s good to remind them that their mind-sets also affect classroom experiences and outcomes. To say clearly: “It’s not me, it’s you.”
Nicola Winstanley is program coordinator of media foundation at Humber College in Toronto.