December 3rd, 2014

Why We Believe in Our Students, a Timely Reminder

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For most of us, it’s that time of the semester when we are least likely to think positively about students. We’re tired, they’re tired, and there are still the proverbial miles to go. Some students have finally figured out they’re in trouble in the course, but none of their difficulties derive from anything they’ve done (or haven’t done), or so they think. Others remain lost in a thick fog that obscures even very fundamental course content. Passivity is the default mode for what feels like an increasingly large group. If there’s any lull in the action, they settle back, quickly finding their way to places of mental relaxation.

An exaggeration, perhaps, but it’s easy to lose faith in students when so many of them seem bent on making poor decisions about learning, which is why we may need a post that reminds us how much all students need teachers who believe in them.

There’s a lovely commentary by Paul Corrigan in College Teaching that affirms all the reasons to believe in students. He started his teaching career believing, as most of us do, that students are capable of great learning, and so he set high standards and put students in charge. “The central writing project for my first-year composition course asked students to present and develop their own thinking on a topic while engaging primary and secondary sources. I left the parameters and possibilities wide open.” (p. 127) The seasoned veterans among us can imagine how well beginning students handled that assignment.

Corrigan continues that, although right about the ability of students to learn, he missed “that we also have to respect where the students are presently when they come into our classrooms. We have to embrace them in all their academic inadequacies including their lack of motivation.” (p. 127) His assignment gave students the opportunity to fly. A lot of them of them had just started to flap their wings. A few could make it to the nearest branch and even fewer could soar to the heights of that assignment.

Teachers need to go to where students are, and then lead the way to where they need to be. Corrigan revised his assignments. Now if he wants students to write about the environment, instead of an open-ended admonition to tell him what they think, he comes to class with a concrete example.

San Francisco has banned single-use plastic bags. “Is the law going too far? Why or why not? What is going too far? What’s not going far enough? And who should get to decide?” (p. 128)

Students quickly write their responses. Then they talk about them and that gets their thinking processes started. It is less ambitious than the earlier approach, but now Corrigan has everyone flapping their wings with ideas and feeling motivated to fly.

I was reminded of another powerful favorite piece that recounts a new teacher’s journey from extraordinarily high expectations to more realistic goals for his teaching and students’ learning. K. L. Sandstrom aspired to prepare students “for active and socially responsible citizenship” (p. 526), wanting to enhance their “abilities to understand and participate effectively in the decision-making processes that affect their lives.” (pp. 525-6) He saw his work as a teacher contributing “to the construction of a more humane world.” His first teaching experiences were deeply disappointing. “The most vexing issue I faced as a beginning teacher was how to sustain a sense of hope.” (p. 526)

Haven’t we all found ourselves in that place of despair? We climb out by pulling ourselves up with more realistic understandings of what students and we can accomplish. For Sandstrom it was a growing appreciation of “small accomplishments” — seeing a student fall in love with an idea, gain an insight, ask a provocative question, or look at the world in a different way. There will always be some students who disappoint us, vex us, and make us glad that courses have endings. But others will amaze us. So, maybe that student arguing for three more points he doesn’t really deserve will someday exceed our highest expectations, probably not, but he needs a teacher who responds believing that’s a possibility.

References: Corrigan, P. T. “How I Came to Understand That My Students Would Need Training Wings in Order to Learn to Fly.” College Teaching, 2011 59 (4), 127-128.

Sandstrom, K. L. “Embracing Modest Hopes: Lessons from the Beginning of a Teaching Journey.” In B. A. Pescosolido and R. Aminzade, (eds.), The Social Worlds of Higher Education. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 1999.

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