October 24th, 2011

Listen to the Message as You Talk about Your Students


I must confess I still enjoy catalog shopping. I know how that dates me but at the end of the day, the last thing I want to curl up in bed with is my laptop. I particularly enjoy catalogs that include recipes. The King Arthur Flour catalog and Penzeys Spices are favorites. The fall 2011 Penzeys’ catalog pays special tribute to teachers because, company founder and owner Bill Penzey says, teachers aren’t feeling a lot of respect these days and they are being inappropriately blamed for our economic woes when, in fact, they do more to build the economy than anyone else. “Teachers are strong people, but their jobs are hard and have a way of using up that strength,” he writes.

Penzeys’ customers share recipes and insights, which are interspersed among descriptions of the various spices offered for sale. In this catalog, teachers are sharing their ideas and favorite recipes using Penzeys Spices. I loved this comment, offered by Shayna Kessel, a young community college teacher in Los Angeles. “The students I teach in the community college are, in general, hard workers, intellectually curious and hungry to learn. They want to do well and they give me their best effort. Some of my students absolutely blow me away with their thinking and writing. All of my students have enormous potential and watching them progress over the course or a semester of year is incredibly satisfying.”

The comment stands in such stark contrast to the many and repeated complaints frequently leveled against today’s college students. Many of those complaints are likely legitimate. College students today are not easy to teach and they are probably harder to teach today than when college was only for the best and the brightest. I also know that teachers occasionally need to vent. Students can do preposterous things. They can bring teachers to the points of frustration and exasperation. Bill Penzey is right: Teaching is hard work and strength sapping.

But excessive complaining about students solves little and creates its own set of problems. It compromises our beliefs in students’ abilities to learn and our abilities to teach. If you end up thinking that the students in your classroom aren’t likely to succeed, don’t have the necessary amount of intellectual muscle or are beset with some other character flaw, then what’s the point of putting a lot of effort into the teaching? Losing faith in students’ ability to learn stands right beside losing faith in our ability to teach. I sometimes hear in those endless complaints about students a teacher’s thinly veiled cry for help.

True enough, some students aren’t going to succeed and some refuse to exercise what intellectual muscle they have, but I think there are good reasons to deal with this reality only in the abstract. It is equally true that no teacher (even those teaching at strongly religious institutions) has divine insight into which students will and won’t succeed. Add to that the litany of uplifting tales offered by the many students who beat the odds and credit the teacher who believed in them, and cared about them, and how that made all the difference.

I suspect we all know this, but I’d like to challenge each of us to listen to what we hear ourselves and others saying about students today, this week and the rest of the semester. Are a disproportionate number of those comments negative? How many are positive affirmations like the one Professor Kessel shared? I’m not suggesting we be less than honest with ourselves and others about how challenging our students are to teach, but I am strongly asserting that what we think and believe about students directly affects how we teach them and how they learn. Our job is to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Please use the comment box to briefly share an amazing student accomplishment or to offer something positive you believe about your students. We regularly address lots of student problems and issues in the blog and in conversations with colleagues. It is appropriate that we also highlight what we see in them that motivates us to persevere with passion.

  • Jack Frost

    Bull shit. You can still complain about students and be a good teacher.

    • NeuroJoe

      That's not the point. The point of the column is that if we empathize with our students a little bit, get into their brains and crawl around a little bit, we may become *better* teachers than we already are.

  • Dr. Shelia Kyle

    I have been a nurse educator for many years and have found that most students want to learn. There are a few who do not want to learn and really do sap your energy. I believe that we do not hear enough about the young people who are kind and compassionate and have the traits that we want them to have. I have had many students who are the first in their families to graduate from college- it is so rewarding to see the proud they have when they do graduate and get that first job.

  • Jerry LePage

    Back before the Internet, I had a student who got himself into a bit of trouble and spent two years in prison. We decided to try and continue his education and he completed two courses with me through the mail (remember, pre-Internet). He completed his sentence and later went on to get a Masters degree in chemistry. He's one of the thousands of reasons that I continue to teach after I've retired.
    Also, I hope you are recycling all those catalogs when you are done with them.
    Jerry LePage
    Professor of Mathematics
    Bristol Community College

  • Faye Lesht

    A student-led inquiry into analyzing Likert-type data as part of the capstone (online master's degree program) I'm teaching this term has been refreshing albeit unexpected. One student in particular went way beyond the course requirements and delved deeply into a controversy on how such data should/could be analyzed. This led to further discussion/questioning on the part of other students as well as the instructor. In the end, we noticed there wasn't one "right" answer. The process of getting to that point with the group has been fascinating.

  • Tom

    Teaching in Healthcare requires we present the most positive example of a professional member in the Healthcare community. Perhaps some students lack the intellectual horsepower to advance far in mediciine, but it does not mean they cannot make a meaningful contribution. To make that decision for them makes us the worst aspect in education…I am better than you. I will take a staff of hard working, integrity driven C students any day over a single "me first" A student.
    I raise the bar every day with my students and 99 times out of 100 they reach for that bar of excellence. When we put ourselves before our students, who loses?

  • Carl Oscar

    Jack Frost, you're wrong and probably need an attitude adjustment. Trying to be a "good teacher" and complaining about students, publicly and loudly complaining about students, leads the instructor to undervalue students' actual abilities and overvalue their own abilities. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Students are not a monolithic block. Not all bad, not all good. Not every student in every class earns an A. Not every student in every class lives up to her potential. But every human being is curious – until something stifles that curiosity. I don't want that stifling to be my fault.

  • Betsy Ott

    You can complain about students, and still be a good teacher. It requires more than complaining, though – if helps if you can analyze the substance of your complaints, and act to improve the situation. While it's true that excessive complaining can contribute to a problem, a certain amount of complaining (particularly to peers that can help you find a solution) does not indicate that someone is a bad teacher. Not all complaining is necessarily public, or loud, or excessive.

  • John Thompson

    Over my last five years of teaching , I was inspired and challenged by Bill Perry’s response and perspective about students who came to talk with him: “What do you mean, ‘How can I stand listening all day to students’ problems?’ I don’t listen to their problems; I listen to their courage.” Harvard Gazette Archives. Memorial Minute: William Graves Perry Jr., May 27, 1999.

  • Martha

    It's interesting that the example the author used was a community college instructor. I think students in community colleges are, for the most part, great because they've made the decision to go to school. They are adults who are motivated to learn because it will help them directly in their careers. For teachers of students required to go to school, i.e. high school teachers, it's a whole different dynamic and a much bigger challenge to find the good in students. The "good" is there, but it's hidden under many more layers of indifference, arrogance, entitlement and just old-fashioned apathy, conditions brought about by years of test preparation and rote learning. Teachers in public school do complain, not so much about students but about the system that prevents them from teaching effectively and in a constructivist manner.

  • Mick Charney

    To paraphrase Art Linkletter ('member him?), students WILL say and do the darnedest things. We have to come to expect that because they're still growing. Model good behaviors (academically and otherwise), don't lose your sense of humor, but also don't ridicule or mock those students who do present problems else you will lose the respect of the entire class. Their attitudes can turn so quickly;and once you've lost them, it's exceedingly hard to get them back because, like elephants, they have long memories. Their networks and grapevines are immense. Think long-term; what kind of legacy do you want to leave?

  • Lynda Williams

    Kudos to Ling, one of my students in my intro to web dev course, who took the option of doing a presentation on a topic of interest to her instead of the homework assignment she had already mastered. Whenever I have designed a course to let students escape "make work" in favor of harder work that is more personally satisfying, there are always about 10% of them who will go for it and delight me.

  • The best book I ever found on teaching was a skinny little one by Nick Tingle, (http://www.writing.ucsb.edu/faculty/tingle/index.htm) called Self Development and College Writing. Nick understood something I had never been able to grasp – how much push and pull – resistance to change and self-confidence vs. self-esteem goes into teaching writing. Rather than butcher his words worse though, I refer you to the pages of this tiny book in which I found answers to my struggle to shape the most vulnerable kids into writers. I succeeded somewhere along the line, even though I am no longer teaching. I could be, would be, long to be, but the powers that be won't pay me to lay my heart down day after day alongside those young people who walk into a classroom in order to be forced into shame from their perceived inadequacies. It's a tragic thing that is happening in classrooms all across the country. How we can expect students to go from high school to college without the assistance of the most dedicated teachers we can find I do not know.

  • Edwina

    Teaching at a University , I feel I owe it to society to make the best of every student, and enable them the add value to the world they enter when they graduate. I set them challenges which they think are way out of reach but with some mutual enthusiasm , creativity and a bit of respect & discipline, many achieve their personal best. Sure I won't 'turn' them all into 'Lean Mean fighting machines' but my strap line is… '" I want to maximise your strengths and help you manage your weaknesses. "
    If I manage to do that I feel it is all worthwhile. I teach entrepreneurship and I have many successful students who either set up their own business or get jobs working for other entrepreneruial firms. As Galileo once said…'You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself.'

  • As Einstein said, "I do not teach. I only provide the resources to learn." I am a nurse educator and have had the joy of helping students overcome obstacles both personal and academic to enable them to go on and be the best nurses. I am fortunate that I get to know each of my students personally and that to me is the key to helping them reach self-actualization. I have some students that are not meant to be nurses and the process seems to eliminate them or they come to that realization, but I have this absolutely belief that if as an instructor I can find that piece that will help the student put all the pieces together they will find where they fit in the scheme of things. I am here to inspire, not degrade. I am here to support, not diminish. I am here to find your strengths, not use your weaknesses as a weapon against you. I am here because someone else believed in me. For more about me and my philosophy, or if you just want to rock out on education: Go to http://johnbrannen.weebly.com/
    PS: Laughter is the best medicine.

  • Lea McCain

    I am a Dental Assistant Instructor in an Allied Health College. We should lead by praise and example. Adult Learners are unlike any students that you will ever have. I am changing lives and making a difference everyday in my career field and my world. Mrs. McCain, BS,CDA, EFDA

  • Jeanne Andersen

    I am an instructor in a criminal justice program and I believe that one of the most important things I can do for my students is to be supportive and acknowledge their skills and abilities, whether academic or personal. So many of these students seem to have relatively low self esteem, particularly with respect to school, that even a few kind words or some token acknowledgement of an achievement can really be encouraging for them. I hope that I can teach them something about the subjects that I love so much, but I'll be satisfied just to make them feel better about themselves because they all have something positive to contribute to the world and it would be tragic if they never realized it.

  • Sidney Engle

    I have heard it said and found it to be true: all students want to do well. Treat them fairly and your desire to complain will diminish.

  • Salim Bastaki

    I found in my years of teaching, especially in problem based learning, that students do take pains to search for the answer to the problem. Their enthusiam is a treat. You may have one or two who are a bit quiet but in general most want to learn and achieve something in life. Teachers do moan though

  • Today's students have wonderful gifts and want to learn, but I think they are bored with traditional methods. I think we are challenged to understand them and find new and creative ways to reach them.

  • Bill Fehl

    We have some amazing students at Sherman College of Chiropractic. They need little encouragement to continue but like all of us they do need encouragement. Do you encourage or discourage? I consider student interactions to be alot like golf fairways, some are very narrow and punish and discourage the golfer whose skills are not excellent. Others are wider and more generous and encourage the golfer to continue developing their skills. Encouragement is not grade inflation or rewarding less than appropriate effort however. Are you a wider or narrower fairway?

  • A recent student integrity issue has taken a toll on my thoughts about the honesty and values of today's college youth, but you are absolutely right that the majority are successful and hungry for knowledge, and ALL students need to be given our continual encouraging energy. It is my hope that the students that make mistakes can be brought around with the right effort and attitude, if they so desire. Thank you for this timely reminder that teachers don't determine which students will be successful, but teachers CAN choose to work to help them all be so.

  • Tim Michael

    I contend that we aren't teaching for the lazy or ignorant, but for the ones who want to learn. That number waxes and wanes, and has done so since the time of Ancient Greece.

    My frustration isn't with students, usually, but with administrators who make it harder and harder to hold to standards of academic rigor. I've heard nightmare tales about enrollment standards at my competitor institutions that really call into question the future of higher ed.

    I'm sure that college is different from back when only the best and brightest were accepted, but that was a long, long time ago. I remember having to live with brisk standards 30 years ago, as a student, and reconciling that with the reasons we were there in the first place. We weren't necessarily the best and brightest, but we were the hardest working. In fact, many of us back then were "non-traditional" students, or "first-generation" students, and I distinctly remember no one cutting us any slack for those designations. It was expected that we would work hard or flunk out. Those were the choices.

    Unfortunately, we've move away from those choices over the years in many fields, and also in the first two years of an undergrad degree in general I think. It was this way 20 years ago when I started teaching, but it is even worse today. The "Precious Snowflake" phenom is pervasive.

    Regardless, I refuse to be distracted by that. Our best students, and our Cinderella stories, are just as good as ever, and they all deserve the same opportunity to do well and learn and contribute to their community. I think many of the profs of my generation still labor away under this set of assumptions.

  • ELC

    Teaching is often a thankless profession, yet we voluntarily placed ourselves in that environment. I absolutely love teaching students, specifically middle and high school students. There are many days when students bring little to the education table. It is not only my job to educate children; it's my passion. Think about the positive impact that teachers can make in the life of a child. I simply cannot see how anyone can honestly believe he or she can see something positive out of complaining about students. I've tried to support colleagues who struggle with students. My efforts are not always well received. This thing called teaching can actually work if we, the teachers, unite as the students do and seek solutions instead of accepting defeat.