October 24th, 2011

Listen to the Message as You Talk about Your Students

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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.