the circular runner

Posts Tagged ‘pedagogy’

my heart is hardening, a step by step guide to burn-out….

In life, observations, teaching & education, Uncategorized on August 6, 2012 at 4:00 am


So here’s the scene and it’s not a pretty one.  I’m teaching a student the other night–a student who is schizophrenic, obese, homeless, and reeking of pot.  Though I would only use the word, loser, on myself. N. would probably make very few winner’s lists.  None of this matters to me.  My GED class is typically made up of students who vary widely, personally and academically.  N. is a special challenge.  I think her parents were or are profs. at Yale.  She is probably a genius; she can do Algebra and I bet she has an instinct for geometry, but she has these weird blocks when it comes to long division and fractions.  She gets how to do them, but she gets lost.  Partly, it’s the pot that she’s using to self-medicate herself with.  Partly, it’s the problem in her brain that makes her want to self-medicate.  I’m a pragmatist when it comes to teaching.  N. is an adult, and if she wants/needs to get high, I’m not going to scold her.  I usually just suggest that she “treat” herself after class.  She usually listens.

Like a lot of my students, attendance is not always consistent.  Again, I try to be pragmatic or am I being defeatist?  I wonder this when I encourage that at least they come once a week, or if not that, that they text me.  Usually, I find this works.  Make someone do something and rebellion is always the option.  Empower students by reminding them that they are adults and they always have a choice, and they usually come around.  Usually.

Now, do you sense it?  I’m putting it off. The description of my ugliness.  It’d been a couple weeks since N. had come to class.  No text.  Nothing.  And when she walked in, her voice way too loud for the small room, she asks if there are any snacks.  It’s not a bad question.  I usually do have snacks, but at that moment, I was annoyed by her.  I took it as another sign that this person is just not serious.  Maybe my face showed the disgust I was feeling, though I hope it didn’t.

N. eventually sits down and we begin, but not before I lay into her about her attendance and her not contacting me.  I tell her that especially with math, consistency is everything.  And then I tell her that she needs to reach out if she doesn’t show because I can’t keep teaching her the same thing.

Now, this isn’t really that ugly.  I’m saying something I’ve said to a lot of other students, but I know I’m being a little edgier than usual with N. because I’m annoyed–not with her, but with the job.  Earlier in the day, I had to deal with a young woman who is dyslexic and functionally illiterate; I had to eal with her mother, who yells at her daughter and distracts her when she’s trying to learn.  I had to deal with a co-worker who is half-angel and half-out-of-control raging asshole.  All of that’s ugliness, I think.  But with N. I try to focus on the fractions in front of us.  I try not to look at the clock, but everything in the room seems like it’s going too slow–N.’s mind, my empathy.  I want speed, though I don’t know where I’d go.

I’m thankful/saddened that at some point in the session, I see N.’s hands.  They are shaking.  She’s not doing well–worse than usual.  She’s hungry and she needs a cigarette.  So we stop math and she gives me her eating schedule, which is tied to food kitchens in town and Temple (she’s Jewish and goes to services for her soul and for the food.)

I’d like to say that this brought me back to a better place–that our talk made me realize I was being an ass, but the truth is that after I got her something to eat and a cheap (relatively speaking) pack of smokes, I got out of there.  To get home, I walk up a hill, and there was a part of me that felt like I was ascending a pit of despair and sadness.  Behind me was the hood; in front of me was my humble middle-class flat and my wife and baby boy.

Who am I to condescend to the people I try and teach or to their neighborhood?  I don’t know.  But for the first time since I started this job four years ago, I didn’t want to go back down the hill.  I wanted to stay in my flat and let the craziness and shit flow downhill.

I have no conclusion for this.  So, I’ll leave it at that.  Tomorrow’s another day.  Good night.


a teacher’s quandary: when’s the right time for tough love?

In life, observations, teaching & education, Uncategorized on June 14, 2011 at 9:19 am

teaching in the Mission is full of but's

I hate waking up early when I’m up late the night before.  (The fact that I’m always up late basically means I always hate getting up early.)  But this morning, I got my tired butt up so that I could take a student to her last exam of the GED.  This student can be, for lack of a better word, a piece of work.  She has cursed me out for helping her, she shows up to class often after partaking of her “medicine”.  (This being the Bay Area, medicine is code for pot.)  And though she can be sweet, she has some pretty radical mood shifts when faced with variables and radicals.

Still, I have love for this person because I feel like she’s one of those damaged people who just needs an extra hand.  This is why I was willing to get up and give her a ride, and why I have put up with her.  (Though I did kick her out one time when she was too much–even by her high standards.)

Because I know she is deathly scared of writing, and this morning, her exam required her to write an essay, I knew she needed some support.  I also should’ve known things weren’t going to work out when I called her to make sure she was up.  She was groggy and she was kind of annoyed, but I pushed on and told her to be ready.  When I got to her house, she was all set, but something told me to ask her if she had her ID.  (The state requires ID for her to get into the test.)  She said no, and then went back into the house and didn’t come back.  Minutes passed.  I called her, and she told me she couldn’t find her wallet and that she was mad.  Then the line went dead.

There was a not-so small part of me that wanted go up her door and give her a curse-out.  I wanted to tell her to stop being such a f*ck up.  She’s pushing forty.  She needs to get her life together.  I’m not paid to be her chauffeur, etc. etc.

I said none of these things, of course.  I drove off, went to a bakery near my house and bought an orange bun, which I will spend the evening having to run off.  Tomorrow or Friday, I will text her and remind her to come back to class.  I’ll also go sign her up for a make-up test, and she’ll take it in July and pass it.  And if you’re thinking that I’m being a dumb-dumb about this, and that if not yell, I should at least have a serious talk with her, I’d say I can see your point, but…

But sh*t happens, and anyone can misplace their wallet.

But I am her teacher, not her parent.  And as such, my job is to get her to achieve this elusive goal of finishing something–anything–she started.

But she actually has the following signature on her text messages: “motivate in 2011”, which means she knows she’s struggling, and piling on is not going to help.

But my anger is personal and a little selfish. Though I want her to pass so that she can move on, I also wanted to add her to my pass column so I can show my boss and my funders in City Hall that I run a great program.

But, but, but, but.

My life as a teacher of people who struggle to do what many of us take for granted is full of buts.  But (yes here is one more) it is full of joy and hope.  I like what I do–even when I have to get my tired butt (another but, but different) up out bed only to eat an overly-caloried piece of goodness.  Tough love sounds good.  It is sometimes necessary.  However, (note: I avoided yet another but) at least for me, it is a tool of last resort.

Leonard Nimoy, Death, and Education–There is a Connection

In observations, teaching & education, Uncategorized on June 22, 2010 at 8:05 pm

I should start by saying that this post was influenced by Mark over at the blog, Leaving Trails There was something heartening about reading about education in such a thoughtful way. I guess I thought I’d give it a go.

That said, we’re into the last week week of classes, and I decided to end my class on identity with readings about death–specifically, the funeral industry. I have a lot of reasons for doing this, but the most important, aside from the fact that I think how we choose to be celebrated in death says a lot about us in life, is that I also am wondering what it means that funerals have become a globalized industry–at least it is according to our readings. And guess what? It’s our fault. No longer are we content with the old-fashioned mom and pop funeral director. We want choices. We want our remains to be put in coffins that look like Formula-One race cars and we want urns that have the Star Trek insignia on it.

I will stop myself from saying, “beam me up, cruel world. My people have gone nuts.” However, I think we may need a little Vulcan reasoning here. Leonard Nimoy, where are you?

I will also fight the liberal (perhaps idealistically liberal) urge to decry globalization, standardization, and other -ations of all stripes that we see in every facet of our society. At the same time, I can’t help but see some parallels between the funeral business and the increasingly large education industry. In one of the readings for this week, Thomas Lynch, a poet and a funeral director, writes that the funeral business “relies more on trust, personal attention, and accountability.” I would say the same should be true of education. (I think I should mention that Lynch wrote this in Bodies in Motion and at Rest which was published in 2000. Ten years ago, he could still hope that the funeral business would remain as he describes it. It hasn’t. And, if I can make the parallel, neither has the education business (which shuldn’t be a business, if you ask me.)

Education, like dealing with death, is not and cannot be known for efficiency, at least not in the way that corporations require. I’m not saying that funeral directors and teachers should not be held to high standards. I AM saying that those standards have to serve people not profit.

Take, for example, the school I work for. Teachers here are required to call students who miss more than two days in a row, and then, we are to log those calls into a system that the school provides. This is ok. It’s not easy, but I understand the need to get involved with the students we serve who are easlily discouraged. The problem is that we are really judged more for whether or not we call than we are for the teaching we do for the students who actually show. Is a class run well by a teacher who tries different approaches to help her students? If so, great. If not, well, at least she makes the calls. The thinking here is that students who come are happy (or happy enough) so they won’t bolt and take their money with them. It’s those others–the students who we can’t get to come to class that we have to go after. We need them–we need their money.

It’s true that no one says any of this. But the fact that so much support is given to the teacher who keeps students happy and not to the teacher who keeps them thinking is a sign that what I’m saying here is not completely off. This is the corporate way. Calls to the student can be counted. Students kept happy by not being babied and not challenged, check. (Yes, as in a bank check.) The harder thing to quantify is the teacher trying to get a student to improve. Education is not easy. Students may quit if they are pushed too hard, and if they are allowed to show or not show as other students are in most colleges. That’s what the corporation tells us without telling us, so we teachers either buck the system and hope our students will understand that challenge is good, or we hide behind mediocrity and make our calls and keep our students happy in a facile way.

Reading this over, I fear that I may have committed a rhetorical faux pas that I wouldn’t excuse from my students. I started off this post with one intention and then went away and I’m not sure there’s a connection. Initially, I was doing my usual weekly update on my advanced class, and then I swerved away, possibly driving off a cliff with sense at my side. The only connection I can offer (besides the corporate need for efficient profit) is that this quarter may mark the death of me as a teacher–at least in this incarnation. I love to teach. I do. But do I want to keep doing it in this environment? The brave side of me tells the other part of me that the thing to do is to persevere. They (my bosses) can take me out if they want to, but they (like a funeral director) are going to have to carry me out first. The other side of me says I should move on–do the easy thing (not that going to an office job is easy, which is what I might have to do since California schools are not hiring).

Let’s see what happens. At least I’m not dead.

Why I Love the Obama-No Drama Class…

In observations, teaching & education, Uncategorized on June 17, 2010 at 11:44 am

Today is the one day a quarter that I am both excited and scared to come to class. It’s the day when my classes have to turn in their big research papers. Usually, I get up in the morning and am cringing when I check my phone. I know I am going to find a ton of texts asking, pleading, and begging for extensions. I never grant them. I am really a relaxed instructor, and for other papers, if a person tells me ahead of time, I let him turn his work in late. But with the research paper, I tell my students from the beginning that this is it. There are no exceptions.

Holding this line goes against the grain–at least it does at this school. As I’ve mentioned before, I teach at a for-profit community college, what used to be called a career college and before that, a vocational school. (People around here don’t use the V-word.) Anyway, because of our for-profit status, we’re dealing with a numbers game. No one kids themselves about that. The recruiters here (some of the teachers call them “the salespeople”) go out and promise the moon to potential students who for myriad reasons have not been in school or did poorly there and think they should come back. My point in bringing this up is that so many of our students would not be in college if wasn’t for the salespeople. At one level, this is a good thing. As the president of the college always says at graduations, we open up doors for people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend college. But at another level, it presents difficulties.

A lot of the students I have would not survive in a public community college. Many don’t survive our program. They are sick and can’t come to class; they are too poor to afford decent transportation; they are in trouble with the law and will not be able to come to class because a judge has put them back in jail. But they come because the salespeople convince them that they should–that an education will change their lives. I agree with this premise in general, but not for the reasons that the salespeople are giving out.

Most of my students come here with the promise of a better future, but they aren’t prepared for the painful present full of term papers and exams. The biggest problem is that because of the salespeople, their view of education is strictly utilitarian in the most severe sense of the word. This is true for many students in all kinds of institutions, but I think the people who struggle through more traditional programs have internalized (to varying degrees) college culture, by which I mean, they have some clue why teachers get upset at papers written at the last minute. They know that they are part of a culture and that culture has rules. They may choose to break those rules, but they realize that the rules are there.

The real difference is that even poor students at four-year schools have a clue that what they’re doing is not acceptable. A lot of the students in front of me truly lack that sense. They’re not dumb–not by a long shot. They just have bigger issues in their lives that keep them busy and worried. School is not real life for some of them. The consequences are not as harsh as they are outside these walls.

All of this to say, I don’t want to baby my students by not being strict about deadlines, but it is my fear that if pushed too hard, if given too many strict rules right out of the gate, they will become dicouraged. It’s one of the giant paradoxes of this place: I deal with some hardened street people here, and yet inside, many are as vulnerable as little children.

So, imagine my delight this morning when I come to school with no messages on my phone and a class that is turning their assignments in. One deadline is enough, I think. This is an Obama-No Drama moment!! Awesome!


In teaching & education, Uncategorized on June 10, 2010 at 1:43 pm

I’m sitting here with an intro English class. It’s sunny outside, so attendance is not great and on top of that, we’re coming to the end of the quarter. We’ve done all of the requirements, so I decided to make us do a fun assignment. They had to take a character in a story they read and then spin off another story from there. I’m trying to get these guys to be able to tell a story–a complete story with the classical structure of problem and resolution. Honestly, I didn’t think the lesson would go over very well, but it has. They were sleepy and I could tell they didn’t want to be here, but once we sat down and started outlining their stories, they came alive.

Stories, I know, are the best way to teach lessons, but I think they might also help people learn lessons as well. I’m wondering if grammar lessons would work better if people learned as they came up with stories. I know there’s a reason why we teach the standard compare and contrast and cause and effect essays, but there might be something to teaching in other more lively ways.

What do you think?

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