Sunday, November 17, 2013

Pep Talk for the Teachers

Welcome to the crunch time.  

If you are like me, you too might be wondering: How am I going to finish this semester?   

This happens to me most every semester. I start off strong, hopeful, excited (possibly deluded), and about 5 weeks from the end, I start to wonder what have I done? I am tired, overwhelmed and worried that time is running out.  Plus, my students are tired, overwhelmed and worried that time is running out.  A clear recipe for disaster.

I started explaining to my students the nature of an instructor's thinking process.

Optimistic Teacher experience:
Weeks 1-4  The teacher is filled with hope. She feels patient when students stumble because it is the beginning of the semester and they are "still learning the ropes," and everyone needs a break now and again when they are learning.

Week 5-9 The teacher is in the meat of the content, tons of information is coming out and the students are still grasping at straws trying to figure out what is expected of them.  Patience it still present because the students still have a chance to catch up!

Week 10-13 The teacher is feeling the pressure. The students need to learn this! Time is running out!  Patience is running thin.  The students should know better at this point.  

Week 14-18 The teacher is disappointed.  The students are making the same mistakes and the teacher’s patience has run out. Have they learned anything?  There is no more time to save this ship. Despondency hits.

Combine that with the Struggling Student experience:

Week 1-4 The student is filled with hope, ready for a fresh start.  The teacher is so nice and so patient.  I can do this!

Week 5-9  The student is settling in, but this is way more work than expected. But, it's still the beginning of the semester! What?!?  Time for midterms?!? We just started school! I haven’t studied. But, it is ok, I can make it up.

Week 10-13 The student is tired. The student has a hard time focusing because they caught a cold, and they have so much to do, they don’t know where to start.  Mountains of homework have piled up and the teacher is so demanding! She has no patience anymore! I am stuck!

Week 14-18 The student notices just how far behind they have gotten.  This is serious! They go to the teacher in hopes of figuring out how to put a semester’s worth of learning into 4 weeks.  She explains that is not how it works, and: no, she will not give you the notes from the lectures.  Student: I am screwed. The world is against me.

Somehow, I think I can change the nature of the student/teacher experience. But, I am realizing that maybe that is simply the inherent nature of the student teacher experience. 
But, the reality is that for every difficult student there are actually 10 lovely students who have learned so much!  Just this week I received this note from a Modern I student’s journal entry:

“Taking a dance class has completely changed my views on the activity of dancing, as a whole. "

However, we as humans are biologically build to remember and focus on the challenges. It is part of our survival biology. So, it is easy to forget the success of the many, when faced with the struggle of a few.  It is particularly hard for me to accept that students have the right to fail. I want them to succeed so badly that I forget that I actually have NO control over their choice making.  Those who want to learn will, and those who haven’t put in the effort will not.  No amount of convincing will change it.

And, remember that we are doing something right. We do care. We have given them tools.  We have shared information.  And, some have learned lessons that have nothing to do with the content, but have everything to do with their future lives. 

To all teachers: This is YOUR pep talk.  We give pep talks all the time, but around this time, it is we who need a little uplift to keep us in good spirits. 

Learning takes time. And, a semester will never be enough time to learn it all.  And, that is ok.  Students will struggle because humans will struggle. My Zen teacher reminded me today that “We are all ordinary.”  No one is better or worse. No one is closer to enlightenment than another.  We are all simply ordinary.  We learn the lessons as they come to us and as we need to learn them. Students and teachers: we are all learning life. 

As instructors we get to be reminded of this every semester. 

Learn and let learn.


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