Misunderestimating My Students

Been out-of-sorts at work lately. The technical term is “professional funk” or PF. I’m disillusioned with the direction K-12 and teacher education are going and I feel disconnected from too many of my colleagues. As a result, I’m putting more time and energy in my non-work life.

This semester even my teaching seemed a bit off kilter. Classes are organic, constantly shifting entities. I’ve learned lot about teaching over the decades, things that increase the odds of me having success, but when students know and like one another and decide to engage with the content, it’s easy to create positive momentum, and like an orchestra conductor, direct a successful class. By “success” I mean students learn challenging content and skills they value while enjoying the process.

Similarly, when students don’t know one another and go through the motions, it can be a semester-long uphill battle to create positive momentum and an enjoyable, successful class. This semester my first year writing seminar was of the uphill variety. Even mid-semester, when I’d arrive right before class, everyone often sat waiting in complete silence. Class discussions were lopsided, with the same half of the class doing all of the work. Their initial writing assignments revealed a few strong writers and more than normal weak ones.

I didn’t dwell on my PF and kept on keeping on. It took longer than normal to create rapport and I never felt that we truly clicked. Did they like my amazingly clever short stories about my first year college daughter like the time her high school science teacher accidentally lit her dress on fire? Was that muted chuckle out of politeness? To make matters worse, a few of them couldn’t believe the marks I gave them on their first papers and obsessed about grades all semester.

All in all, I didn’t feel too successful especially when late in the semester one of the more energetic students said “I have to talk to you after class.” Modern College Student texts, she doesn’t talk, especially face-to-face with her professor, so I looked forward to learning what was on her mind. “You talked too much during class today. I didn’t feel listened to. It’s like you said at the beginning of the semester, good discussions require active listening otherwise some people give up. Momentary silence is okay.”

“Thanks for taking the initiative to call me on that,” I replied. “I appreciate it and I apologize. I’ll try to do better in the discussion or two we have left.” Simultaneously, I thought, “Why don’t you just take this letter opener and jam it into my heart and put me out my misery.” I pride myself on being a very good discussion leader, and on this day, I couldn’t even hang my hat on that.

Normally, teaching is the best antidote for PF. Interacting with students in the classroom cancels out mind numbing faculty meetings, difficult to work with colleagues, and university politics, but this semester I had a particularly resistant strain.

Then I read my writing students final essays.

Suffice to say, to borrow from W, I “misunderestimated” them. They found the course both interesting and helpful.

Here are two examples in their own words, one from the only student courageous enough to get up in my grill and critique my teaching in person.

• An excellent result of this course is that I enjoy writing again. When I was in elementary school, there was nothing I enjoyed more than composing. By the time I was in high school essays had become a chore. Luckily, this course has altered that attitude. Maybe it is a product of the confidence or maybe it’s because I enjoy the course theme, but I enjoy writing again. Not only have I learned about education from this course, I have learned about myself and I now know that I am capable of accomplishing more than I would have ever imagined.

     • Beginning the semester, I wasn’t convinced that my voice rang through my writing. I was effective, but not creative. In hindsight, I believe this was due to a lack of confidence in my own ideas. I really related to Frank McCourt, author of Teacher Man, his autobiography of his teaching career in New York City. While Frank was slowly developing confidence in the classroom, I was becoming sure in my own convictions, abilities, and ideas. This growth may not be evident to my professor or classmates in my writing, but I believe it was evident in our class discussions. I never feared speaking initially, but rather had trouble defending my ideas when challenged. I remember during one of our first discussions on Educating Esmé, the class was disputing Esmé’s obligation to respect authority. I was raised to believe that respect for authority is implicit, but many students disagreed with my point of view. I took their criticism personally and ceased defending myself. Over the last fifteen weeks, I have become more confident expressing and supporting my opinions. Now, I am really thankful for a classroom of diverse, opinionated students who tested my beliefs. This external confrontation led to an internal cultivation of character and confidence. This new found voice may not yet be obvious in my writing, but I hope to continue to nurture it. 

I’m glad I misunderestimated how the class went.

Their papers were a moving reminder of how fortunate I am to have a job that affords me the opportunity to make a positive difference in young people’s lives.

3 thoughts on “Misunderestimating My Students

  1. You are a credit to your profession Ron. If you’re not being as hard on yourself as your critics are then perhaps the time has come to change careers. Glad you’re there for those kids and apparently so are they.

  2. You rock, Ron. You never know what grows when you plant the seeds. I’m sorry that you are not feeling connected with the colleagues. I can relate. Similar feelings with the people “upstairs” in my district.

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