My Teaching Best—What’s It Look Like?

Last Thursday around noon thirty, teaching the first year writing seminar on the second floor of the Admin Building, I was flat out teaching my arse off. Had you been visiting this is what you would have seen.

Sixteen* first year students and I sit around computer tables arranged in a large rectangle. Eight of them are presenting papers they’ve just written comparing and contrasting ancient Greek notions of love with those most often depicted in Western popular culture. More specifically, they have to explain whether they agree or disagree with Roman Krzarnic when he writes:

“The idea of passionate, romantic love that has emerged in the West over the past millennium is one of our most destructive cultural inheritances. This is because the main aspiration—the discovery of a soulmate—is virtually impossible to achieve in reality. We can spend years searching for that elusive person who will satisfy all our emotional needs and sexual desires, who will provide us with friendship and self-confidence, comfort and laughter, stimulate our minds and share our dreams. We imagine somebody out there in the amorous ether who is our missing other half, and who will make us feel complete if only we can fuse our being with theirs in the sublime union of romantic love. Our hopes are fed by an industry of Hollywood screen romances and an overload of pulp fiction peddling this mythology. The message is replicated by the worldwide army of consultants who advertise their ability to help you ‘find your perfect match’. In a survey of single Americans in their twenties, 94 percent agreed that ‘when you marry you want your spouse to be your soulmate, first and foremost.’ The unfortunate truth is that the myth of romantic love has gradually captured the varieties of love that existed in the past, absorbing them into a monolithic vision.”

After the fourth presentation, I pause to ask if anyone has questions or comments for the first four authors. I wait. Eventually Lauren starts things rolling:

L: So Christie you think God has created one person, a special soulmate for you. So does that mean you wouldn’t commit to anyone that wasn’t a Christian?

C: Yes, I want to be with someone like me, someone with a sincere, foundational faith.

L: But what if you meet someone with similar values? That wouldn’t be sufficient? Isn’t that kind of limiting?

C: No. I think I’m going to end up being a missionary in a developing country so it will be important for my partner to be equally as excited about that. We’ll need that shared foundation.

Sean: Yeah, I feel similarly to Lauren. I want a partner who is not just physically beautiful, but spiritually too. Spiritual beauty means she’ll have an intense love of God as reflected in her words and actions. For me, God should be at the center of our relationship because through God, our marriage will flourish in the purest way possible. While I don’t expect to have everything in common with her, I suspect that there is a girl in the world who is destined to be with me.

Others jumped in. The more secular students respectfully and smartly challenged the committed Christians. I didn’t say anything. Even if I had wanted to, I don’t know if they would’ve let me. I was in the teaching zone because they had forgotten I was there.

Decker Walker nailed it when he wrote, “The educative effect is greater when students do something than when something is done to them.” Teachers are almost always doing things to students. Especially interrupting their thinking by filling every quiet moment with more words. Always more words.

If you were visiting last Thursday you probably wouldn’t have realized I was in the zone because of conventional wisdom about teaching excellence. In fact, you probably would’ve wondered when was I going to assert myself and start earning my salary.

But leading discussions is like flying kites. Sometimes you have to let out the string. I let out the string last Thursday at noon thirty and then a few students grabbed the spool. It was a great discussion because it was theirs. They didn’t need an intermediary. They can read, think, write, and then talk about their ideas all by themselves. That was the day’s most important lesson.

* “Sixteen students,” my public school teaching friends just said to themselves, “shit, anyone could kill it with sixteen students!”

Delusions of Grandeur

During faculty workshops, like last weeks, I sometimes get a feeling that my university colleagues think they’re better than high school teachers. Smarter. More rigorous. Better teachers more generally.

Last week nothing explicit was said by any particular person, it’s just a vibe, and maybe I’m off-base. A handout from our university’s Academic Assistance Center contributed to this sensibility. Titled, “High School vs PLU”, it lists about 30 differences. Some value neutral, “you spend 30 hours a week in class” versus “you spend about 15 hours a week in class” and some that hint at hierarchy, “makeup tests are easily available-h.s.” versus “makeup tests are seldom an option-uni” or “tests ask you to give back facts-h.s.” versus “exams require analysis and synthesis as well as facts-uni”.

The lists are presented as factual, but many of the assertions could be challenged. Newsflash—some university professors use multiple choice exams that emphasize factual recall and some high school teachers require students to analyze and synthesize content.

Two points of distinction under “High School Teachers” and “PLU Faculty” deserve special attention. High school teachers “teach to the intellectual middle of the class” and “write key info on board or give handouts”. PLU faculty “teach at a more challenging level” and “expect you to figure out what’s important, what you need to do”.

I’d put it differently. Secondary teachers work hard to adapt their teaching to their students’ varied learning styles. They accept the burden of “differentiating instruction” or “individualizing the curriculum”. University teachers expect students to adapt to their one or two preferred methods of instruction. Differentiating instruction is more logical and more challenging, and yet, we hold university professors in higher regard. Why is that? Is it because they completed some more coursework and wrote a dissertation that few outside their committee ever read?

The truth of the matter is elementary, middle, and high school teachers are woefully unappreciated by university professors and the public more generally. Compared to university faculty, they teach many more students, many more hours a day and week, for many more days a year. And they receive little to no support for scholarship or professional travel. And they have to work their magic with legions of parents, some who truly believe they have it out for their children. And more and more of the public—the same public that too often delegates both educating and parenting to them—think they have too much job security and too many guaranteed benefits. And to top it all off, the students are compelled to attend so there’s a much, much wider continuum of motivation.

Throughout my career in both secondary education and higher ed, I’ve been fortunate to work beside some outstanding teachers. After periods of adjustment, I suspect the best high school teachers I know would flourish at the university level and many of the best university teachers I know would probably do okay at the K-12 level.

Apart from job swapping, I’m not sure what it will take for university faculty to demonstrate greater understanding, humility, and respect when it comes to their skilled, smart, hardworking, unappreciated K-12 brethren.