Looking for What’s Wrong

I was listening to the Teach Better podcast this weekend (episode #20, if you’re curious), and there was a comment that I don’t think I agree with (for the record, there was a lot of good stuff on there, as well; this one comment just jumped out at me).  One of the hosts said that there’s not a difference between great teachers and bad teachers in that they both know something is wrong or isn’t working in their classes; the difference is what they do about that knowledge.

I don’t think that’s true.  The real difference is that bad teachers often don’t know something is wrong or isn’t working at all.  They continue doing what they’re doing without any kind of reflection or knowledge.

There are two ways this lack of recognition shows up.  First, there are the teachers who blame the students or the system.  If students don’t do well in their classes or don’t take them at all or give them low course evaluations, they blame someone outside of themselves.  They argue that students today just don’t care or that their courses are too demanding for students (which is why they avoid them) or other professors focus on fun (which is why students take them) or the course evaluations are unreliable.  What they don’t do is try to understand what might not be working in their classes.

Those teachers don’t worry me too much, as it’s usually quite evident to everyone that they’re not good teachers.  Students know enough to try to dodge their classes, and most of us don’t have to deal with their complaining on a regular basis.  We can focus on our classes and go on with life.

The second situation is much more problematic to me.  In this case, professors believe their classes are just fine.  Students do well on their exams and/or give them positive course evaluations.  They’re getting no negative feedback; in fact, they are often praised as being good teachers.  However, they never change their classes or try to improve their teaching, taking the approach of “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”

For example, I once worked with a professor was seen as a great lecturer.  Students raved about her classes, and she always got glowing evaluations.  I saw her lecture a few times, and I could not understand why students thought she was teaching them anything they couldn’t get out of a book.  They passively wrote down notes (a lot of them, which makes students think they are learning a great deal), then took exams where they gave that information back.  The professor never did any kind of evaluation to see if real learning was going on.  Why should she, given that everyone thought she was doing great work.

There’s one other idea that struck me after hearing that quote.  My first-year writing classes cause me the greatest amount of frustration.  I’ve taught over fifty sections of such writing classes, and I’ve tried a wide variety of approaches.  I’ve had semesters where I had the students read a large amount, and I’ve had students where they read nothing that wasn’t directly related to writing, and we only discussed writing in class (as opposed to some theme or literature).  I’ve tried to find topics they will enjoy writing on and topics that would truly make them think about their lives and their world (my current theme is identity, for example).

I’ve used large-group discussion and small-group discussion; I’ve tried group debates and individual presentations.  I’ve used blogs and traditional papers and journals and short papers and long papers.  I’ve talked about grammar every other meeting, and I’ve ignored grammar completely, assuming they would get it based on my feedback.  I’ve given detailed feedback and minimal responses.  I’ve done conferences (individual and group) with drafts and graded what they turned in, then allowed them to revise.  Almost every two years, I make major changes to this class.

From everything I can tell, none of it matters.  I see the same mistakes, and I don’t see any significant growth.  I could blame the class itself, as it’s almost impossible to see students make much improvement in their writing in fifteen weeks (roughly 40 hours of course work and a few papers), but that doesn’t sound right to me.  I just keep thinking that I can find something that will make a difference.  Maybe next fall.  Maybe never.



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