Friday, July 13, 2012

Teaching Tip: Reassessing a "Bad" Class

"A parent gives life, but as a parent, gives no more. A murderer takes life, but his deed stops there. A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops."  -- Henry Adams

On some days you'll come to class still blazing with the momentum from yesterday and with a batch of lively and provocative ideas. Since you were all on fire yesterday, you assume a brief fanning of embers will kindle yet another conflagration of learning.

A few minutes into class, however, you can sense that the students' spirits are beginning to exit their bodies. They become unnaturally still and quiet, and their faces look like they're posing for a group portrait in the 19th-century. Some eyelids droop, then close completely.

Then you, the teacher, know you are alone, all, all alone, alone with your wilted expectations and the cold ashes from yesterday's fire.

These days are rough on all of us, but can be especially painful to new teachers. In my first year or so as a college professor, I often taught classes that met on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and when a Thursday class fell flat, I would suffer from a low-grade despondency til it reconvened on Tuesday. I couldn't wait to get back in there and make it right, make the failure go away.

Most of us take these brief deflating moments too seriously and too personally. Here are some ways to put these things into perspective:

* The students' collective zombie response probably had nothing to do with you. Try to remember they have six other classes. Maybe they're dreading their next class. Maybe your plans for today have made it difficult for them to copy their homework from a more industrious classmate. Many of them have jobs, and some of them work late. The family they left just hours ago might not have been in complete harmony. Maybe some of them are in relationships on the brink of breakup. Maybe some of them are dreading using a high-school restroom. In short, sometimes you and/or your class are a tiny, tiny part of their world.

* Not all of our classes or segments of our classes are for all our students. Sometimes what we do may be for us, even when we think it's for them.War and Peace, for example, is clearly a world masterpiece, but I don't think it was written for me; Brothers Karamazov was written for me. Therefore, as I educate myself, I select the latter and reject the former with glazed-over zombie eyes. My mentor Professor Eugene Crook once explained to me that, on some level, our students know what they need from us, and that need will be their focus.
We should, therefore, not expect them to look like hungry baby birds every time we open up a new can of worms.

* The beauty of human consciousness is that even as it goes through its "natural selection" process, taking only what it thinks it needs, some of the rejected material seeps in at the moment of intended rejection or goes dormant for a while, then reawakens as a thing of value years later. As a friend of mine pointed out, sometimes teaching feels like casting pearls before swine, but we have to cast the pearls anyway in the belief that in the fullness of time, our listeners will perceive them as such. Here is where we console ourselves with the Adams quote above. We "affect eternity." We "can never tell when [our] influence [starts or] stops."

* The students' collective zombie-like appearance doesn't necessarily mean they aren't learning or engaged. Their brains could be busy connecting today's subject to yesterday's lesson. They could be making connections, possibly uncomfortable ones, to their own lives. They could be cutting against the grain of mass education by actually thinking and reflecting. On many occasions, students from what I perceived as a bad class have thanked me for a good one.

In short, it's best to follow the advice of Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan and "don't get too up and don't get too down." After a decent outing, he headed for the exercise bike. After he got shelled for six runs in two innings, he headed for the exercise bike. After he tossed one of his seven no-hitters -- you guessed it -- he headed for the exercise bike. Do your best. Prepare a feast (or lay out the pearls) for your students, and trust them to take what they need. Then, when it's over, let it go and head for your exercise bike.

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