Throw Back Sunday

My Work Home

My Work Home

I used to write a BRCC column a couple of times a month for the Hendersonville Times-News. Here’s one of those columns, from back in 2003:

A series of events the past few weeks has caused an identity crisis in me, forcing me to ask that question teachers often find themselves asking. “What exactly do we have to offer—what is our role?

Should we be entertainers? After all, it is difficult to keep students engaged, especially when many have grown up passively viewing a television screen or matching wits with an exciting computer-generated opponent. Sometimes we try to “jazz things up,” yet no matter how witty our illustrations or detailed our demonstrations, despite our high tech visual aids, we teachers can’t match the special effects of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings.

Of course, teachers should make attempts to prompt student responses through group discussion and student comments, but in the end it is the teacher who has the responsibility to bring student discussions to the sticking point, to summarize key points of any discussion. I know it’s become a dirty word in some circles, but sometimes we even need to lecture.  For many students, that’s not entertainment.

If it is not a teacher’s role to be an entertainer or merely a facilitator, is it to be an encourager? Everyone needs praise.  Good teachers know this and try to find real reasons for praise. One word of encouragement from an admired and respected instructor can fuel some students for an entire semester. Sometimes praise can even change a student’s life; however, constructive criticism has also been known to be the making of a person.

Teachers sometimes see themselves as physicians, highly trained professionals who diagnose problems and offer cures.  But others sometimes see us as nothing more than dispensers of grades—recorders. I do the work; you write my A in the grade book and raise my self-esteem.

Are we here to make students feel better about themselves?  Are we counselors? As a writing teacher, I sometimes find it difficult to even constructively criticize a student’s work if I’m aware of his or her difficult circumstances. I ask myself, what if he or she takes my criticism personally. Could my words so sting that the student becomes so angry or discouraged that he or she drops my class or quits school?

In the end, good teachers know avoiding the errors in student performance, no matter what the students’ difficulties, can only block their ability to learn. Our job is to assess students and inform them of their problem areas, not to assure them, “Everything is okay.”

At the beginning of the semester in my freshman composition classes, I relate to students my educational philosophy by describing a scene from the movie All That Jazz, based on the life of Bob Fosse, the late choreographer and Broadway director of Chicago.  The Fosse-like character becomes frustrated with a beautiful young dancer who gets her job more for her sexual appeal than her dancing ability. When the young woman breaks down in tears, the choreographer stops the music and goes to the girl, saying something like this: “I can’t promise you I’ll make you a great dancer.  I can’t even promise I can make you a good dancer. But if you work real hard and listen to what I say, I’ll make you a better dancer.”

Like the choreographer, we can’t make many promises. We can’t say for sure that our students will be stimulated or get A’s or even pass. But we can make the promise that if they will listen, even if the delivery is not of their liking, even if the grade is not what they expect, they will learn.

Reminded then of our promise, our role becomes clear. I know what it is we have to give. It’s not entertainment, not unreserved praise; it’s not a shoulder to cry on. The only thing we can offer our students is what we know—about our disciplines, about learning, about life.

The rest is up to them.

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