Yes, actually. I AM a teacher.

YOU ARE SIMPLY THE

In a recent blog post for the Huffington Post, Professor Keith M. Parsons from the University of Houston – Clear Lake sends a message to his students.  It’s gotten a lot of attention on social media, at least in my circles, and as a professor myself, I was interested in what he had to say.  After reading his post, however, I am disappointed that this type of teaching (yes, I said teaching), is being advocated by someone in an influential educational position.  Perhaps it is because I am a teaching professor in a school of education, but I couldn’t let this one slide.

Professor Parsons makes a few points in his blog post that he wishes to drive home to his students, and I’d like to address each one in turn.

First, Professor Parsons states, “I am your professor, not your teacher.”  He goes on to explain how teaching and professing are two completely different things, and that “it is no part of my job to make you learn.” He makes the case that teachers are measured by learning outcomes and standardized tests, and are held accountable for their students’ learning.  He argues that he has no obligation to ensure learning occurs for students.  So his argument appears to be that since he isn’t going to be held accountable for it, then student learning is none of his business. Rubbish.  Is this really the ideal to which we, as professors, should hold ourselves?  No one is going to check and see if your students are learning, so they sink or swim?

Professor Parsons also states that universities are old fashioned institutions, and that the idea that professors should make learning accessible to students, or, heaven forbid, student-centered, is “hogwash.”  He tells us that students need to “learn to listen.”  Professor Parsons needs to learn to listen to the vast body of research on student learning that says that student-centered learning is more effective than teacher-centered lecture; listen to those who are actually experts in the field of education who tell you that student centered learning improves student outcomes (Kember, 2008; Wright, 2011).  (Professor Parsons, I tossed in a couple of citations for you there, even though this is a blog post, because as a professor, I do share your love of citations.)  Yes, lectures can be captivating, but student-centered learning approaches are far from “hogwash.”  They help us create critical thinkers and patient problem solvers of our students.

Finally, Professor Parsons argues that the university is a different culture with different values.  In this, I agree.  The university setting does have different norms and values than the K-12 setting.  However, I disagree with the implication that the norms and values of the university setting are better.  The university setting is beginning to take lessons from the K-12 setting in ways that are beneficial for everyone; we’re improving teaching and learning, and providing a higher quality experience for our students, and the research supports that.

Parsons argues that students see the university as a place to get a credential, while he sees the university as being about education. I am baffled as to how Professor Parsons can refuse to accept the mountain of educational research on good pedagogy, and then state that universities are about education.  Professor Parsons, while he may choose to deny it, is most definitely a teacher, as are all other professors with students in their charge.  When you take on the honor of holding the education of a group of young people in your hands, you must also take on responsibility for their learning, even if no one will ever check up on you to see how well your students are learning.  If you choose to take on a profession that involves teaching students, then I beg you: teach them.  Engage with your students.  Listen to what they have to say.  Involve them in projects and experiences.  Make them argue ideas and invent solutions to problems.  Talk with them, not at them.  Support them.  Set high expectations, but provide support to reach those expectations.  Deeply reflect on your own teaching practice, and examine what you can improve.  Teaching should be a process of learning for both you AND your students.  For many years, the university system did an excellent job of meeting the needs of a very limited and privileged subset of the population, in a very different world.  Students today are not like the students of 30 years ago in some critically important ways.  Stop complaining about your students and accept that postsecondary education is, at least in this one respect, changing for the better.  Change with it, or become a relic of a system that doesn’t meet the needs of the population it purports to serve.

Kember, D. (2009). Promoting student-centred forms of learning across an entire university. Higher Education 58(1): 1–13.

Wright, G. B. (2011). Student-Centered Learning in Higher Education. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. 23 (3): 93–94.

7 Tips for New Teachers

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It’s that time of year again!  Time when the backpacks are full of fresh school supplies, the desks are clean, and the bulletin boards eagerly awaiting student work.

More importantly, a newly minted group of teachers is welcoming their students, ready to change the world.  With all of my recent graduates in mind, I share these words of wisdom for the new teachers out there:

1. This year is going to be hard. Really hard.  You are now going to be faced not only with applying all of that knowledge you soaked up in your certification program, but also with managing the ins and outs of a working classroom.  Manage your time wisely, and leave your classroom each day with everything ready to go for the next morning.

2. Remember how I said this year was going to be hard?  You’re going to mess up.  Sometimes you’ll see the screwup coming a mile away; sometimes it will sneak up on you silently.  Sometimes that lesson that you put hours into planning will fail spectacularly.  Sometimes you will lose your cool and say something you wish you hadn’t said. It’s okay.  We’ve all been there.  The first year of teaching is, in many ways, like the first pancake.  It’s ugly and a little burned around the edges, but it still tastes okay.  The next pancake is better, and so the next school year will be better as well.  Teaching well, consistently, takes practice.

3. Find your teacher tribe.  You need a community of strong, like minded educators to support you through the tough times and celebrate the successes.  You might not find this community at your school; stay in touch with the teachers you went to school with.  This support system will be critical to your success.

4. Stay in touch with your favorite professors.  They have been where you are, and they will be able to help you with important issues and big decisions. They can also provide you with lots of resources that you might never have thought of asking for during your certification program.

5. Leave your work at work.  If at all possible, don’t take assignments home to grade, and don’t give out your home phone number.  If you want parents or students to be able to contact you after hours, use email and set up a Google Voice number; you can get both voice calls and texts there without having your phone ring during movie night.  Giving yourself uninterrupted time to NOT be a teacher is vital to your mental health.

6. Reflect on everything you do.  I know you have a thousand papers to grade, and you need to set up lab equipment, and you have an inservice meeting to go to, but take 10 minutes and think, write, or talk about your successes and failures each day.  Not only will it reduce your stress level, but being honest with yourself about your teaching practice will help you to consistently improve.

7. If it’s not in the best interests of your students, don’t do it.  This is the dangerous piece of advice.  You are going to be asked to do things that are not in your students’ best interests.  You’ll be told to use a particular book, or give a particular test, or that “this is how it’s done here.”  Use your professional judgment, and critically evaluate everything you are told to do.  If you think it is going to have a negative impact on your students, talk to your administrators.  If they won’t budge, then DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. Significant change will never happen as long as teachers agree to maintain the status quo.  Be critical, and when you bring up an objection, be prepared to back it up with research and evidence.  Remember that you are not just a teacher; you are also an advocate for your students’ needs; you are often the ONLY advocate for your students’ needs. Know what hills you’re willing to die on.

Keep your chin up, let negativity roll off your back, and start teaching.  You got this.

Beautiful Moments in the Extended Classroom

So, as many of you know, I teach a class online that looks something like this:

Webcams, chat pods, notes pods, graphics, video, etc.  All good stuff.  There’s a unique aspect, however, to this type of classroom.  In a brick and mortar classroom, my room extends to the walls, and whatever the students can see or hear outside.  In the virtual, video based classroom, though, my classroom now extends into each of their homes.  Their sofas, desks, posters, cats, and children all become part of the classroom.  Some professors fight this tooth and nail.  They inform students that pets and children need to remain off camera, and they warn against eating or smoking (yes, smoking!) in class.

I take a different perspective.  I think that, as educators, we need to embrace the elements of this extended classroom.  We need to balance professionalism and comfort.  Acceptance and distraction.
So how do I do this?  I let students know that I have a few guidelines for online behavior:

1. Stuff is going to happen.  Someone is going to ring your doorbell.  A repair guy is going to need access to the attic.  Your dog is going to start barking.  You’re going to need to use the restroom.  A bear will wander into your backyard, and you’ll have to go save your dogs (yes, that happened to a student of mine!). When that happens, just pause your camera, mute your phone, and go take care of whatever it is.  It is no different than running to the restroom during a brick and mortar class.

2. If you start to get sleepy (some of my students attend from across the world, meaning my classes are in the middle of the night for them), first, I apologize for not being more engaging, and second, feel free to pause your camera, go grab a cup of coffee or tea, or just get up and stretch, and then rejoin us.  How great is it that our extended classroom has coffee makers and teapots as amenities?

3. Quiet pets are awesome.  When they get noisy, just escort them elsewhere.

4. Eat, drink, and smoke as needed.  Seriously.  Unless you’re doing a full close up of your mouth chewing on camera, or we’re hearing you slurp a milkshake, then why not?  Get your basic needs met so you can concentrate on learning.  I used to be a smoker.  You know what I’d think about if I needed a cigarette during class? It wasn’t the course content.  It was smoking a cigarette.  We’re not breathing it, so go for it.

5. If your child is banging on the door to come in, or running behind the camera to catch glimpses of what we’re doing, by all means, PUT THEM ON YOUR LAP!  Let them see what we’re doing, and soak up that great modeling of you pursuing lifelong learning!  Here’s what will happen.  They’ll make faces at the camera for a minute, then they’ll watch and listen to us, and then they’ll either move on or contentedly sit there.  Both of those seem like great outcomes to me.

In general, these guidelines are meant to address the distractions that might arise from these situations, and allow for compromise.  Sometimes, however, something really beautiful happens.

I was teaching a course a couple of weeks ago, when one of my students, who is also a mom, commented on her kids (I believe he is 10 years old) making noise in the background.  I encouraged her to invite him to join us at a class session sometime.  The next week, she turned on her camera for class, and he was sitting right next to her.  He made a couple of faces at the camera (they all do), and then he watched and listened thoughtfully.  We were discussing how we, as educators, can help students become critical consumers of online content, and encourage the New Media Literacy skill of judgment. When I split the students into small groups to discuss, I jumped into her group to listen.  I saw something that made me SO happy!  The other students in the group had engaged this child in discussion about how he uses the internet.

“What is your favorite subject?”

“Reptiles!”

“When you go on the computer, how do you learn about reptiles?”

This resulted in lots of great, first hand information about this child’s experiences.  My students had a thoughtful, nuanced conversation about the content.  This child was FAR from a distraction; in fact, he enhanced our class session in a way that I never could have.

So my advice to those of you teaching over webcams is this; don’t try to replicate a brick and mortar setting.  Embrace your extended classroom, and your students as whole people, so that you can enjoy beautiful moments like these.