“Teachers” Teaching Teachers

The trouble with education in America today is this: the teachers that are teaching teachers how to teach can’t teach.

I have a friend who is going through teacher training right now. (My friend has requested anonymity, and so I am going to leave out everything including gender.) I have been a teacher for a long time, and I know this friend very well, and here’s the truth: my friend is going to be an excellent teacher. My friend knows the subject matter, knows how to deal with teenagers – the intent is to teach at the high school level. Most importantly, my friend, like me, had a tumultuous personal experience in high school, and has been both a good student and a crappy student, both a model citizen and a juvenile delinquent; my friend will be able to speak with students, relate to students, understand students. My friend will teach students, and for some of those students, my friend will be their favorite teacher, the one they remember for years afterwards. Though they won’t come back to visit, just like they don’t come back to visit me. It’s okay – they don’t come back because most of the students who really bond with me do so because they are having a spectacularly miserable high school experience, the kind that beat poems and punk rock songs are written about. And if they came back to visit me, they’d have to relive what I hope was the worst time in their lives – and what I hope I helped them through. I don’t need to shake their hand to know they needed me to be who I am.

My friend will be the same. I know it. I try to be convincing and confident when we talk about the future teaching career, but my friend is also humble enough to have doubts, doubts that have taken me fifteen years to dispel, doubts I haven’t completely dispelled even now. It’s okay. Doubt combined with ideals makes us try to improve. It’s a useful tension.

You know what’s not a useful tension? Having a class that is half the duration of the usual college level course, and going almost half of it without getting any feedback from the professor. No grades, no comments, nothing for three and a half weeks, which covered ten graded assignments. No grades on any of them. That is not useful tension: that is a teacher not doing her job. And it drives me nuts, hearing about this, because I’m a slow grader, for two legitimate reasons: I don’t assign my students busy work during class, which means I never get to get grading done while my students are working on their new worksheet (Yeah, math teachers, I’m looking at you, you lazy punks); and two, I read everything my students write, and I try to give substantive feedback on everything I can. So it takes me a while. Except for two times during the year: the end of the semester, when I have to kill myself getting the grades in on time, and the beginning of the year, when I realize that my students are not familiar with what I want from them, what I am like as a grader, what is really important to me. They need to get a grade and feedback from me before they can feel comfortable doing assignments for me. So I try to grade the first serious assignment as quickly and thoroughly as I can – generally I can pound it out in a weekend, though I tell them it will never happen that quickly again. From that assignment, they learn the following: I don’t really care much about deadlines. Don’t care much about spelling, unless it is a formal essay. I don’t care at all about format, font, handwritten-versus-CG, or those little frilly edges that come from ripping pages out of a notebook. I care about what they think and how well they can express it to me. That’s what their grades are based on: and I make sure they know that before they have to turn in their second assignment.

My friend’s classes are all online. Which means there is no lecture, and there is no class prep; the teacher’s only job is to grade the work and monitor discussions. And yet the teacher – who had in her instructions dire warnings against even the thought of turning work in late – took three and a half weeks to return the first grades.

That’s not all: not by a long shot. The assignments come fast and furious: every week, the students in these classes – all of whom have degrees already, and so most of whom are already working, some full-time – need to read at least two chapters from the text, post a discussion topic that is thoughtful and thought-provoking and that cites sources; respond to at least four others students’ posts or responses to posts; and read at least 75% of the posts and replies in the discussion forums. For extra fun, the other students, eager little gold-star-seeking chipmunks that they are, try to post on every single topic and reply to every single response, sometimes at 11:00pm on the due date. And the more responses there are, the more each student has to read in order to hit the 75% of responses read mark. Thanks, guys. Way to throw your classmates under the bus in order to suck up. (But I also have to say: how American.) And each week culminates in a quiz, an essay, or a PowerPoint presentation on the week’s topic. Times two classes, times eight weeks. And even though both classes have large final projects due in the last week, which are weighted more heavily in the final grade, the discussions and responses and reading are still assigned for that last week. Nothing like giving people large projects and not giving them time to get them done!

The grades – now that my friend has gotten some (To be fair: in the other of the two classes my friend is currently taking, the professor, a former high school English teacher, responded within a week with the first set of grades, with reasonable comments. It’s only one of the two professors who can’t keep up with her own class’s pace.) – are sort of based on the content; but every assignment, my friend has lost some points not because of what the essay or presentation said – but rather because of the formatting of PowerPoint slides, or, more commonly, the lack of correct APA (That’s the American Psychological Association. Why are we using their format? Who knows?) citation formatting. This despite both professors letting some elements of APA formatting slide – the APA says, for instance, that every paper must have a title page and an abstract; neither professor has required that. But God forbid you fail to use hanging indents on your references page!!!

The textbooks are absurdly poorly written: they drag on and on and on, repeating the same information in a slightly different format, with ridiculous and unrealistic examples that don’t actually illustrate the concepts. For example, one chapter, on constructivist cognitive theory, explained the need for self-directed learners thusly: because change occurs rapidly, and certain innovations – like smartphones and green energy – have a large impact on society, it is vital that our students learn to become problem solvers. Now I agree that it is important that students become problem solvers, but the reason is because there are quite a number of problems that need solving, and the solutions will need to come from new minds that understand the problems and the possible solutions in new ways; traditional methods will not be effective. And the speed of change in society has precisely fuck-all to do with that. Thanks for the explanation, Mr. Textbook Guy. (Note: that is not a correctly formatted APA citation.)

The essays have minimum and maximum page assignments; this is common practice, I know, but as with every essay that has ever been assigned with a length requirement, the students focus first on the length, and only afterwards on the content. This aids in both creative editing and bombastic word-fluffing; not in learning content.

The short, informal discussion topics are worth 30 points and the essays are worth 35 points. That would be fine, except the essays are far more difficult and take at least three times as long to complete. For five more points. Way to prioritize. And here’s the best part: if you don’t earn a B on the final project, you cannot pass the class. That’s right: you can bust ass for seven weeks, run at 100% over 20 or so assignments; get a C on the final project – and fail the class. Really makes all that earlier effort seem worthwhile.

The quizzes, which are multiple choice and allow for multiple correct responses on one question, draw from different chapters that give different answers to the question, and require contradicting responses both marked as correct responses (I.e., the question was something like “Which are elements of how students learn?” and the responses had both “Through information processing” and “Through behavioral training,” which are opposing theories of learning – and both were correct answers.).

Here’s my point, in case I’m being unclear. Every single thing I’ve described here is terrible teaching practice. Good teachers build personal relationships with their students: these teachers are only online, and only contact their students indirectly, late, and in the vaguest possible terms. (And one of them uses Comic Sans. In multiple colors. With large amounts of capital letters and exclamation points. Reading her e-mails is like looking at Doge memes. But without the cute dog in the middle.) Content assessment should evaluate mastery of content, above all else if not to the exclusion of all else. Focusing on the minutiae like deadlines and formatting ruins the actual instruction of content. It’s fine to teach study habits that way, but not actual subject matter. Tests should never be tricky or obtuse, and the content resources should be clear and easy to understand, no matter how complex the subject – in fact, the more complex the subject, the easier the text should be to read.

And these are the people who are teaching new teachers how to teach.

My only hope is that the people in the class, including my friend, will learn nothing from these people. The last thing we need is a bunch of new teachers who don’t talk to their students, who give warnings but not grades, who give their students failing grades because they didn’t use one-inch margins and twelve-point font, and fail to help their students learn what they actually need to know.

Martin Luther King said that we have an obligation to disobey unjust and immoral laws. I would like to add that we have an obligation to ignore teachers who model bad teaching.

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