The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"We may have found a cure for most evils; but it has found no remedy for the worst of them all -- the apathy of human beings."....  ...Helen Keller.

Commentary of the Day - April 26, 2002:  Can We Go Home Early?  Guest Commentary by John Sheirer.

As everyone was leaving one of my classes the other day, one of the best students in the class stayed behind to ask me a question.

"How do you put up with these jerks?" she asked, motioning toward the last few students rushing out of the classroom.  "I'd have to kick their asses if they acted like that toward me!" I'm usually pretty good at reading people, and my radar was telling me that she was upset.

It turns out she was upset because the students were acting like, well, acting like college students.  Some talked among themselves, some stared out the window, some begged me to let class go early, some actually drifted off to sleep once in a while.  You know, college students. I just chuckled and told her that it didn't bother me and that I'd probably see them again next semester for the same class.

Keep in mind that my classes aren't the usual lecture-oriented snoozers that most people tolerate on their slow march through college.  Mine are learner-centered classes with discussion and small-group work and critical thinking and practical "hands-on" activities.  I do all the stuff that the latest theories on student learning tell me I should do.  Even more important, I frequently sacrifice my dignity and self-importance by making a fool out of myself with jokes and funny stories (most with myself as the punch line) to keep things as interesting as possible.

And yet people are not automatically enthralled with everything I do for their benefit in class.  This used to bother me -- all the things that upset the woman in my class that day -- the chatters, the sleepers, the blank-eyed gazers, the early-dismissal beggars.  I used to wonder why this year's students seem so much worse than last year's.  I used to find myself feeling like a prison escapee when I drove home at the end of a long week.  I used to conjure images of peaceful beaches to keep from screaming in the middle of a class where no one seemed to care.  Sometimes I used to even think of teaching my classes as "going to the salt mine."

I'm ashamed to confess that sometimes I even felt like the woman who wanted to "kick their asses."  It's frustrating that the time when I do the most to benefit my students is the time that we see that benefit the least -- in class.  I used to wonder if I made difference to my students.  I've always felt called to teaching because of the positive influence I can have on students.  But if I look closely at my class about two-thirds of the way through the semester -- despite my best efforts -- I'm likely to find that they often still feel stuck, frustrated, bound for failure, or simply angry at me because they are missing their favorite TV show.

But I've been teaching for a few years now, and I've finally discovered a strategy for dealing with my frustration.  I just forget about judging what's actually happening in the class itself and focus on the difference I make for my students beyond the classroom.

For example, late last semester, a colleague in another department knocked on my office door to tell me about a particularly astute student who said that "all that thinking stuff" in my class helped her grasp some difficult concept in the textbook.  A year ago, a student let you know that her daughter took your class and said was the best she ever had -- so she decided to take it too.  Once, a student who went on to graduate school actually sent me a thank-you note to let me know that his master's thesis was easier and a better learning experience because of what he learned in my class -- and this happened ten years after he took my class.

These kinds of experiences are rare in the life of even the best teachers, so I always enjoy them to the fullest when they do happen.  But when I look beyond the classroom, I can see that more important things will happen to most of my students than just a compulsion to thank me.

On a very basic level, my courses make these students better qualified in the work world, an immeasurable impact considering the present economy.  Also, my courses open these students' minds in the best sense of education, letting them reach beyond their own experience into unexplored worlds of knowledge and expression.  And, most important, my best teaching helps these students become better, more responsible citizens by literally making them better thinkers.  They become the kind of citizens who can listen to political debates and say, "That makes no sense"; the kind who can stand up and contribute an informed opinion at a PTA meeting; the kind who can send stirring letters to the local newspapers that argue effectively about important issues in their communities.

So I've learned to just let them sleep, let them beg me to go home early, let them have their little whispered conversations.  They're learning in my classes, even if they don't notice it at the time, and even if they sometimes forget to remember what they've learned.

But, I confess, I'm always happy to get a thank-you note.

©2002 John Sheirer
John Sheirer's poetry essays, and educational materials have been published widely in print and on the internet, most recently at Ethical Oasis and Nights and Weekends. He teaches writing, public speaking, and literature at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, CT.


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© 2002 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.