Thursday, November 17, 2011


I have been at the front of the classroom for some years now, teaching English language arts and reading (and one or two other things) to students from kindergarten up into even graduate-level courses (the latter once or twice), and I like to think that I do decently at my job.  Part of that liking comes from my inculcated tendency to desire to excel at anything I do, particularly those things for which I am paid--I am hired to do a job, and as long as I take the paycheck, I ought to do my best to do well at the job for which I receive it.

A larger part of that liking comes from my belief in the value of education.  That I prize it should be evident; I would not have spent as long seeking formal education as I have did I not believe in its value.  That I prize it for things other than the potential to earn me a higher or steadier paycheck should also be evident; I could be making a lot more money right now than I am, and with a much lower credentialing requirement, for more or less the same amount of energy I put into the job I have at the moment.

Because I value education highly, and because I feel compelled to be of some good and useful service to the communities in which I take part, I teach; the job allows me to do both.  Because I feel compelled to be good at my job, I invest much in my teaching, doing my best to keep up with current research in both pedagogy and the subject matter of most of the courses I teach: writing; that drive is why I subscribe to both CCC and College English.  And it is why I do worry about what happens in my classroom.

I know that I push my students hard.  I honestly do not believe that students benefit from lax standards or overly fluid deadlines.  I do work with the students I have who act responsibly; that is to say, for those students who keep me updated on what is going on with them (for such things as medical or legal troubles, or the inevitable deaths in the family), I adjust deadlines and requirements to varying extents.  One student this term has benefited from an extra two weeks to complete an assignment, for example, while another has been excused from class meetings (although not assignments, thanks to the wonders of email) because of knee problems.  So I am hardly unmerciful or inflexible.

But I can only bend so far, in my work as in my body (I cannot do the splits, nor am I able to bend at the waist quite so far as I should like).  There are limits to the leeway that I can extend to my students.  There are things that I cannot teach through email or through recorded audio or video.  There are deadlines I have to meet which I cannot extend, and they require me to report on the progress my students have demonstrated--they require that the students have made some demonstration.  And there are the simple facts of my other classes to teach and the other work that I have to do to be able to accomplish what I need to accomplish.

Do I no longer have needs as I work to help others meet theirs?  Should I not value my own education as much as I exhort my students to value theirs?

And it is because I have to say such things as "as I exhort" of my students' valuation of their educations that I have some worry, one reawakened by a conversation I had with one of my colleagues yesterday.  Although I do not necessarily agree with all of what that colleague was saying--some of it was overly reductionist; almost nothing in life is only either/or--I do think that some of the things said were dead on.  It is necessary for a truly successful educational experience, as has long been known, for the learner to have intrinsic motivation to learn.  There has to be something within the student that compels engagement with education for it to work well.  But there is no way to directly foster such motivation; there is no magic bullet with which students can be shot, the wound from which is itself a deep and abiding love of learning.  It can be fostered indirectly through the provision of extrinsic motivation; I can reward students for performing and punish them for not, so that the desire to gain reward and avoid punishment drives action and, hopefully, provides the opportunity for intrinsic motivation to take hold.  Put simply, I can give them reasons to go on and hope that they find their own reasons to keep going along the way.

The thing is, I cannot do it for them.  I cannot give to them something which I do not recall actually acquiring.  As far as I remember, I have loved to learn, to acquire and work with knowledge.  I am sure that I had to be taught it, that I had to be cajoled along, but I do not remember it happening.  And so I do not have the experience with it that others, I think, have.  Lacking that experience, I cannot teach it--one cannot pass along that which one does not have.

From those of you who read this, if you would be so kind, could I get some view of your experience in coming to love learning?  Or could I get direction as to where I might meaningfully look for reports of such experience?  Or if you hate it, could you tell me why?

And if I am simply being a fool...well, perhaps I do not want to be told that.

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