Sad times

The faculty at my school went on strike yesterday. It’s been a long time coming, and not just in the months of contract negotiations. It’s been years in the making. The very nature of education has changed over the years; it certainly has at my school, thanks in part to consumer mentality. Those of us who have been here a while can say with a good level of certainty that the era of a particular college president forever damaged our culture. He was a man who believed students were customers and education was something that could be purchased, not attained. I can still picture him riding around the campus like a used car salesman in a golf cart going from lot to lot with his forced fake laugh and trying to shake everyone’s hand like a desperate politician. He put everyone on edge. It took too long for the Board of Trustees to acknowledge the damage his tenure was causing, but eventually there was a vote of no confidence and he went on to another unsuspecting college. But what he left behind was a fractured internal community and a Board that felt compelled to step further into the daily operations of the school. It was during this time that the faculty unionized in an effort to protect the distinct working conditions and integrity of teaching.

Of course times change. I know that. People like to say that things evolve, but in my opinion, what has happened to the culture at my school is more akin to disintegration. Our once inclusive, uplifting and nurturing environment has turned into everyday business. The argument, of course, is that our community is no longer the same. High unemployment, the recession, the challenges of our country as a whole means our focus needs to be different. People need jobs, quickly. A college degree is a luxury most people can no longer afford. And our state is broke, funding is gone, so we need to do more with less. Maybe there’s some truth in all that, but why is learning excluded? How did we get to a point where competence is a by-product? Where the art of teaching is no longer valued because it gets in the way—or takes too long?

Just the other day I had a student complain to me that he didn’t see the value in learning algebra. I patiently explained to him that it wasn’t whether or not he’d use algebra at his job that was important; it was the difference in thinking that math was teaching him that would be valuable. The way of looking at problems from different angles and solving them. The way math insists that you stick with it and figure stuff out. Those are the lessons that he could take to his job, even if he forgot every formula. And that’s the secret all good instructors know. Learning content is fine, but the ACT of learning is the key. It’s the act that broadens the mind.

I was lucky enough to go to a liberal arts college where every student, regardless of major, had to attend cultural activities in order to graduate. The message was that a worthwhile education was wholistic. It was inclusive of not just coursework, but the people and community around us. It didn’t focus on one topic, but showed how ideas and disciplines connected and how those connections broadened us and made us better people. I think the faculty at my school get that. In fact, I think most of the employees at my school still believe in education as an ideal.

The Board thinks the strike is over wages and health care and money because that’s their fight. Their focus in recent years has been on the budget. And it’s hard to see faces in numbers. It’s easy to vilify people when you don’t see them. The Board says it’s not personal, but it is. For all of us. Even those of us who aren’t on the picket lines because it directly affects what we do at this school. And it affects our culture. And for a lot of us, it’s emotional. Many of those professors outside today taught me when I was a student here. Several were instrumental in guiding not just my career path, but also my personal growth. The English teacher who used my journal writing as examples of good writing gave me the confidence to major in English. The speech teacher who encouraged me to join forensics instilled in me a love of public speaking. And many more, even now as colleagues, have helped me continue to learn and grow as a working professional. The one who guided me while working together on a community Board, the one who helped me find a graduate program and encouraged me to go back to school. Their fight is my fight, like it is for so many, many people who were privileged enough to take classes here over the years. It’s a fight for learning. And the respect that goes with dedicating your life to the belief that learning, as an act, matters. I’m glad they have the courage to stand up for it. I’m thankful to call so many of them my friends. Our school and our culture here may never return to the times of unity we had years ago, but it doesn’t mean we should give up. I hope, regardless of the outcome, that they always continue to fight for what matters. #solidarity #wearervc

November 7

It’s been a long day. I took our speech team to another tournament and thus it was a 13.5 hour work day for me. Even though most of that time was spent sitting for one reason or another, it was still tiring. But it was fun to see how much improvement the students have made since the last tournament just a couple of weeks ago. I also find it interesting in a couple of ways: first that they made a lot of progress in a short period because they were motivated by the competition, and second that their exposure to watching others perform made a much greater impact on their improvement than any suggestions I made previously. As an educator, it makes me wonder how to bring that kind of learning to the classroom, if it’s at all possible. At any rate, I’m thankful today that my students had a good time at the meet and that we made it home safely. Tomorrow they go with another instructor because I have a conflict. More on that later…

April 24

I heard a quote today that stuck with me.  A wise man is not cowed by knowledge. I wasn’t sure why it stood out for me, but I even wrote it down. And of course, I’ve been thinking about it. Usually stuff like that hits me because it seems pertinent to whatever I have going on, either literally or within. And there is so much I have going on right now. On all fronts. It’s exhausting at a pretty basic level. But that’s life sometimes. It would be great if we could take our lifetime share of ups and downs and place them on our timeline at a nice, manageable pace. Yet I’m sure we all know that’s not how things typically work. We’re hit with a few blows at once and have to stagger along for a while before we get ourselves back together.

Now I’ve never been the type who could sit still for long. I once tried yoga but after a few classes, I dropped out. Not because I couldn’t handle the stretching or the not always lovely views, but because at the end of every class, we were told to lay quietly on our mats without moving or opening our eyes. I couldn’t do it. I literally felt like I was crawling out of my skin at that point. I never went back and haven’t tried it since. I have friends who swear to me that after getting the hang of it, yoga is not only good for the body, but good for the mind. Ok. Maybe at some point I’ll give it another go. In the meantime, I’ve been reading a lot about learning how to be mindful. And present in the moment. Also difficult for me because I’m a worrier, but somehow, I understand it. I think I’ll get there.

So how does this relate to my quote? Well, I guess I’ve known that I’m a knowledge seeker. I loved school because I loved learning. I like figuring stuff out. I like reading mysteries and fitting seemingly pointless pieces of information together. I especially like trying to figure out people. The process doesn’t intimidate me. But sometimes what I learn does. Sometimes I fear finding out what I don’t want to know. Because that may mean I’ll have to change my thinking on a subject, or apologize for being wrong, or make a hard decision. But I’ll always seek to know because I don’t understand the opposite. Some people are too afraid to even seek knowledge. They don’t even try. They don’t strive to understand themselves or others or the events that happen because ignorance really is bliss. You can’t fear/accept/change what you don’t know. And so they don’t grow and their lives don’t really expand. Maybe I sound like I’m judging, but I’m really not trying to. It’s just that early on in my life I knew I’d be the type of person who would rather feel pain than to feel nothing. And to me, learning means growth and sometimes growth is painful.

Now, what is new to me is that, just like my struggle with yoga, I struggle with not doing. Not reacting. Gaining knowledge and feeling like I need to do something with it immediately. And hearing that quote today reminds me that sometimes it’s important to simply sit and let the new information sink in. A knee-jerk reaction isn’t always necessary, just as fear isn’t. Sometimes being wise means knowing and letting it be.

Day 13: Words

Today was the start of the Spring semester at the college where I work. The beginning of every new semester is a bit hectic. There are always students trying to enroll at the last minute or switch classes. No one is quite into their routine yet, so the foot traffic through the halls seem a little more haphazard now than it will in a few weeks. While my day job is to manage our tutoring and writing center, I sometimes teach a night class in developmental reading. I enjoy teaching for several reasons, but mostly because I love the interaction with students and playing a role their personal development. I love seeing students expand themselves in some way, whether is learning the content or learning to interact with others in ways they may not normally.

A college reading class is a misnomer. I don’t teach students to read; none of my students are illiterate. The class is designed to teach students how to understand what they read: how to assimilate information and how to predict and interpret the content. It’s not as easy as students think it will be. As adults, I think it’s more difficult to learn new vocabulary and new ways to do something we all take for granted. Reading isn’t an art form, it’s just something most of us do. And a lot do it poorly. I don’t judge my students for needing the class. But it makes me thankful that I started a love affair with words at an early age, when learning was a lot easier and more natural.

I remember when I was in grade school, my parents decided to challenge my sisters and me to learn new words. They gave us a month and whichever one of us learned the most, got a prize. I don’t remember the amount, but it was enough to spur us on. I have four sisters, but at the time, my younger sister wasn’t old enough to participate, so it was just I and my three older sisters. I wanted to win in the worst way, so I set out to read the dictionary. I didn’t get too far into it before I decided that wasn’t going to work. It was not an exciting read. I quickly switched gears to using the dictionary as a means to discover new names I could call my siblings. That proved much more inspiring, and at the end of the month, it was no contest. I won hands down. I still remember the excitement I felt going shopping with my mom to spend my prize money. I found a snazzy blue satin jacket with a white stripe on the cuffs and waistband. I was so proud of that jacket.

I realize now, though, what a gift my parents gave me in spring boarding my appreciation of reading and learning. As I teach each semester, I try to keep that in mind. Sometimes it seems that my students don’t really learn all I expect or hope of them in my class; however, it may just be that I help them pick up the challenge to persist. I hope this semester I can help my students find their inspiration.