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

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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…

May 2

Today was a busy day. But it was good. We had hundreds of high school students on campus, and I was able to speak to several groups of them about how to study better. It was a little bit amusing, a little bit frustrating, and a whole lot of making me feel old. The groups I spoke to were all freshman. As I outlined how to take notes during class and techniques for test taking and study planning, I noticed how difficult it was for them to sit still and really pay attention. I kidded some of them about how teachers can actually see to the back of the room. Being 30 feet away isn’t considered hiding. And when you hit the kid next to you, it’s not a secret. (This did, in fact, happen.) Overall, though, they were good kids, and it was very obvious that they were just kids. And that’s when my mothering instincts kicked in. When I looked at all their young faces, I could see the potential in front of me, and I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them saw it in themselves. I wondered if they’d persist in school or get lured out of education by the promise of early dead-end jobs. The graduation rate in our district is low. I wondered how many of them would apply any of the tips I gave them during their high school years. I tried to stress the importance of figuring out how to be a student now, so that the upcoming years would be easier. I hope they heard me. I hope at least a few of them want to figure that out. When I look at kids that age, I wish there was a way to impart the knowledge that only maturity can give. And that’s when I feel old because I want to say to them, you’ll understand one day how important this is. And then you’ll wish you had listened better. But they may have. I hope so. After all, I’m thankful I’m in education where even during the difficult days, there’s the potential to help someone’s future.

Feb 10

I mentioned a few posts back that my class has been a bit blah lately. Well, with school cancellations and the MLK holiday, it’s been a slow start to the semester. It seems as if we haven’t had a full week of classes yet, although we are in week 5. It’s not that my students are doing anything wrong; they’re simply quiet. More quiet than I like. I’m used to trying to corral people and keep them focused long enough to complete an agenda. As an instructor, I’m more comfortable with a class in which students interact and I do less lecturing. And based on a quick learning style survey I had my students take early on, most of them enjoy group work more than solo work as well. So I’ve been trying to figure out a way to get them engaged.

Tonight I decided to take a few minutes at the beginning of class to simply chat. As I took attendance (my habit) I posed the question, Did anyone do anything fun or exciting over the weekend? Silence.

One girl finally offered, I went to the mall, but that’s not really exciting.

No, I said. Not really.

Homework, a guy in the back chimed in. I stopped myself from calling him a suck-up.

Nothing, really? This is probably why they don’t talk. Although, I’ve learned over the years that sometimes, it’s just that they’re afraid to. I finally said, Well, I went to the Zac Brown concert.

A hand shot up. So did I!  FINALLY. But why didn’t he mention it immediately?

We talked a bit about that concert and music in general and other concerts people had gone to. I talked about the Stone Sour concert I went to a couple weeks ago, which elicited some laughter and the comment that they didn’t really see me as a hard rock person. Ahhh!..appearances really can deceive. It took less than ten minutes, but there was an tangible shift in the room. Everyone seemed a little more relaxed. For the rest of the class time, they worked in small groups on the current chapter we’re studying. Each group covered a section they will present to the rest of the class tomorrow. It was great to see them interacting. I almost hated to stop them when class time was over. There was a lot of laughter. A bit of chummy arguing, even.  And everyone was involved. No one just sat and stared. That’s the kind of class time I find most rewarding. Of course, not every class can be that way. Some material won’t be conducive to group work. But I think a few barriers came down tonight. Now that they have chatted and become a little more personal to each other, it will be easier for some of them to speak up later. For that, I’m very thankful.

Feb 4

It was a difficult class tonight. It felt frustrating and unproductive. Maybe the winter is beginning to weigh on everyone because there seems to be little energy left in my students. And in me, if I’m honest. It reminded me of something I had written a few years ago that still seems to apply. I’m always thankful for being able to lose myself in writing.

it seems like
every year they get worse
come late
leave early
skip at least once a week
even when they show up
they’re not really there
it’s just luke-warm bodies
sitting glassy-eyed toward the back
of the room

most days I’d like to skip
myself give in to the defeat
protect the mythical reverence
I still hold for the beauty
of writing
even on the best of days
they don’t really get it
there’s no passion developing
no sense of urgency of needing
to know
apparently the future doesn’t
exist in any rational form

in their futures someone else
does the thinking

on those days I feel like a mime
explaining to the silence
that words really great words
can taste amazing
on the tongue

yet they refuse to taste
and every year I try harder
every year they remain
the same