This month has been the most challenging of my teaching career since my first class at Valencia College. At that time, my naivete about my audience’s willingness to discuss and openly question their political views ended up creating a pretty negative rapport between myself and several students. I have since then learned much about how to better navigate audience values, how to take command of my classroom and create a culture of respect, and how to still have fun while pushing students to really apply their critical thinking skills.
This month, though, this month has really tested not only my skills as a teacher, but my desire to continue doing this. I am used to apathy, disinterest, and dismissal as a teacher of both writing and speech. Students often don’t see the importance of strong communication skills, though they believe they definitely possess these excellent writing and speaking skills and know employers look for this in candidates. What made this month so much more challenging was extreme resistance and what I can only describe as a complete disregard for what it actually means for one to be a professional. As my class is called Professional Communication and Presentation, I feel it is important to hold students accountable for the attributes they will be held to in the workforce.
Being a student is one of our first tests as professionals. One’s ability to follow instructions, provide clear referencing of information and image sources, respectfulness for others when they are presenting, speaking, or teaching, timeliness and attendance, respectful language, and a commitment to quality are all skills we grow first as students. This is part of what is meant by professionalism, a term which began as a reference to the devotion with which an individual approached the church’s work in the 13th century. Students consistently showed up to class late, were openly disrespectful, and focused only on the negatives of having a challenging set of classes (this is too much work–you don’t really expect it to be good, do you?). Students seemed surprised when they were held accountable for work they’d committed to. Students illustrated (up to today, the last day) that they’d read none of the assigned readings, listened to very little of the in-class lessons, and internalized only the bits they had to to pass the class.
The situation deteriorated so far that I lost all gusto and fire for the subjects I love so much. My audience in turn lost all interest in the subject. So, what did I do to create this situation? From my perspective, it was my vehemence for following basic rules of attribution, respect for classmates, respect for the subject, and accountability that created an adversarial relationship between myself and this group of learners. So, what do I do? Be more lenient? Forget about things like attribution, strong credible sources, and respect for class time, instructors, and class members?
What I found ironic about the complete disconnect between my students and myself is that these students were actually insanely smart–one had been one semester away from an aerospace engineering degree. Another’s fascinating presentation on the role of chaos in the formation of the universe, while too focused on information to truly be a persuasive presentation, captivated me nonetheless. Several of the students were voracious readers, not the norm in young people these days. But, it was the entire structure of education that alienated them. These students wanted the freedom to ask questions and determine the course of their educational journeys–this is commendable and a quality that should be nurtured in young people. However, they were ill equipped to self-direct their own learning journeys because they cannot function in the academic model (and, yes, though I believe in creativity, autonomy, and conceptual thinking, I do believe that education should in a sense be academic, at least in the sense that students are educated to understand their responsibilities as leaders and experts in their chosen field of study). Ken Robinson, one of my educational heroes, claims that we are getting our students through education by anesthetizing them, working to serve the interests of industrialism. I call this fast food education–this focus on making education the same for everyone. This model leads to the belief that school is just a mandatory process of indoctrination that must be suffered and endured. I believe we must reinforce Robinson’s concept of divergent thinking and change educational paradigms–we must continually push our students to “think laterally”, to go beyond the standard solutions to the increasingly complex problems of the 21st century. However, every individual deserves respect and we cannot escape our responsibilities as professional stewards of our expanded knowledge–both students and teachers. Check out the rest of Robinson’s RSA talk below.
This month was a serious bummer, and a real wake up call to me. Not everyone wants to learn, not everyone cares, and sometimes, no matter what we do, once an audience is completely closed off, it’s best just to focus on how to better serve future learners so that the situation is not repeated. I’ve spent a good two weeks castigating myself, considering and questioning every pedagogical and instructional decision of the past three years, and generally thinking of ways to engage students in the process of becoming better speakers, finding opportunities for them to autonomously develop their strengths and areas of improvement, and developing a stronger definition of professionalism and the importance of strong communication skills. I am happily working on a new first day discussion of the term “professional” and helping my amazing online students develop their PechaKucha presentations. I also found out today that a club I am co-sponsoring, the Young Democrats Club, has been approved. I cannot wait to get to work with a new bunch of students in support of the YDC’s platform.