Occupational Hazard

If professors want to be good teachers, they need to stop making fun of their students, writes Larry D. Spence.

July 6, 2009

“The students said they don’t do paragraphs anymore. They insisted that I let them do PowerPoint,” the professor regaled his colleagues. The room of instructors stopped chewing lunch to chuckle.

“So the students can’t write,” he went on, “I guess we have to live with that and I told them they could use bulleted slides. I assigned a chapter with five short answer questions. And you know what?” He threw up his manicured hands. “They can’t read either.”

The room rumbled with laughter. My gut grumbled as I waited for enough chicken salad to disappear before I could start my talk. When faculty members discuss teaching, stories about ill-prepared, unmotivated, and ungrateful students bubble up like swamp gas. Always this talk ends in gallows humor. Everyone laughs and walks off with the same unspoken phrase – “How are we supposed to teach these creatures?”

Who hasn’t heard that message? When my patience thinned as failures multiplied, I shared my student stories, enjoyed the laughs, and walked away feeling like I’d been playing in the dirt. These moments happen. Students resist learning. They are sometimes cunning, incompetent, threatening and privileged. The worst scenarios get passed around like bawdy postcards.

The practice corrodes our craft. You can’t be a competent and successful teacher until you throw it out. Most good teachers can tell you when they gave it up. But truthfully it takes time to kick the cynicism monkey.

On an early morning walk many years ago with my neighbor, a journeyman carpenter, I expounded instructor funny bile for maybe a mile. My companion began shaking his head even as he laughed at my riffs on preposterous excuses and dumbfounding laziness. Finally, he said, “You know I could never be a professor. I don’t know how you do it.”

I waved off the acknowledgment of our heroic task. “You get tough and you learn to laugh.” His head shook. “No, no. I’ve listened to your jokes and complaints about students for a long time. I feel sorry for you.”

I slowed the pace. “Every day,” he went on, “I build houses. The studs are never quite straight; the nails are imperfect and the plans mistaken. Contractors screw up schedules, suppliers deliver late, clients change their plans -- I could complain about these blunders every day but I’d never build anything.”

I flushed as I saw myself through his eyes – a crabby professor, always with a funny student story flavored with blame. The jokes hid a deeper problem. I saw students in terms of their deficits, not mine. They couldn’t construct or evaluate arguments; fathom an author’s conceptual framework; read for connections and patterns; write engaging and vibrant prose; and most of all bring knowledge of culture or history to their learning. They were impossible.

Seen that way there was no way to teach them. I thought about my neighbor’s example. His materials and conditions weren’t perfect but he continued to learn to be a better carpenter.

Blame the student stories stopped on our walks that day. My students weren’t perfect but they were all the materials I had. I couldn’t do my job without them. In my head there was a new rule – the students are the stuff with which you work. You can’t blame them. If they don’t learn, you haven’t taught well enough. To follow that rule was hard.

My colleagues thought I had become an “idealist” – a polite way of saying, “patsy”. They knew that so many outside things caused student failure – high schools, the media, computer games, and all the other flotsam of ignorance – it was beyond their control. By taking responsibility for all those failures wouldn’t I doom myself to flagellation?

At first, it wasn’t so bad. I organized past data on grade distributions by topics, assignments and schedules. Performance always went down in the seventh and eighth weeks of the semester no matter what I did. Investigating assignments I found learning failures caused by my mistaken assumptions.

Unease developed as I got deeper into the details. Students dropped more often; hostility grew in the classroom. It came to a head one day when Tony bristled into my office. He was just the kind of student – always curious and fermenting with ideas and questions – that delighted me.

Tony said, “I can see what you are trying to do. We need skills and practice. “But,” he stared at the floor to hide the embers in his eyes, “does it have to be so awful? Can’t we ever feel good? Must we always hear about mistakes?”

My ready answers – learning is hard, the early stages confuse, and you have to practice even when you hate it -- stuck in my throat. A fine student was miserable and something was wrong. As we argued, I began to see my mistake.

Learning for me was about disciplined practice and correcting mistakes. But Tony saw learning as curiosity, questions, and triumphant answers. My version had no emotions to mush things up. Tony thought it was drab and joyless; based on fear and shame. Tony’s version could keep him working for hours. My version made it hard to even get started.

Mistakes are mistakes, I told myself, but that didn’t alleviate the gloom of failure. I remembered my infant son determined to walk and falling down, getting up and falling down; sometimes crying and sometimes smiling as he swayed upright. What could drive that relentless resolve to learn but desire? All learning, I began to see, was ignited by emotions. Without them, classrooms were barren.

That insight forced me to see students not as deficits, but as knowing people with potentials that I could not imagine. As a result, my courses did not get easier for me or the students; but they ignited with energy and occasional bursts of joy.

The great teacher of basketball, John Wooden, once said you aren’t a loser until you blame others. I thought that was a moral judgment. It wasn’t. Wooden meant that if you blame others you can’t learn. And I would add if you can’t learn you cannot teach.


Larry D. Spence is a learning innovation consultant at the Smeal College of Business of Pennsylvania State University.


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