Where are we going again?
The Handbasket » Posts for tag 'teaching'

Failure … It’s A Good Thing 2 comments

There is a bizarre sort of deja vu that comes from teaching the same material to different groups three times a week. The first time it is fresh, although perhaps not “new”. If not enough time passes between the first class and the second class, serious deja vu sets in. For me this term, the second class happens hot on the heels of the first one, a mere one hour later. It is going to be hard to keep the energy up for this class. I repeatedly had the feeling of “Didn’t I just say this?” The weird thing was that they actually laughed in the right places, even though I had the feeling that I “just did this”. A bit disorienting. The third class happens 24 hours later, thank goodness, and I have had time to shake off the first two. Still, I could feel myself getting a bit punchy. I am grateful that my Friday late afternoon (and I do mean late afternoon) class was equally as giddy last week and that made for an unexpectedly fun and energized class.

I should just say, as an aside, that I’m glad that acting/theatre thing didn’t work out. I can’t imagine keeping 6-8 performances a week “fresh”!

New faculty training, lo these almost 10 years past, included a session on classroom management issues. One of the suggestions I kept from that session is the discussion of my expectations of student behaviour in the course and I have adopted this as part of the first class for every course I teach.  The “expectations” page is about one and a half pages long and I go through it, section by section, trying to keep it light but letting them know I’m serious … all at the same time. We discuss the reasons for some of these expectations, why they are important. One of the sections is labelled “No Personal Attacks”. At this point in the class, I usually draw two little stick figures on the board and show the happy stick figures sharing their ideas in a realm quite separate from their physical beings.  Keeping the discussion in the realm if ideas, and not in the realm of “the person” is an important, nay, critical, distinction to make.  People can disagree with each other’s ideas without, in fact, needing to disagree with each other’s value as human beings. However, people fear that sharing ideas will result in others making judgements based on those ideas – and this is not a groundless fear to have. We do tend to do this, and part of the shift I like to see communications students make is to develop the discipline NOT to rush to judgement quite so quickly. This shift takes time, of course. I like to introduce the concept as a basic rule of operation in my classroom environment and, later, as a concept supporting team work.

So, by the end of the week, I had drawn my little stick figures multiple times, and tried to find different ways of saying “play nice … be kind … critique ideas, not people … healthy disagreement is force for creative good … what are some phrases we can use in this situation? … ” and, on my way home on Friday, with all this echoing in my head, I had a revelation of my own.

I ended 2009 feeling exhausted and pretty low and, although the end of 09 had its challenges, I’ve had rough patches before and not felt so defeated. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what else was wrong. Then, I realized that I had a lot of “big plans” for 2009, some as New Year’s resolutions and some as just personal goals … and I didn’t make much progress on any of them. I was experiencing the nagging feeling of having failed myself, of having lost focus. And I was beating myself up pretty good about that.

It seems to me that I forgot a couple of things.

Thing #1 – Failure is good.

Years ago, I took one of those self-improvement courses and one day the instructor said this:

If you haven’t failed recently, you are not doing enough.

At the time, once I thought it through, it made a great deal of sense to me. Of course! Statistically, if we are doing lots of things, we are going to fail at some of them. We are going to screw up, say the wrong thing, start the wrong project, piss the wrong person off. People who don’t take enough risks don’t experience a lot of success. Sometimes, “failure” is the price of success. We also learn more from our failures than we do from our successes.

Thing #2 – Stick Figures Rock

I forgot to be one of my stick figures for a moment, and I let the sense of failure get too close to me, personally, and not remain in the realm of the external. My “failures”, if they were that, existed outside of me. They are not “me”.

Thing #3 – Expectation Management

Setting expectations, or personal goals, or New Year’s Resolutions – I generally think these are good things to do. Somehow, though, I let an unconscious adherence to these specific and particular outcomes obliterate the beauty and the busy-ness and the fun of 2009. In 2009, I learned so much and laughed so well with such amazing people in my life. I learned to be more “in the moment”. I needed some help and I got it. I felt loved. How can a person wander around feeling gloomy about THAT? (Seriously, girl, get a grip … ) Long-time readers may recall my image at the beginning of 2006 in which I wanted a “burger with everything on it, extra pickle, with the juices running down my arms as I devour it” kind of year. I’d say 2009, most of it, came pretty darn close.

I still want to achieve some of those things on my 2009 list and, oddly, I feel more ready and focused to get there now. Maybe I wasn’t ready a year ago.

So, a new week begins and there are more stick figures to be drawn. I wonder what they will tell me this week?

Extended Absence Greeting 4 comments

Hey there – remember me? 🙂

So, the last few months of 2009 became a muddy blur during which time writing, and exercising, took a backseat to the following:

  • caring for the lovely Freddie as she recovered from surgery to repair ruptured discs in her spine (neck). My home became a baby-gated, cushioned, modified pet crate for seven weeks. My dog was in pain and I felt helpless. And then, shortly afterwards, broke. So grateful that Freddie’s Other Mom, and the lovely WWBA, were able to be such a supportive part of this adventure. But it did take its toll. Freddie needs to be carried up and down stairs and, at first, needed more, shorter walks. I live up two flights of stairs and my routine was tied more than ever, to Freddie’s requirements. I was exhausted.
  • … and thus got I ill myself with a persistent bronchial infection – several weeks of coughing and hacking and sleeping badly.
  • having my car vandalized, right here in the underground parking lot. Stuff stolen, car damaged. Much time and energy lost over a 10 day period, dealing with this. Not to mention feeling just a wee bit violated.
  • grading 174 really sub-par essay-like business reports in 3.5 weeks. That is a real number, 174. 87 in the first round that had to be done quickly and returned so they could have feedback to complete and hand in the second round. Second round to be graded to the grade submission deadline at the end of term. This activity will suck your brain out through the eye of a needle and will rip your heart out of your chest, tossing it away like last year’s PlayStation. Don’t let anyone tell you that teaching isn’t an emotional pursuit. After teaching plagiarism (how to avoid it, not how to do it) as a topic in class, finding students who persist in the behaviour is like getting smacked up the side of the head with a 2 x 4. I’m not sure I can explain why, it just feels … horrible.  It does get balanced out, of course, by students who really do make incredible progress and there were some really fine moments of this as well. Somehow, though, this term, the amount of grading and the roller coaster ride it took me on just about did me in.
  • ongoing negotiations with management on workload issues (see above) and the looming possibility of a strike that no one wants yet that seems difficult to avoid. Multiple meetings with management over next term’s workload. A workload review by a larger committee. Not much progress. Stress. Self-doubt. Worry.

As you can see, not a lot of writing took place. Furthermore, I actually have found myself daydreaming of the smell of my gym. What I’ve learned is that my mental and emotional health is linked to these two activities. Thus, I resolve to re-prioritize and get both disciplines back into my life. Although I’m going to wait until mid-February to actually step on the scales, I think. Yikes.

Anyway, thanks for your patience – all three or four of you. 🙂 Stay tuned for more … as for now, I’m off to the gym!

Icebreakers I Should Avoid 3 comments

Classes start in seven days and, as one does, I’ve started to imagine that first week of classes. What I will say. New ways to present information. Improvements on ways I can connect with students.

Each year, the age demographic shifts. The students stay roughly the same age. I get older. However, as a demographic element, age is not homogeneous in the post-secondary college population. There will be, roughly, 70% of the students in the age range you would expect for second year college: 18-20. The rest will be “mature” or “returning” students who tend to be, I’d say, anywhere from 32 – 50 years old.

The vast majority are first or second generation Canadians. Many have very real challenges with English as a Second Language, the challenge being they are trying to do too much too fast. It is my job to teach them “Business Communications” from a Canadian business perspective. This is to be delivered at a second year college level. Everything from business etiquette to written communications (hard copy and electronic) to interpersonal communications to presentations skills.

Regardless of age, many of these students identify with social, cultural or religious communities that are out of my realm of direct experience. Many are visible minorities in other parts of the city, although typically not in the part of the city where my college is located.

As I’m sure you can picture, it is nice to just have an informal chatty few minutes at the beginning of the first class, as students arrive. Build some initial rapport. Smile. Help students feel welcome and a bit less afraid of the course that is going to make them Stand Up And Speak In Front Of Others.  So I try to come up with innocuous, inoffensive, chatty things to say. Here are some examples of “things not to say” at the opening of the first class:

Did you have a good summer?

Couple of problems with this one. First, within the Sri Lankan Tamil community, a two young men were murdered, brutally, over the summer. Right here in Toronto. At least one of them was a student at our college. A significant percentage of our student population is Tamil, a relatively close-knit group.

Furthermore, many of these students will have studied through the summer to make up for missing courses, or to get through faster. As I found out last year, many of these students don’t take a summer break.

Moving on …

What did you do on your summer vacation?

Same problems as the first question, with one additional problem. A person educated in North America asks this question with a small sense of fun or play or irony. You know, the implied reference to that essay we were asked to write, or joked about writing, in elementary school. A person who did not receive their primary education in Canada will not understand this subtext.

How do you like being back in class, back in a routine schedule?

Some didn’t leave, having attended class all summer. Many are single moms, or have part-time jobs, or more than one part-time job, or full-time jobs, or other family-related responsibilities. For some, adding a class schedule is yet another layer of responsibility. Granted, for others, it is their ONLY responsibility. Our classes are a real mixed bag this way. I’ve seen this sort of question start long, argumentative discussions about who has more responsibility and who has to work harder … which sort of sets the wrong tone for the opening of this class.

The main point to remember in all my casual conversations with this non-homogeneous student body is that their life experience up to the point in time that they walk into the classroom is likely to have been vastly different than mine. Any questions that I ask, any examples that I use in the classroom, that reinforce that distance, or reveal my erroneous assumptions, create a new teaching problem for me to overcome. Any questions I ask, or examples I use, that reinforce commonality will usually make my job easier.

Under these circumstances, on day one, I think I’ll stick with the old reliable stand-by that always seems to work in Canada. “How do you like this weather?” 🙂

That Teaching Thing 3 comments

I spent a lot of time on the phone today for some reason. Here is an excerpt of one conversation:

Me: blah blah blah … web consult … blah blah blah … hockey … blah blah blah … food … blah blah blah … gym … blah blah blah … birthday party … blah blah blah …

Friend: Um … you haven't said much about teaching. What is it like to be back in the classroom?

Oh. Right.

It is about 800 times easier than it was before. This is primarily because my anxiety about it has almost entirely disappeared. I have no explanation for this.

Case in point: Yesterday, I walked into my 12:30 class having done zero prep. None. Well, in fact, there was no prep to be done because the point of the class was to create teams and set them to working on projects, and I hadn't yet met two of the 10 students, and thus no teams could be created until I got at least a rudimentary sense of these individuals. I walked in with the projects ready, and with my powerpoint slides from Week Two last time I taught this, which I hadn't looked at for over a year. I created quick working groups, assigned them some relevant questions to explore, while I met and chatted with the two late arrivals. I had the project teams created, slides updated and things really rolling within 20 minutes. Everything worked out fine. By the time class was over, we were ahead of schedule.

See, the thing is I don't seem to take stuff very seriously if I find it easy. I figure if I can do it, anyone can do it. I have to grapple with the task a little for it to have weight in my life. However, as I explained to my friend, a year ago, I would have had quite a bit of angst about the situation over which I have no control – the low enrollment and the missing mystery students. That part really has changed. No angst (yet).

Let's hope it stays that way.

Read and post comments | Send to a friend

The End is Nigh 4 comments

Of my grading, that is. I can see the light, faintly, at the end of the tunnel.

I have so many posts planned. Tags to include … weird doggie nicknames, doggie-talk, memes, taking stock, old blog, pluralism – Canadian style, middle-aged mixed media mash-up, and confronting the enemy.

Marking / grading is a much more emotional experience – for me, I suppose – than one might expect. My classes are small and (supposedly) at a graduate level. This past term, I taught two classes to the same group of 16 people, so I got to know them pretty well – or so I thought.  I designed each of these classes to have the following at the end:

  • term project (due in either the last or second to last class)
  • in-class assignment (group work, timed exercise)
  • final exam

Times two. So that is six major sets of rather involved stuff to mark.

It is hard to describe what it feels like to teach a group of students, to get to know them reasonably well, and then to have them hand in plagiarized work on their final projects and, in a few cases, the final exam – a portion of it was take-home. In some cases, the work handed in by student A still had student B's name on it.

It feels a bit like getting kicked in the head. With this group, I have turned myself in knots to try to get them to understand project management. They have two textbooks, software, customized powerpoint slides AND the summary slides provided by the textbook publisher, each other (esp. for the group work) and me, twice a week. Every teacher feels their subject is the most important, of course. The beauty of learning project management – philosophically – is that you can apply this framework to ANYTHING. To completing schoolwork, to cooking a huge meal for many people, to managing IT projects, to building a house … very useful, transferable skills. After all the resources I've put before them, the practice, the lectures, the hand-holding through the software step-by-step, the individual tutoring after class … the response of eight out of 16 students was to either provide material to other students, or to hand in the materials provided by other students.

Sigh. Feels like pissing in the wind somedays.

I have one set of final exams left to grade, a discussion board to evaluate, and peer evaluations to compile. Then the marks get entered and I can start cooking/baking like a mad-woman for Christmas. Oh, I have some furniture to paint, too.

It is a beautiful day here. Not sunny, but very warm. Spring-like. Someone didn't get the memo about Canada and December. It is warm enough for me to have my windows open and get an exchange of air in here. My dog had a marvelous time in the park, cavorting. We had an extra long walk. One of the other dog people in the park said she saw crocuses (crocii?) coming up in her front yard.   I hear birds chirping outside. Sounds … hopeful. A good way to approach the final batch of grading.

Read and post comments | Send to a friend

Top of page / Subscribe to new Entries (RSS)