Where I Fail As a Teacher

I’m a very good teacher but I’m far from perfect. There is a lot of room for improvement in my teaching. One thing that I consistently fail at is mixing students up as often as I should. In a language course, students tend to choose one or two partners they are most comfortable with. Since most of the in-class work happens in groups, students want to work with their buddies.

This is very detrimental to their learning because they settle into the same roles and their language skills do not develop as well as they could. To give an example, if one person in the group is good at conjugating verbs, s/he will be put in charge of conjugating by the group, and other people will not get to practice their own conjugation skills.

The best thing to do is to mix them up and place them with new partners all the time. I know that I should be doing it but it isn’t easy. Students really resist being separated from their friends and placed with strangers. They get sulky, whiny, and sometimes have to be almost forced to change groups. This is disruptive to the learning process and creates an unpleasant atmosphere in the classroom. So I forego this practice most of the time.

This semester, I’ve had two buddies in one of my courses who threw actual tantrums whenever I attempted to separate them. I stopped trying and just let them be. Of course, the result is that now each of them is lacking a crucial skill because he’s been relying on the friend to provide it. Both run a serious risk of not passing the course.

Maybe I should explain at the beginning of the course why working in different groups is important. It always feels like students get really bored whenever you start explaining the methodology of teaching to them.

What’s Up With These Students?

My Advanced Spanish students are very special. There is a lot of grammar in the course, which always makes me feel apologetic.

“I’m sorry for all these grammar activities,” I told them. “I know they must be boring.”

“No, no!” the students responded enthusiastically. “We LOVE grammar. Can you bring some more grammar exercises? We got together and made a list of topics where we still need some practice.”

This is an Advanced Spanish course, so the grammar we do is very complex. The students, however, can’t get enough of it. They even enjoy learning the terminology.

“When I think about the uses of subjunctive in the adverbial clauses,” one student says in Spanish, “I always enjoy considering how perfectly they transmit shades of meaning.”

It isn’t just grammar that they are good at. As a lab activity, they have read a short story by Horacio Quiroga and analyzed it. The absolute majority of the students came up with such interesting and unexpected readings of the story that I truly enjoyed grading that assignment. Usually, you get one or two people in a classroom who can engage critically with a text. Here, I had one or two people who did not manage to do that and wrote responses that were not very creative. The rest did great.

These students keep coming to my office to practice, to ask questions, and to discuss the subjunctive. I keep harping on the subjunctive because it is probably the most difficult grammar topic in the Spanish language. Normally, people’s eyes glaze over whenever the subjunctive is mentioned. I, however, am a great fan of the subjunctive and even have dreams where subjunctive and I go to the beach together. (Seriously, I do.) Students in this course make me happy because they share my enthusiasm for the subjunctive.

“Do you want me to turn on the subtitles for our movie?” I asked.

“No!” they responded. “We need to practice listening comprehension.”

I know that my readers are probably now waiting for a punchline where I will reveal that these are imaginary students and not the real ones. At least, when I share this with people I know, that’s their reaction. There are so many articles coming out every day that present the generation of today’s students as over-entitled, lazy, and whiny.

The truth is, though, that these are real students. I have no idea why they are so motivated, engaged and enthusiastic. I just hope that this is some sort of a new trend that will continue for a while.

Perfect People and a Sense of Humor

So yesterday we finished watching the movie Nine Queens in the two sections of my language course. One of the sections enjoyed the film. People laughed, one student clapped, another student made enthusiastic “woo-hoo” noises, everything went great.

In the other section, however, as the credits started to roll, I perceived a gathering tension.

“What could possibly be wrong now?” I wondered. “There is no sex, no nudity, no politics, and there’s a happy ending. Why are the students uncomfortable?”

“So did you like the movie?” I asked.

“Nah. . .”, was the response.

“Why didn’t you like it?”

“We thought Juan was a good person but he turned out to be dishonest.”

“Well, the only person he tricked was a con man who had hurt a lot of people,” I tried to argue.

“But he lied,” the students drawled.

“He only wanted to restore to a young woman and her teenage brother the inheritance that was rightfully theirs.”

“But he lied.”

“And he was desperate to help his elderly father,” I persevered.

“BUT HE LIED!” the students chanted.

So now I’m looking for a movie where fully clothed angelical human beings go around being perfect all the time. Any suggestions?

P.S. No, I’m not inventing these stories. If I had that kind of imagination, I’d already be a bestselling author.

What’s the Point of Testing?

For me, everything that happens in the course of teaching should contribute to improving the students’ knowledge, and testing is no exception. If the only thing that a test (an exam, a quiz, etc.) achieves is to provide a number or a letter, it means we have all wasted our time administering and taking the test in question.

People often invest these numbers with a huge meaning and start “teaching to the test” when what they should really be doing is the opposite: testing to teach.

To give an example, I devise the oral exams in my language courses in a way that allows the students to achieve a significant breakthrough and improve the way they speak dramatically in the course of the exam. They think I’m testing them when, in reality, I’m pushing them to a new level of language competency.

This is why I am so profoundly opposed to multiple-choice tests and consider them a tool of a lazy, irresponsible teacher. All such tests do is suggest to the students that there is one correct answer that a figure of authority will provide for them, and all they have to do it is memorize it and circle the “correct” answer. For the most part, the knowledge students can glean from such tests is erroneous, since for every “correct” answer, there are several “incorrect” ones.

I think that the best thing we can do as pedagogues is stop obsessing over meaningless grades and start concentrating on the actual knowledge we are imparting to the students. Testing is important because it allows students to track their progress and it also motivates them. The far more crucial role of testing, however, is to serve as an inventive way of teaching students at the moment when they are not aware of being taught.

I have taken more methodology of teaching courses than I can tell you about, and we learned to create teaching tests in those courses. In such courses, we, the future language teachers, were taught, for example, the percentage of completely new words and idiomatic expressions that each test should include in order to be effective. According to the rules of the foreign language teaching methodology, I would be remiss as an educator if I failed to include any new words and expressions into the final exam.

Of course, many college profs never get an opportunity to acquaint themselves with this branch of knowledge. As a result, whenever I go to the copy center in our building (which caters exclusively to the disciplines in the Humanities, mind you), I see a multiple choice quiz left there to be copied by one of my colleagues. There are even people who are ignorant enough to assign multiple-choice tests for foreign language courses.

I spent the entire day yesterday grading compositions in my Advanced language course. I underlined every word or expression in the text that didn’t sound right and wrote what kind of a mistake it was (grammar, vocabulary, spelling, etc.) on top. I will return the compositions to students on Tuesday. They will rewrite them and hand them back to me. After that, I will grade them again. It would have been so much easier to hand out some silly fill-in-the-blanks activity instead and spend 20 minutes instead of 5 hours grading it. But the students wouldn’t learn nearly as much from it.

A Funny Teaching Story

I know you like them. 🙂

We are practicing irregular verbs in the Preterite (those who have taken Spanish know what a pain in the behind those verbs are) when a student suddenly explodes.

Student: I don’t understand how everybody else is just guessing these conjugations!

Clarissa: They aren’t guessing, Andrew. They are consulting pages 267-8.

Student: Pages 267-8 where?

Clarissa: In the textbook.

Student: How did everybody just know that they had to look at pages 267-8?

Clarissa: It was our homework for today.

Student: Our homework? Where do I find the homework? Do you post it online somewhere?

Clarissa: It’s in the syllabus.

Student: Oh, the syllabus. . . I had no idea I was supposed to keep it. Do you have an extra copy?

Why Do They Just Give Up?

There is a new and disturbing trend that I’m seeing among students. They sometimes give up before even trying. I didn’t see anything like this before but in the last couple of years this started to happen.

Last semester, for example, my most brilliant student – really, an extremely bright guy who obviously enjoyed the course and was very much into learning – didn’t hand in one of the essays.

“Where is your essay?” I asked.

“Nah, I decided to sit this one out,” he said.

I thought that he might have been busy or overwhelmed with other assignments, so I suggested he take more time. Then, I suggested he come to my office and we work on the essay together. Then, I told him he could have until the end of the semester to do it. (I’m always very accommodating this way.) But he refused even to try. This was not a doctoral dissertation, people. It was a 2 page essay analyzing a text we read and discussed in class.

All the student had to say, though, was, “I don’t think I will have much to say about the topic, so I’m just letting this one go.”

Or take yesterday, for example. We are preparing for the mini-quiz, and I handed out activities to help students prepare because, as I’d warned them, this will be a tough mini-quiz. One of the students looked at the exercise, pushed it away and just sat there.

“Why are you not doing the exercise?” I asked.

“It looks too hard,” the student said. “I’ll just wait for the answers.”

This is a language class, so knowing the answers that other people came up with is of zero help.

I’m extremely baffled by this phenomenon. You are sitting in class, anyways, so why not at least try to do the exercise? It surely is more fun than just sitting there, staring into space. How can anybody give up without even trying? And I know these students. There is absolutely nothing preventing them from doing the assignments quite well if they, at least, tried.

These are not rich kids. The absolute majority is paying for their own education, and life will not be easy for them after they graduate. So this tendency to not even try makes absolutely no sense.

Does anybody have an explanation? When this happens, I don’t even do anything because it is so strange to me that I have no idea how to address it. Maybe if I understood the reasons for this, I could find a way to deal with it.

St. Valentine’s in the Classroom

When I walked into my Advanced Spanish classroom yesterday, I saw the words “Happy St. Valentine’s Day, Brianna!” written on the board. The message was written in Spanish and Brianna* later told me that her boyfriend, who doesn’t speak a word of Spanish, had found out how to write the Spanish version of the greeting so that the Spanish -only environment I strive to create in my classroom would not be disrupted. That was very thoughtful and respectful, so I really appreciated it.

Still, it felt kind of strange to have that message there when it was directed at just one student and everybody else was left out. I wasn’t going to erase the message because that would be mean, so I just wrote “AND EVERYBODY ELSE” under it in huge letters (in Spanish, of course.) It made the students so happy to be included in the greeting that I felt really good about my decision.

* Obviously, the name has been changed.

How to Motivate Young Academics

I have a genius proposal as to how to promote enthusiasm for teaching among new faculty members and get them to love their students.

The proposal is very simple, it costs nothing to implement, and the results will be spectacular. Freshly minted PhDs who enter colleges as new Assistant Professors should be given only Freshman Seminars to teach for the first two years of their tenure track.

Those young academics who survive this ordeal will never complain about teaching or their students again. Higher-level students they will get to teach after the Freshman Seminars will seem absolutely brilliant to them. And they will feel so grateful to their administrators for getting them out of teaching freshmen that their loyalty to their college will be limitless.

I taught freshmen only once, last semester. As a result, the more advanced students I have now seem almost bizarrely intelligent, hardworking, responsible, mature, and enthusiastic about learning. Imagine, none of them spend half of the class period chanting “I want multiple choice!” And when I come into the classroom and greet them, they greet me, too. They also sign their emails.

“I’m not sure if I ever taught a Freshman Seminar,” a colleague says pensively.

“If you are not sure, then you haven’t taught it,” I say. “This is not an experience one is likely to forget.”

What Makes a Good Teacher?

“I loved Clarissa!”, “Clarissa is an awesome teacher!”, “She does not intimidate students and truly creates a good comfortable learning atmosphere”, “I did not even dread going to class, nor did I even desire to skip – loved Clarissa!”, “She’s obviously brilliant and teaches very effectively. She fosters a very supportive and reassuring environment”, “The instructor is amazing – I love Dr. Clarissa”, “She was very enthusiastic and made the class very fun. She’s an awesome teacher! Keep her around!”, “A fantastic professor!”

These are some of the things my students had to say about me at the end of just one semester in their anonymous evaluations. When I walk down the hallway at work and hear people whisper behind my back, “Oh, I love her. Don’t you just love her? She is so amazing”, I always smile because I know that, in all probability, they are talking about me.

People often think that being a brilliant scholar and knowing one’s subject extremely well somehow translates into being a good educator. That isn’t true, though. After you master your discipline, there is still a long and tortuous road you need to travel before you can transmit your knowledge to others and do it effectively.

In academia, we often see teaching as something we need to get through before we can proceed to do the really fun stuff: our research. Research is what brings one prestige, what the tenure committee looks at before considering anything else, what we contsantly work on improving. As a result, teaching is often seen as something that robs us of time and energy we could otherwise dedicate to doing our research. I, however, propose that we approach it from a different angle. If done right, teaching can be something that actually brings us that needed extra burst of energy that we require to produce inspired research.

Of course, when teaching is an endless struggle between a harried, bored and exhausted educator and recalcitrant, sulky and equally bored students, everybody ends up losing. So here are some of the suggestions as to how one can transform one’s teaching experience into a happy, energizing part of your day that gives you wings instead of hobbling you:

1. Leave your problems outside the classroom. We are all human and we all have issues. However, students are not there to serve as a dumping ground for your ill humor or a punching bag for your self-esteem issues. If you catch yourself rolling your eyes, scoffing, sighing contemptuously or snapping at students, then something is deeply wrong. It is very easy to slip into a mode of getting yourself rid of excessive aggression at the expense of students. That, however, is extremely unfair. The distribution of power between students and teachers is never equal. Even if you often feel powerless in the classroom, you are still always more powerful than the students.

2. Don’t be a push-over. I believe that maintaining a strict discipline in the classroom and insisting on constant accountability are marks of respect that teachers and students have for each other. Educators who let students walk all over them do that out of fear and insecurity and not out of love and concern for the students’ welfare. 

3. Don’t punish students for the sins of others. You will be hard pressed to find a teacher who is not unhappy with something his or her administrators, supervisors and colleagues are doing. However, if you feel overworked and underpaid, if you are forced to do things you don’t like, if you are assigned courses you detest and are given a schedule you hate, these are issues that are to be resolved with those who caused them. It’s easier, of course, to unleash your resentments onto the students than to confront the administrators. Punishing the students for the ills of the entire system of education in this country is unfair.

4. Listen. I always ask students at least twice every semester what I could change in the way I teach to make it easier for them to learn. Of course, there is always a couple of people who say, “Give us all As and let us go!” or “Change the format of all exams to multiple choice!” Most people, however, offer really eye-opening, extremely useful suggestions. Students want to learn. They really do. Even if it sometimes seems like all they care about is getting their grade and forgetting about the course entirely, they do want to learn. Why not let them help you figure out the best way to help them learn?

5. And most importantly: Remember that the main tool of trade for every teacher is her or his personality. It isn’t just your knowledge of Spanish literature, physics or philosophy that you bring into the classroom. It is, rather, everything that distinguishes you as a human being.

I have been teaching for 21 years. I have taught little kids, senior citizens, high school students, college students, adults, students with gang affiliations and a history of arrests. However, the teaching philosophy I have shared in this post helped me make these teaching experiences become enjoyable, fruitful, and often life-changing for me and for my students.

I was inspired to write this post by this article that offers a perfect example of the kind of educator one should try not to be. Feel free to share your teaching principles in the comment section.

Yes, I’m in a Crabby Mood

What I miss on this blog is the mood update option, like they reportedly have on Facebook.

The first day of classes did not go as planned. First, I discovered at the worst possible moment that somebody messed up and let me down in a very big way. Then, I had to spend the entire day redoing a shitload of work to correct their mess-up. I hate it when people mess with my plans. I’m extremely well-organized in everything that concerns my work, and it annoys me when anybody interferes.

And now my beautiful, perfectly planned syllabus is a flaming mess.

And there is a book that came out tonight that I’d been waiting for since 2010, but I couldn’t read it as planned because I had to correct somebody else’s huge mess-up.

And at this moment I can’t even enjoy the book because I’m still annoyed about how the day went.

And I couldn’t work on my midpoint tenure dossier because of redoing a shitload of work.

And the professorial bathroom has not been repaired since last semester, which annoys me.

So I made reservations for a Peruvian restaurant for Saturday. The really great restaurant in St. Louis I visited last time wasn’t featured on the blog because it was romantically dark and the pictures of food didn’t come out right. Instead, I’ll try to take photos of Peruvian food.

We’ve been to the only Peruvian restaurant of Chicago, and it wasn’t good at all. We have Peruvians in the family, so I know good Peruvian food from fake Peruvian food. Now let’s see how St. Louis stacks up in this area.

P.S. One good thing, though, is that I’m not teaching freshmen this semester. And what joy it is to have normal, alive, curious, engaged students for a change. They kept asking questions and even laughing at my jokes (in Spanish). After a semester in silent classroom filled with comatose freshmen, I feel transported to heaven.

OK, I feel less crabby now that I’ve shared. Blogging helps.