Thursday, March 17, 2011

Teaching: Do I Make A Difference? Is it Enough for Me?

I've started reading College Misery. I'm not sure if that's a good thing. Every day, anonymous professors, adjuncts and instructors contribute posts that essentially vent about the worst parts of their jobs. Unsurprisingly, the worst part of their jobs, on many days, are the students. And as I read through the posts, I am struck by how familiar, how real, the situations they describe feel to me. I have taught theses students and classes full of these students before. Like an unending flood, the students keep coming with the same deficiencies when it comes to both their skill level and attitude towards education.

Inevitably, I think, every teacher asks themselves, do I really make any difference? As I went through and graded my students' first major paper assignment, I wondered if my teaching really had anything to do with the quality of the papers, or if the good students would have earned an A whether they had attended my classes or not. And the poor essays, did my teaching and guidance make any difference at all for them? Am I making any impact on my students' learning, or am I simply assigning and evaluating, awarding grades and credits? 

This is not a trivial issue. We are talking about the purpose and nature of education in two of my classes. Am I simply reinforcing what Paulo Freire calls "the banking concept of education"? Actually, I'm not even sure I'm depositing any knowledge (or even information) into my students; as one comment on my post about fear of failing as being the only motivation for students suggested, am I just simply creating a "compliant class"? But I wonder how useful Freire's solution of involving true dialog is even feasible in classroom full of students who have no interest in communicating? I want to disrupt their normal learning pattern and expectations, but I have no idea if my students are even interested in coming along for the ride. Are they just complying to my request to be disruptive in order to give me what I want?

Around and around it goes in my head. I don't know why the same material that I taught last semester is producing such different results in me; last semester, I was invigorated, while this semester, I am despondent. What is the point of all this? Why not do what the university implicitly and explicitly tells us to do, which is to lower expectations, lower standards, keep the kids happy, enrolled, and (eventually) graduated. But then I read about other professors who are as engaged and passionate about "activating the classroom" and disrupting our assumptions as to how and where learning should take place (and why). We're out there, teaching and writing about our experiences. And then I remember, I'm probably not nearly as brave (in terms of the risks I am willing to take in my classroom) as these professors, and given my position as a contingent faculty member, I can't afford to be, either.

And then, something happens. I walked into my developmental writing class, and a student nervously tried to get my attention with a tentative, "They published my essay." Which essay? Who? Turns out, he submitted his narrative essay on an event in his life that shaped his attitude towards education to his local hometown paper and they published it. He was embarrassed because he was so proud of his accomplishment. I almost burst into tears in front of the class I was so proud of him. Imagine, a student goes from hating writing to being a published author, in no small part because of the work we've done in my class. I made a difference.

Any another post about teaching would probably end right here. But mine does not. I've written before about how teachers/instructors/professors are often coerced into accepting less pay because of the "psychic wage" (via Marc Bousquet's writing). And I am drawn to what Worst Prof Ever has to say about teacher burn-out and seeing teaching as a "vocation" (especially the part of about divine calling; sounds a lot like what Freire was talking about, especially when you consider the original educators in the colonies were religious types). Has my own business stalled because I am too burned out from my own teaching? Have I crossed over from loyalty to desperation, or at least into the realm where my devotion to my students outweighs common sense?

To conclude, the answer to the first question, do I make a difference? Yes, I know I do make a difference for my students. Is it enough for me? I don't know anymore.


  1. I know the feeling as well. And I'm ft now, though not tt. It's a wonder any of us survive to do this job long term.

    I hope that you can find a comfort in your work and make a decision that is right for you about whether to continue with this or whether to do something else. If you choose something else, I hope that the opportunity will be bright, clear, and good pay.

  2. Thanks for the, er, shout-outs(?). As you know, I don't think the small happy moments are enough to justify the misery, but I think that's a decision that everyone has to make for long as it's an actual choice, and not being bullied by society's movie-driven expectation. (Ah, Foucault, I did not believe you then but you have officially won.)

    At any rate, best of luck with your decision. Have you read Post Academic on coping with job burnout? It's (as always) quite constructive. And apologies if I've already asked you that, mind like a seive.

  3. I agree with since I don't think that the small happy moments are enough to justify the misery. I also firmly believe that whether you do what you're doing is your choice and not what everyone else/society bullies you into believing/expecting. I think that you have to make a decision as to what is right for you..which pays you well and where you have bright clear opportunities ahead of you.


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