This fall I’ll embark on the first step of my career — I’ll be teaching my first class, an English 101 at a small community college.
The prospect has me somewhat nervous. Lives will be in my hands! All eyes will be on me! Papers will have to be graded!
Needless to say, I’ve been doing a lot of reading. Books, articles, interviews with other professors — basically anything and everything that has to do with teaching at the college level. In addition to that, though, I’ve also been doing a lot of listening.
You see, I’m currently going to TCNJ, or The College of New Jersey. TCNJ is known regionally as a teaching school — while there are plenty of strong programs at the college, it is primarily known for producing teachers. Likewise, all of the graduate programs offered are essentially filled with either current or future teachers.
This means that pedagogy is brought into almost every classroom. Now, while that isn’t entirely strange for a graduate program (most programs will advertise that they are in the business of creating academics or educators), it’s worth mentioning that the pedagogy here is based around K-12 — not 12-to-infinity.
Needless to say, it’s been an experience.
While I have no aims to ever teach a single K-12 class, I still try to be as perceptive as possible. After all, there’s probably something useful I can take away from all this, right?
I would love to say yes. I would love to say that all this pedagogical discussion has been useful, that it has been productive. But — and like you didn’t see this coming — I can’t.
What I’ve actually come to realize is that the educational process in my state is in shambles. While it probably isn’t as bad as, say, Alabama or Mississippi, it’s still pretty awful. I feel like in every class I attend I hear another teacher talking about another new pedagogical theory that the state is trying to impose on them. I hear about yet another test practice, another new lesson, another new plan that is being rolled out on all the children.
I see the handouts — the articles published in journals about new methods that are productive. Of course, there are also videos — videos of children excitedly learning, using the “new” methods, so happy to be the test mules in yet another experiment.
Just yesterday a teacher told the class about a system that they have to go through in order to assign a book to their students. Apparently it isn’t good enough to just get the permission of their superiors, or the school board. No — they have to input the ISBN into a database which will then spit out if the book is “ok” to read for whatever level the students are supposed to be at.
One book — universally praised by the class as excellently written and full of culturally relevant discussion fodder — was apparently denied because it was “below” the reading level of the students.
Apparently there weren’t enough words per page. So it couldn’t be used.
So all the lessons, all the (supposedly) good writing — it was all trash because an arbitrary number set in an arbitrary system.
This was followed up by the professor noting that the Socratic method is apparently out of fashion in pedagogical circles. It was seen as bad. Apparently it’s too old and too dusty to be considered relevant.
My head was exploding.
All of this has a goal, of course. It’s apparently benevolent: to make the students learn, to help them perform better. To move the averages.
I guess that’s where my problem with all of this stems from — the idea of the “average student.” In all the journal articles I’ve read, there’s always this ideal — this metric — that determines if an idea is good or not. If the average moves, it’s good. Or rather — if the “average” student benefits, then it’s considered a success.
But what is the average student?
How can the average student be determined? Is the average in my district the same as, say, a rural one? What about one in the middle of the city? What are the averages? What about the differences between classrooms?
I’m reminded of a TED talk I watched once that noted one of the largest problems in American society is the focus on “the average.” Data is constantly plotted, averages determined from it, and strategies created from that. The problem is that averages are often just the middle ground between extremes, and if our school systems are nothing else they’re certainly a diverse group of populations separated by extremes.
Yet I feel like all of this pedagogical theory is trying to be (for lack of a better term) a theory of everything (or everyone?) — it’s trying to apply the lessons learned in small spheres to the largest ones, and I feel like that’s absolutely the wrong way to teach.
Most of the articles I’ve read seem like they want to say (if they don’t outright say it) that the method within is destined to be used with all future students — that the theory (or discussion) is meant to be broadly painted across everyone.
Methods that paint everyone as identical are doomed to fail.
I personally think I’m a great example of that — in high school I was stuck in a lot of “average” English classrooms despite writing (and reading) at a much higher level. I never understood why, and when I asked my guidance counselor about it I was told that I was where I was supposed to be. I later found out that because I chose not to be in a foreign language class, my “metric” figured I didn’t have the capacity (what) to be in those higher AP/honors English classes (once again, what). This was the method at the time: look at past classes to determine future ones. Don’t ask questions of the student — just place them and give them strange looks when the question it.
I don’t really know what has compelled me to write all of this. I know it’s a bit of rambling and not much else… but I just feel that there’s something wrong here, that we’re looking at “teaching” in the entirely wrong way.
Moreover, I think I just feel that most pedagogical discussion is, well, bullshit.
And past that I don’t have a whole lot to add, I guess. It’s just worrying, but at least I now understand why all my old professors were leery about handing me any “teaching guides.”