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Teaching Unprepared Students

Monday: April 7, 2014

This post is a combination of my personal opinion from asking students questions during office visits, comparisons made between universities where I have taught the same class, and a book that may hold some answers. Part 1:

I am currently teaching at the university where I received my undergraduate degree. I have a good understanding of the students, which are quite different than the students I met at the university where I gained my graduate degree (and the ones I taught there my last year). These students live at home or have apartments and mortgages in the local area (there are no dorms). Therefore, most of them have part time jobs and many have full time jobs and almost all of them have long commute times (averaging probably 20 minutes to over 2 hours). Some have family members they must take care of, and a lot are parents themselves (even the freshman); there are many non-traditional students in the mix, too. Economic classes differ as well – a lot of low-middle to low income kids come through these doors. First generation college kids without a clue how these things work. And while some of the local high schools are perfectly normal or even rated high, some in the greater region from which these students are drawn from fall below the curve, so to speak. Overall, their mindset is probably different than the students found at most large campuses – if school was their single priority in life, they typically do not wind up at this university. Of course, some take it very seriously (like I did, toward the end), but many here look at school as a necessary requirement because their parents told them to, or they believe that “the piece of paper” will make their life better in some way. For several, school is not about the education one receives, but the hoops required to jump through to get a job.

I knew all this when I took the teaching job. However, I was blown away at just how much these characteristics play in each student’s attitude toward their time at university. So much so that during one pointedly low weekend, I decided I never wanted to teach again. (It’s been a rough winter, ok?) But the scientific side of me kept coming back to my Human Origins class – how could teaching the same material have such absurdly different results between two campuses? It couldn’t be that I just can’t teach – it was something about my interaction with the average type of student here. So, what was different?

I began really formulating some type of ephemeral pedagogy (gah, I have always hated that word!). I was brainstorming ideas, but unfortunately I found myself with too much on my plate to really implement them. I mean…would anything really work anyway? I had no idea how to teach – no one teaches college instructors on the hows of it! Yet, I got rated so highly at the other university – why weren’t my ideas working here?

Then one day in my email box, a book club was announced from the other university. “Teaching Unprepared Students: Strategies for Promoting Success and Retention in Higher Education” by Kathleen F. Gabriel. A book club, how dorky was that? Yes, that was my first reaction. But then came the “well, I’ve never done a book club before…I am not even sure what it entails and all that” so I was to avoid addressing it for all of a day. Because finally, I said, “this is a long shot, but it sounds exactly like what I need. I will go out on a limb and join it.” In fact, there was trouble with shipping me the book and I kept pressing them for a copy because I finally realized that I had to learn something about teaching if I was to make it through the semester.

The book came and I learned that my ideas, which had been cobbled together from my own experience with a vast amount of teachers and relations with other students, were exactly on point. That was a fire lit for my self-confidence, for one thing. But the trouble was that I didn’t go deep enough with my ideas. And, as mentioned, I had made some key mistakes which set the path for this clunky journey I’ve been on ever since.

This post will continue in part two, explaining what I learned. But it has given me the gumption to stick at it, to enjoy it again like I had my first year (which was a true surprise). I like my students, and I may not teach forever, or be given the opportunities to teach every semester, but that one low weekend of ill thoughts is behind me. What lies ahead are a lot of minor tweaks which will hopefully solve major problems.

It’s just exhausting being a new teacher, you know?

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