This Week’s Lesson: Put Pedagogy First #CCCwrite

For this week in the Reflective Writing Club, we have been ask to reflect on a professional mistake that helped us grow. I have never ended a semester where I didn’t have a list of what I wanted to tweak or add to my lesson plans for the next round of classes. The fact that my job includes multiple clean slates and restarts is one my favorite aspects of it. It is designed for active reconstruction and growth. While I have certainly made mistakes, I do not have a dramatic tale of transformation or conflict to share on my blog. I do, however, have a recent lesson to share about the value we put into our own work.

For the past decade, small group conferences have been a key part of my face-to-face course structure. In lieu of a regular class session, I meet with groups of four students for an hour at a time. They take turns reading their essays and giving each other feedback. I listen and offer my feedback for each paper after all the students have spoken. It’s a good bonding experiences and something most positively mention at the end of the semester class feedback forms (I am learning not to call these “evaluations”).

This semester, thanks to a snowy Michigan winter, we lost a day of class and fell behind in our class schedule. Unlike previous semesters, I also could not schedule group meetings without cancelling a whole week of class. I decided to do an in-class peer workshop instead. Even though each group reviewed their essays using a carefully constructed checklist, the revisions they turned in after the workshop were the worst set of papers I had seen in a long time. I should have taken a week to conference my students, even if meant completing one less essay this semester.

I chose to write about this mistake because I was not sure how much of a difference my presence made in these groups. Did I interfere with the peer interactions? Could I simply replicate the questions I would ask and have a checklist to drive the workshop? It’s sad that I did not trust my pedagogical knowledge and teacher instinct and that I needed to see a bad stack of papers as proof of my value.

It’s nice to know that our time and presence can’t be easily replaced. Currently, in higher education, we have to fight to keep lower class capacities and to maintain the relationships we are able to develop with our students. We, the faculty at my institution, were recently asked, why we are not capable of teaching classes with more students. It was framed that if we were great instructors, we should have no problem teaching more students in our classes. Instructors at our neighboring schools teach classes with more students, why can’t we?

Great instructors fight for the ability to connect with our students, not increase our output. I made a mistake this week of prioritizing output over quality and now I am suffering through a stack of papers, most which will have to be revised and re-assessed. I’m writing about this moment so I will remember not to do this again.

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Education for Discovery, not Vocation #CCCWrite

Today is the start of my latest educational online group endeavor, the Reflective Writing Club sponsored by the Online Network of Educators. The opening writing prompt is “What do you know now that you wish you had know then?”

“Identify a time in your past and think critically about differences between then and now. How have you changed? What do you know now that you wish you had known then about yourself, your profession, other people, technology, or life in general?”

This was a challenge as I believe many lessons in life require refreshing, as we slide off course into the uncomfortably silent classrooms, stand in front of the cupboard engaged in mindless munchies, perform the perfectionist procrastination (see this blog post as Exhibit A), and live the harried life of the overcommitted. However, I was able to look back at my young self and recognize that I have learned a thing or two about life, in particular about the role of education.

When I remember my early 20s, I see myself in my unflattering office khakis, staring at a screen, waiting for the next task or email during the endless 8 a.m. to 5 p.m shift. I had done everything that was expected of me: pursued a career-oriented path, worked every internship I could find, paid off my college loans six months after graduation, and obtained a public relations position with a good salary and benefits. I was miserable and bored. Instead of creating a life that fit me, I fit myself into the life I thought I was supposed to have. I developed ulcers —stressed by the series of bland days that stretched in front of me and by the many cups of coffee I drank.

If I could go back to my undergraduate years, I would tell myself to slow down and appreciate the opportunities for discovery. A straight path is the quickest way to the reach the wrong destination. It’s a hard mentality to embrace, though, as a first-generation college student. College is seen as necessary step to a financially secure future, not a place to find oneself. At the community college, we are now putting students on guided pathways because excess credits are a waste of time and money. Who can afford to explore?

Last week, I sat with our Admissions staff to discuss all the wonderful opportunities and programs we offer through our English discipline. They listened politely and seemed appropriately impressed at times; however, at the end, they still wanted to direct students to a specific career with a comforting salary. I heard how students come to them and share how they love to take pictures and how they reply that this is a hobby, not a career. Excuse me, what? I was that student. I loved to write and I was made to shape that love into one particular job title, which ultimately was not the right one for me.

The best decision I made was to go back to graduate school, not to invest in a career, but to invest in myself. Even though it was not my intention, through exploring my passions, I found my true vocation. After a year of classes, I left my office job and entered the classroom. I now live the life that fits me and am no longer plagued by ulcers, though I still love coffee.