Students are the Material

I know I’ve mentioned this before in this space, but I just completed my 30th year of teaching. I don’t know why that milestone has been so remarkable to me, but it has been. Maybe it’s because my road to teaching was not a direct one. I was initially planning to become an engineer (like my father and brother) and then set out on my own path after tutoring students in an inner-city high school on weekends during college. That experience lit the spark that changed the direction of my life.

I might also be reflecting on this career milestone because of the diversity of students and experiences that I’ve had over the last three decades. After spending fifteen years in public schools teaching middle school and high school students, I moved to the collegiate level. Over the course of my career, I’ve been blessed to work with thousands of students ranging in ages from 12 to 65. From teaching sixth graders to teaching doctoral students, it’s been quite a career.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about this milestone as I’ve been reading The Missing Course: Everything They Never Taught You About College Teaching (Gooblar, 2019). Throughout the book, Gooblar talks about his successes and missteps over his career as an educator, which has caused me to reflect on my own. Take this passage from early in the book. Gooblar writes about his first year of teaching:

About halfway through the semester, it dawned on me: the students are the material. My task wasn’t to master the essence of some text and then convey it to the students’ hungry and waiting brains. The students themselves were what I had to study, assess, and work with to achieve something together. They were the subject of action, consideration, discussion, and feeling; their learning was the point of the whole enterprise. If I was going to be a good teacher, I was going to need to master the mysterious art of helping people change.” (pg. 4)

There’s a lot of stuff in that passage that resonates with me. First, I appreciate the humility with which Gooblar approaches his teaching. I’ve been at this work for 30 years and by some measure, I should be considered an expert or a master teacher or something. I have advanced degrees in curriculum and instruction. I’ve written a handful of books. I’ve helped train a bunch of new teachers. I’ve even led our university’s teaching and learning center for a while. I’m pretty sure some combination of that stuff should add up to some definition of “expertise.”

But that’s not how I see myself. I see myself as a learner, someone who is still trying to figure things out. I’m still creating new lessons, selecting new texts, revising my syllabi, and trying to figure out the best way to connect with my students and help them learn.

And that’s where another part of Gooblar’s passage comes in. “The students are the material.” And over the course of the last thirty years, that material has changed. Some of that is based on the different contexts in which I’ve worked. Working with middle school students is different from high school students which is different from working with undergrads. And so on. To be successful at any of those levels, one must understand the students with whom they’re working. They have to learn the “material.” And I’ve tried my best to do that as I work on ways to support my students’ learning.

It’s not just the contexts that have changed over the last thirty years. Students have changed, too. Teaching in 1992 was a lot different from teaching in 2022. I won’t get into whether the change has been for the better or for the worse. There’s no point in that. These students are our students. And these students are the material we have to “study, assess, and work with.”

And maybe that’s another reason why I find this 30-year milestone so remarkable. After all these years, I still find students to be fascinating material to study. Even after three decades of this career, I still find I have so much to learn.

Here’s to year 31.

Process over Product?

A few weeks ago, I attended a week-long institute on General Education and Assessment organized by the American Association of Colleges and Universities. My institution is in the midst of revising and updating their General Education program and the university assembled a team of faculty and administrators to attend this virtual institute. Ultimately, this team will develop a few different options and share them with our campus community before settling on a new General Education program that will go into effect a year or two down the road. Our group is really just at the beginning of our work. If this were a thousand-mile journey, our group and university would only be a dozen steps in. We have a long road (and a lot of work) ahead. Attending this institute was designed to be a kick start to our efforts.

In one of the sessions, an attendee commented that any reform effort needs to be mindful of campus culture and consider what the community values and how it operates. Sharing the famous quote from Peter Drucker, the attendee said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Without a moment of pause, the presenter responded, “You need to really focus on the process. Process eats product for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”

I’ll admit that I’ve heard the Drucker quote a bunch of times and even used it in a few professional presentations. But the “process eats product” quote is a new one for me. As often happens, it’s been bouncing around my head the last week or two and I’ve shared in it a few conversations with colleagues. I know it’s not really that novel. The quote is just a repurposing of the “ends vs. means” and “journey vs. destination” debates.  The quote is an important reminder, though. The road you take is just as important and as where you go.

While this reminder is critical to our group’s General Education reform efforts, it is also important whenever some new initiative or change is undertaken. I would argue that it’s important in how we teach our classes, how we interact with our colleagues, and … well, you get the picture. Process is important stuff. So, how do we focus on process in the work we do? For me, it comes down to a few simple mantras.

  • Be transparent.
  • Be inclusive.
  • Be willing to listen.
  • Be open to change.

I know those may sound trite, but they should be guiding principles for any organization or individual who values collaboration. When we focus on process, we demonstrate that we value the people with whom we work. We can’t be so blinded by some desired outcome that we sacrifice our relationships with our colleagues or our core values to get there.

Demanding or Officious

As part of my summer reading adventures, I’m rereading The Missing Course: Everything They Never Taught You About College Teaching (Gooblar, 2019). This is the third time I’m reading the book and I’m noticing that different parts of the book resonate with me each time I read the book. A few colleagues got together last summer to read the book as a group, and I wrote a few posts then about the different things that stood out. It seems different parts are getting lodged in my brain this time through.

Maybe it’s just based on some recent experiences I’ve had, but this particular passage has forced me to reflect on my decisions as an educator. In Chapter 4 of the book, Gooblar writes:

“I think it’s possible to be a demanding professor without being an officious one. You can care about your students and make allowances for them without fear that they’ll walk all over you. It is precisely because our students are not young children that we can be lenient sometimes, allowing extensions and makeups on a case-by-case basis, showing them that we care more about their learning than about whether they checked all the boxes.” (p. 123)

I’ll admit that I had to look “officious” up. Here’s a definition I found online:

officious (adj) – assertive of authority in an annoyingly domineering way, especially with regard to petty or trivial matters.

That definition outlines one of the challenges I wrestle with as an educator. How can I be demanding without being officious? But Gooblar’s quote presents another challenge I often wrestle with. How can I be empathetic and offer grace, without having students walk all over me? I’d like to say I have the answers, but if you’ve been reading my posts for the last ten or so years, you know that I don’t. Take this situation with a graduate student I worked with recently.

This spring, I taught a capstone course in our graduate program which involves students creating and implementing an action research project. The course is a six-credit class which involves a ton of work. The students develop research proposals, complete trainings in research ethics, write literature reviews, collect and analyze data, and report on findings. It’s a sixteen-week course that I’ve compared to “eating an elephant one bite at a time.” To that end, I’ve attempted to build a comprehensive, scaffolded experience for students that makes the huge task a little more digestible (if you’ll pardon the pun).

The students in this graduate program are all practicing teachers. If you know any teachers, you know how difficult the last year or two have been. Teachers were dealing with increased pressures and stresses due to changing schedules, changing modalities, learning loss, COVID outbreaks, administrative changes, and so much more. And those challenges and stresses regularly spilled into my graduate classes. Throughout the semester, I’d offer extensions and grace to students who were having difficult weeks.

One student, Jamie, was having a particularly rough semester. Besides their teaching stresses, Jamie (not their real name) was also dealing with some family issues. I won’t describe the issues here, but they were significant enough that I offered Jamie several consecutive weeks of grace in the capstone course. At one point midway through the course, Jamie emailed to request that they be excused from all remaining deadlines for the semester. They would work on the course and the action research project as they were able, but promised they’d finish by the end of the semester.

Recognizing the monumental task of completing the action research project independently, I explained that their plan would unlikely lead to their success in the course. Instead, I offered Jamie the option of an incomplete. They declined, which is where the real challenges for me began.

How do I be demanding without being officious?

How can I be empathetic and offer grace, without having students walk all over me?

I’d like to think that I navigated these challenges well, but I’m certain Jamie would say otherwise. As I tried to steer Jamie back to “eating the elephant” in a more digestible way, my overall focus was on their success in the class. I’m happy to report that Jamie completed their action research project and got an A in the class. But it certainly wasn’t an easy semester for them or for me.

Later in Chapter 4 of The Missing Course, Gooblar writes:

“The authority to unilaterally decide on how we teach our classes, I would argue, comes with a responsibility to explain and justify those methods to our students. I view it as an ethical necessity—I’m going to take up a substantial amount of their time, ask for a substantial amount of their effort, and assess them on my terms. At the very least, I should have good reasons for doing what I’m doing.”  (p. 127)

It’s interesting that this quote shows up in a chapter titled “Teaching the Students in the Room.” I just wish Gooblar had offered more advice for explaining and justifying our practices when the students in the room are dealing with a global pandemic, family issues, health crises, or more. Especially considering that while words like demanding, officious, empathy, and grace may be easy to define, they look differently depending on which side of the teacher/student exchange you’re on.

A Band Kid

When I was in middle school and high school, I was a band kid. I played the trumpet and if there was an assembled group at the school, I was probably in it. Marching band. Concert band. Stage band. Jazz band. Looking back, I now realize that I wasn’t that great of a player, but I enjoyed playing with those folk. We’d play during football games and basketball games. We’d play at wrestling meets and other school events. Between touchdowns and basketball periods and wrestling matches, you could hear the bands performing, trying to entertain people who mostly came to see our classmates compete. But we enjoyed playing, nonetheless.

More than playing together, I just enjoyed the people in the band. We were all band kids. Your school probably called them something different. I know our school did, too. When describing the band kids, our classmates would use a pejorative that I won’t share here. But honestly, it didn’t matter what we were called. We were a group of misfits and weirdos and square pegs that didn’t quite fit in with the other social groups in the school. Somehow those divisions mattered then.

Jocks. Nerds. Band kids. Stoners.

And maybe they still matter in schools. But all these years later, I recognize that other problems exist in the world, ones that are way more important than whether someone plays a trumpet or throws a football. But I digress.

I’ve been thinking about my days as a band kid lately because I joined a community band recently. After almost 35 years, I’ve decided to pick up my trumpet again. I have to admit that I was terrified. I literally had nightmares about walking into the first practice and being shunned for my inability to play. Of course, that’s not what happened. I was greeted by a bunch of supportive people who were gathered by the joy of playing together. To be clear, mistakes were definitely made, not just by me but by the other people in the band, too. At one point in our first practice, I forgot how to play a D sharp, and I pulled out a cheat sheet I had found online. Another trumpet player leaned over and said “If you forget how to play a note, just ask. I’m here to help.” At last week’s practice, a baritone player made an epic mistake and apologized to the group explaining that he “was concentrating so hard that I forgot how to play.” We laughed and took it from the top, so he’d have a chance to do better.

I’ve been writing this post in my head for the last four weeks. In one version, I was planning to focus on the power of practice. In another, I was thinking about digging into John Dewey and the motivational aspects of perplexity. But this post elbowed those ones to the side.

The environments in which we live, work, and learn are critical to our success. And while it’s easy to divide the world up with artificial titles like “band kid” or “jock” or whatever, what’s really important is that each of us find spaces where it’s okay to make mistakes. Where we can laugh at our missteps and have the opportunity to take it from the top and try again.

Revisiting Start with Thanks

A few years ago, I wrote a post entitled “Start with Thanks” where I unpacked my missteps with some colleagues. In the post, I wrote about how a group of faculty had collaborated to plan an event for students on campus and when the event was held, I forgot to thank them for their efforts. That oversight mistakenly communicated that their work wasn’t important. It also left their efforts unseen to the attendees. I wrote that post as a way to reflect on my mistakes and to offer a plan for doing better. In the post, I drew on an NPR interview with David DeSteno, the author of Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride, where he discussed the long-term importance of saying “Thank You.”

In the short-term, you can kind of be selfish and be a bit of a jerk and you can profit. But over time, people are going to realize that you’re not a good partner to work with, you’re not someone they want to have around. And what beautiful evolutionary models have shown is that over time, people who show gratitude, who cooperate, who are trustworthy, who are generous have the best outcomes. Feeling this emotion helps ensure that we do the right thing.”

So, I wrote that initial post as a reminder to “start with thanks” and to communicate my gratitude to the people whose work, time and contributions I value.

If that post was written as a reminder, this post is being offered as a revision. While I feel like I’ve been pretty successful at remembering to “start with thanks” and acknowledge the contributions of my colleagues, I’m reconsidering how best to express my gratitude. I’ve been reading a book titled How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation (Kegan & Lehay, 2001). As the title suggests, the authors introduce different “languages” and discuss how we often don’t communicate in the most supportive ways. While the first four chapters are dedicated to the “internal languages” we use with ourselves, chapter 5 focuses on gratitude and the “language of ongoing regard” we express to others. I have to admit that this chapter has really shake me to my core. It has also prompted me to reflect on how I communicate my gratitude with my friends, my family, and my coworkers.  Here’s why.

According to the authors, I’ve been doing it all wrong. And maybe you have, too.

Let me provide an example. Over the last few months, a group of colleagues, community members, and I got together to plan a large community event. I was asked to give some introductory remarks where I channeled my “start with thanks” mantra and thanked the planning committee. Here’s what I said.

“I want to thank the planning committee for their hard work and dedication in planning this event. While I’m standing up here, they’re the ones whose commitment and efforts made this event happen. Thanks.”

According to Kegan and Lahey, that offering of praise and gratitude falls short of “ongoing regard” because I haven’t fully expressed my appreciation or admiration for their work. They write:

Ongoing regard has two faces, one of appreciation and the other of admiration… When we are expressing appreciation, we let the other person know that we have received something we value. We feel we have been given something – not necessarily a material something- that we are happy to have, or feel benefited by having. When we express admiration, it less about something value entering our sphere and more about our taking up temporary residence in the other’s sphere. We imaginatively inhabit the other’s world and find ourselves instructed, inspired, or in some way enhanced by the other’s actions or choices.” (pg. 94)

To do better, I need to revise how I communicate my ongoing regard by including three elements: being direct, being specific, being nonattributive.

Being Direct
When communicating gratitude, I need to thank the person (or persons) directly and not place them in an eavesdropper role where they’re hearing my thanks offered to others. In my thank-yous, I need to avoid using third-person pronouns (they, she, he, etc.) and use more second-person pronouns (you, your, etc.). While that change in language may seem minor, it changes so much of how the communication appears. “Being direct” means the expression of gratitude is less of a performance for others, but a genuine recognition of the admiration and appreciation of the one being thanked.

Being Specific
Like the first element, “being specific” appears pretty straightforward, but has larger implications for how we communicate gratitude. To embrace a “language of ongoing regard,” I must identify specifically what I appreciate and what I admire.

Being Nonattributive
This element was the hardest for me to get my head around. To express a “language of ongoing regard,” I have to avoid identifying other people’s attributes but focus on my own experiences. What did I witness or experience that I want to acknowledge? I have to avoid characterizations and generalizations about the person and focus on the activity. The authors’ rationale for this one is pretty compelling. They write:

If we characterize people, even if we do so quite positively, we actually engage, however unintentionally, in the rather presumptuous activity of entitling ourselves to say who and how the other is. We entitle ourselves to confer upon people the sources of their worthiness.” (p. 99)

Rather than focus on what I see as the person’s attributes, a better approach is to focus on the actual admirable work that I witness and want to recognize.

So, while I’m still working on “starting with thanks” to acknowledge the amazing work of my colleagues and collaborators, I’m finding that I need to revise how I offer my gratitude in ways that are “less subject to formulaic insincerity” and more fully communicates my recognition and admiration of their work.