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.

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