Discover Prompts: Day 13 – Teach

I’m a bit behind in Discover Prompts. Day 13 is the word “Teach.” Today is April 22 – Earth Day.

I’ve always taken exception to the phrase, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” I came by the teaching profession almost by accident. But I later realized I had been a teacher most of my life already.

To pay for graduate school, I took a Teaching Assistantship. Our TAs weren’t like in other disciplines, student helpers for a Professor. We had full charge of our classrooms, including syllabus development, rules, assignments, conferencing with students and grading papers. We did have some guidelines to follow, such as having to assign so many papers per term and meet requirements for a common final exam.

I was extremely shy at the time, but I understood English and writing and had a knack for learning. So I learned that I could prep any material handed to me and present it to an audience. But then teaching took on a life of its own for me. Rather than work towards a graduate degree in English for what reason, to be a writer? to work in publishing? I began to pursue knowledge of literature and the field of English to teach – to share my love of literature, writing, and the world of letters with others.

My students responded, most of them well. As with many teachers, I’ve had my share of bad apples, of students who were predisposed to be unhappy regardless of the circumstances of their classes. I was not a good teacher for those who didn’t want to be there, though I could motivate good work. Those I motivated were already predisposed to want to work, so the hard work of motivation – the crank starting of desire to learn – was already activated. I merely helped the student move forward with each step they took.

After 25 years of teaching, I decided it was time to do something else. I spent 25 years as a teaching assistant or an Adjunct college professor, mostly for in-person classes, but also online for the last 6 years of teaching. An active 17 year career in web development made transitioning to teaching online easy for me. I was always a techie. For a while, I sought full-time work in community colleges, but I never landed a job. I also had a life outside of teaching, and as an adjunct, I had no contract and thus did not make much money, so I never really got time off in the summers. Year after year, grading ground me down, and I got slower and slower at it. I needed a break.

Now that I haven’t taught for a year, the first time in 25 years, I see my slavery for what it was. But I’m proud to have been a teacher. In my heart, I will always be a teacher. Not everyone can teach, just like not everyone can write well. But one thing I learned from teaching is that anyone can learn to write. To learn to write, you must write. To learn to teach, you must teach.

So let’s change that phrase: “Those who can learn, can do anything. Those who won’t learn, will be slaves.”

West vs. East – part 3 – Hostile Student

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I started teaching college English in 1986, as a graduate teaching assistant at the University of New Mexico. My world changed. I was a good teacher, inspired in my own scholarship and interests as I strove to do well for my students. I immediately embraced teaching as a lifetime career choice. But what gave way was my first love – writing. With the heavy load of grading, I couldn’t afford the time commitment for my own writing. And thus, a dream deferred. But here we are.

The many experiences a teacher goes through is enough to fill, and has filled, many books. Some of my experiences were extraordinary, some outrageous, some run of the mill, experiences that most teachers have. One of the last experiences I had as a teacher helped me make the decision to switch careers and leave teaching for good.

I had moved from San Diego to New Haven, CT, leaving behind an Adjunct Professor position that paid my health insurance and gave me a stable part-time income that I could supplement with online teaching and other Adjunct teaching assignments. I landed jobs at two schools in New England, one at a community college, which I wrote about in West vs. East – Part 2, and one at a state college, two sections of freshman composition with a focus on argument writing and analysis of op-eds.

In one section, I had mostly first-year freshman, but with a contingent of disruptive students that proved more headache than not. In the other late afternoon section, I had a group of mostly older students, non-traditional students returning to school. In this section, one particular student took an immediate dislike to me. She self-identified as a veteran, and she was often late and unprepared. She didn’t understand my “academic jargon” and would wrinkle here nose and ask her classmates, “What did he say?” And they’d “translate” for her and she’d say, “Oh, that’s what he meant! Why didn’t he say so?” – All said during class and right in front of me.

Then near the middle of the semester, this student became hostile three days in a row. First, she turned in a single sentence as a “draft” of a major essay. When she placed the paper on my desk, I said, “this isn’t a draft,” and she got verbally hostile – “it’s MY draft. Who says this can’t be a draft? ….” a diatribe that went on right near the end of class as students were filing out. It was disconcerting to say the last. The next class period, she didn’t show up. As I was leaving class, she shows up with her book in hand and said, “I have the assignment. I’ll be right back.” And then she turned around to leave, saying something about the copies being broken at the library and she had to print out her assignment. I said, “class was over and the assignment was late,” which set her off. She starts yelling through the empty hall toward me as she’s practically running the other direction! I waited for a few minutes and then thought, “wait, what? No…she missed class. She can turn her assignment in like any other student during class.” And I left. She placed the assignment into my mailbox later that day. On the third day, she was late and didn’t have time to finish the quiz. She wrote on the quiz a single sentence – “I’m here not because I want to be but because I have to be.” Having worked with many students who were veterans, I understood that many of them weren’t invested in their studies but took college courses so they could receive their base housing allowance. During class, she bad-mouthed me to her classmates during group work. After class, I asked her about her quiz, and she merely repeated the sentence she wrote and then said, “I don’t like you.” I told her that was plain to see, and that I didn’t appreciate her bad-mouthing me to the other students, that if she has something to talk with me about, she should talk to me directly.” Well, that set her off.

She went into full angry mode, wouldn’t let me talk or respond and wouldn’t calm down. I put a desk between me and her because she was getting awfully close and looked like she was going to hit me. In over 30 years in the classroom, I’ve never had a student become hostile like this, especially three days in a row. Her friends tried to calm her down and escort her out. One student took video of the encounter because it was out of hand. One of my students emailed me after class to ask if I was all right because it was clear that I was upset by the encounter.

As the professional I am, I did my best not to personalize the encounter but it was clear that she had a negative influence on the class and was out of control. I contacted the Office of Student Conduct. I spoke with the Chair of the department and the Director of the writing program as well.

The Office of Student Conduct took my statement, said she was clearly out of line and would be kept out of class on the next class period, which was a Monday. He said he would keep me in the loop and contact me and let me know what he found out and what would happen going forward.

The student wasn’t in class the next Monday, but I also had not heard from the Office of Student Conduct. On Wednesday, I received an email an hour before class saying the student had been cleared to return to class. I told the director, “Absolutely not. She is not allowed back in the class.” He heard that I was serious, and he had me cancel class and contacted the Dean to see what our options were. In the meantime, we set up a meeting with me, the Chair, the Director, and the student that would occur after the next class meeting.

Before that class meeting, the Director communicated that the student would have to be allowed back in class because she had paid for it. I thought that was absurd. So I prepared to have her back in class.

She indicated that she wanted to speak with me before class. There were two minutes before class. She was immediately confrontational – “When have I ever been disruptive in class?” she asked. Sensing the unwinnable question – it’s kind of like “when did you stop beating your spouse?” – I deferred and said, “I’m about to teach class and can’t really have this conversation right now, but I’d be happy to make an appointment with you to talk about this issue.” She refused to let it go. I had to tell her three times that I couldn’t answer her question right then. She stormed into class and grabbed her books and said, “This fuckin’ Professor won’t even answer my question!” and stormed out. The entire class was witness to this latest outburst. Everyone was quiet that day, and I let them all go 10 minutes early.

The student had contacted the Chair, who showed up 5 minutes later but had missed me.

The next week, we had a meeting set up with the Chair, the Director, the student, and me. We all showed up at the appointed time, except for the student.

The Chair and Director and I, all seasoned professors, talked shop a bit, and then they told me that I had to let the student back in the classroom. I was livid. They said if I didn’t agree with this determination, that I should go to HR and file Hostile Workplace report, which I did directly following that meeting.

The student never showed up in class again. And I waited. And I waited. The semester ended.

Not once did the Office of Student Conduct nor did HR ever contact me about this issue. Never. I taught the next semester to a class that was largely mute. I kept looking over my shoulder in the halls for the student. I never saw the hostile student again. I also never saw the Chair nor the Director again, nor did they follow up with me at all.

The spring semester went by with very little in the way of drama, which was fine with me. But still, the entire situation felt unresolved.

During the summer, I decided not to teach for that institution anymore. They didn’t have my back. Inevitably, teachers will have problems with the occasional student. But in all the places I have ever taught, I’ve always had the full support of administration. Classroom instructors are in the trenches, and most administrators have once been instructors themselves and understand the hard work it is to deal with so many different personalities. And whenever a problem occurs with a student, there is a concerted effort to resolve the situation in a way that also supports the efforts of the teacher, as long as the teacher has not egregiously abused his or her position. Which I had not.

I wrote a letter to the President of the University, the Dean, the Chair, and the Director, decrying their lack of institutional support in this instance and explaining that they are opening their institution up to potential violence. I reiterated that I did not feel supported because NO ONE EVER CONTACTED ME from the Office of Student Conduct nor from HR.

The weak letter I got back from the Dean indicated that they had clear the student as a threat and that was that. He never addressed the lack of follow-up.

So I’m glad to be done with that institution. After almost 25 years of classroom teaching, and well over 100 class taught, I feel free from the shackles of teaching. No more grading. I now have time to write and pursue the dreams that I first had when I jumped into this profession.

I’ll find another way to support the efforts of students, I’m sure. But at this point, I’m enjoying my newfound freedoms.

West vs. East – part 2

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In part 1 of West vs. East, I discuss the trivial issue of what we call bread brands, and the more serious issues of bad driving and pedestrian habits, and people’s rough exteriors in the East, and homelessness.

As winter approaches early this November, I’m reminded of why people may be a bit rougher around the edges in the East – the friggin’ cold. I’m used to the cold now. I lived in Kansas for 14 years and it gets very cold and windy on the plains. Last winter was mild for a cold winter, so it wasn’t too terribly difficult to get through. In San Diego where I spent the previous 13 years, the weather is warm year round. When it gets to be about 60, we grab our sweatshirts and coats and make cold noises like “brrrrrr” and grab our own arms for a hug to warm ourselves up. The sun and mild weather allows for 24/7 beach access and ocean and bay sports. The reason that people are fit in Southern California is that they can be outside year round. The sun provides a healthy dose of Vitamin D, though of course it can provide a lethal dose of melanoma if you don’t use sunscreen. In the Midwest, I learned about mall-walkers, those who didn’t have day jobs who got their winter time exercise by walking laps in malls. I haven’t seen that in the East. People just tend to hunker down and stay in as much as they can. You can’t really do anything about the cold, so life goes on. The Midwest brings frequent dangerous weather, so I saw many more people neglect their health by not going out – it’s just too cold, or icy, or snowy, or windy or a combination of all of the above.

Enough of the trivialities, the obvious differences between the West and the East. For the majority of my life, I taught composition, literature, and English as an Adjunct Professor at major universities (UNM, KU, and UCSD, SCSU), at for profit universities (Univ. of Phoenix, Ashford University), and community colleges (San Diego Mesa College and Norwalk CC). I have enough experience (more than 25 years of teaching English and well over a hundred classes, both in person and online) to fill several books, but let me tell you about the push I needed to finally say “enough of this!” and decide on a change of careers.

I got into English to be a writer. Life took me on a different path for many reasons, one of the first being that I learned in grad. school that I had an aptitude for teaching and pursued teaching as a profession. The sheer amount of grading for an English teacher was enough to keep me from pursuing just about anything else. When I started down this path, I was told by my own undergraduate professors that the field would open up, that the professors were getting older and need to be replaced. LIE #1 that I bought hook, line, and sinker. Now, my professors weren’t lying. They didn’t know major social, economic, and institutional realities would change – that universities would fill more professorships with cheap labor, namely Adjunct Faculty. I don’t have exact numbers, but at one point at San Diego Mesa College, there were 30 some full-time faculty and 160-180 active Adjunct instructors teaching anywhere from 1-3 courses a piece. Picture the world turned upside down!

An Adjunct has to make a living, so that means assignments at several universities. I knew one gentleman with a wife and a son who routinely taught 7 courses at 3 different schools each semester as well as summer school. Each course had 25-35 students, and we routinely assignment a writing each week and a major essay every two or three weeks. My colleagues were professional and they did their jobs well. The drop-rate for students at the community college was about 1/3 to 2/3rds of the students, with a good 1/3 disappearing in the last half of the semester. Most of these students would have passed, bu they just disappear, have life crises or a change of heart and don’t bother to discuss their situation with their teacher. At any rate, the problems with being an Adjunct are much bigger than the benefits, except ….

At San Diego Mesa College, as an Adjunct who was guaranteed 3 courses per term, I qualified for health insurance (thanks Union!). No money out, a good Kaiser plan – it was enough to want to keep that job for as long as possible, until the assignments started to be jeopardized by fluctuating enrollment and changing course assignment times. I don’t know why, but my standard 8:00 am class was changed to 12:00 pm, and fewer students signed up for the 12:00 pm class. Thus when a class didn’t make enrollment, it would be cut, and I would be out the monies for that class. Combine that with Ashford University (sued for Fraud by the State of California), who stopped assigning me courses one month without saying anything and I lost 3/4 of my income in a two week period. Ashford gave me a single reason – “You are better suited to teach in the College of Liberal Arts (COLA) than in the Division of General Studies (DGS).” Ashford is an online college with 5 week courses. I had been working there for more than 5 years, and with a steady 2 course overlap for more than 2 years, which amount to a steady income (no vacations), and about 1/2 my income. I figured out that “better suited to teach in the College of Liberal Arts” was code for “you are failing too many students.” Pardon me – but you accepted students without ANY pre-reqs or baseline of skills. Thus the very young military wives and 70 and 80 year old stay at home grand and great grandmothers who were sold the idea that education will change their lives so that Ashford could take their financial aid loans from the US Department of Education were not well-prepared. As such, my own standards dropped so dangerously low that I asked them merely to complete all the assignments and let me know that they could at least write an intelligible English sentence. A SENTENCE! That’s not too much to ask. So when they couldn’t, I could not see how, given a RUBRIC PROVIDED BY ASHFORD, they could possibly pass, no matter who many hours I put in (despite being told to limit my hours to only 12 hours per week per class. Ashford SUCKS! It’s a rip-off, and I’m glad to be done with that problem.

So as I moved East, I lined up two more teaching jobs, a 6-unit development writing course at a community college, a course I have taught many times, and two 3-unit Writing Argument course at a state university, followed by a single 3-unit course in the Spring.

The community college course was led by the Director. He dictated a rigorous curriculum, set up for a two-day a week class, yet I was teaching 3-days a week. I told I had to follow the curriculum to a T for the first 8 weeks, through the Midterm, and provided all handouts and assignments. Converting the course to a 3-day a week schedule was mind-boggling, despite the fact that I’m a reasonably intelligent experience teacher. I was offered no help. The IT department got my log-in credentials fouled up and for the 1st MONTH of the course, I could not even access all of my materials online. Fubar after Fubar. Turns out that the rigorous curriculum was far too rigorous. I’ve always had freedom to tailor a class to the students, but I didn’t have that luxury. These students were mute and unprepared. One student routinely slept in class and got angry when told her wasn’t going to pass and couldn’t sleep in class. One student missed every class in which an assignment was due. Students could not read, I mean, literally, had much trouble picking out topic sentences, from examples, from supporting details, even after a week of going over slides with the SAME INFORMATION on it. We studied for the midterm for 3 weeks. I didn’t teach the test, but came pretty close – “memorize this list. Know it backwards an forwards” – things like the writing process (Prewriting, Planning/Outline, Drafting, Revising, Editing). And 3 of 19 students pass the midterm, the 3 who passed with low D’s. The exam was structured for a week – 2 days of a “reading exam” followed by an in-class essay on day 3. If they scored poorly on the reading exam, they had to do better on the in-class essay portion in order to pass. If they scored better/well on the reading exam, they were said to have mastered the material and didn’t have to perform as well on the written exam. What kind of twisted grading is that?

We had one day of lecture a week, and two days of writing lab. On the day of writing lab, I was to stand at my podium and watch the screens of all the students who were sitting around the perimeter of the class next to each other. On my screen, I could see and control all of the student screens. I was expected to “keep students on task.” I could commandeer their computer screen and write “I see you aren’t working, Get working on your essay!” Babysitting. I did not take the job to babysit!

I missed 6 classes that term due to illness. I was completely stressed out -vertigo, heart palpitations, extreme stress (there was stuff going on in myt other assignment at the state university as well) and the commute was awful on top of that. (The traffic flowed toward New York city, and the last 5 miles took 3o-40 minutes due to its proximity to NYC traffic. A 30 mile trip was routinely 1 1/2 hours. Not even southern California traffic was that bad. Of course, my course met at 9:00 am. ) I only missed writing workshop days – days in which students were sitting at their computers and writing their essays – Babysitting days! They could do that without me there. I always communicated with the students, and they always knew what assignments they had to work on.

The Director found out I missed these classes, and he wasn’t happy. He had my pay docked. Only 5 students passed the final (same situation as the midterm, except that for the final, there was also a portfolio component). Because of missing classes, the Director mandated that all students must be given passing grades. Wait, what?

Let’s take a closer look. I’ve read portfolios for many years. There’s a rubric and some course goals, and a group of teachers evaluates the portfolios according to that rubric. Two passes, and the portfolio passes. One pass and one fail and the portfolio is graded by a third instructor. We make small notes to indicate what we see the student writer has adhered to or not to inform the instructor of record. During our REQUIRED final portfolio grading session, the Director sat in a chair with his feet up on the table and read the occasional essay. He required that any student we considered might get a B or A, that he read those portfolios and get to determine if they achieved Honors or not. In reading essays, he would remark, consistently, “I’m not feeling it” when he’d say a particular essay wasn’t passing. So despite a rubric – he went by his “feelings”? I’m sorry, but what a shitty director. Practice what you preach. And tailor a curriculum to your students. This particular director set those students up to fail. My BABYSITTING on those days I missed isn’t what cost unprepared students. Weeks spent going over material that was ON THE TEST, that I guided them to put on the board – they couldn’t remember that material on test day. It wasn’t just one or two students. This cohort was the least prepared class I had ever taught.

Fortunately, I only had to teach their for one semester. I have no intention of ever teaching their again, and I burned that bridge.

I have stayed in touch, off and on, with my first office mate I had as a graduate teaching assistant at the University of New Mexico. He moved to New York some years ago. When I moved east, I learned about where he lives and got in touch with him. He spent some years teaching at the same community college. He asked me what I thought of the students there, and I told him. I asked him what he thought. He offered a one-word response: dumb.

Most of my career teaching was on the West coast. I had many unmotivated students. I had many uninterested students. I had students who procrastinated too much. I had students who shot themselves in their own feet with excuses, or violating absence policies and making it so they were unable to pass. But I always viewed students as bright, capable, and able to offer something to the world.

I won’t proclaim those students as “dumb” as my old office mate has, but I know what he means. They were not ready or cut out for college, even at a community college. It didn’t help that the curriculum was set up for them to fail. What was dumb was a director who thought he was bigger and more important than the program that he was running. What was dumb is a director who didn’t trust his teachers to teach the students based on their capabilities and the teacher’s own experience. What was dumb was a director who didn’t trust his teachers to know his students. What was dumb is setting up a development writing course on the par with an English 101 honors section. Had the director noticed his own hubris just a little, maybe he could better serve students than to pass them out of a class that they clearly couldn’t handle so that they could fail further down the line.

Dumb.

Part 3 of West vs East will concern another teaching episode – a hostile student situation at a state university in which the university did not back up the instructor, did not communicate with the instructor, and let the hostile student off without any repercussions. The hostility concerned a student who was a veteran and occurred about 25 miles from Sandy Hook, the site of the devastating school shooting incident of 2012. Evidently people in Connecticut (those in charge) just don’t learn.

Until part 3 – be well. Thanks for reading.

Writing Anniversary

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While most people were donning costumes, carving pumpkins, and trick or treating, I was silently celebrating the start of writing my memoir. On October 31, 2018 at The Owl Shop in New Haven, CT, I began this journey, thinking it would take about 6 months. Now one year later, I estimate 6 more months of drafting and then a wholesale revision.

Like most writing projects, this has been marked by fits and starts. I started a teaching assignment at Southern Connecticut State University that was marred by disruptive students and then a hostile student. Combined with a commute to Norwalk, 30 miles that took 1 1/2 hours three days a week to teach the mutest developmental students I have ever encountered and bombard them with an unfair curriculum and babysitting, my last teaching assignments soured my otherwise successful 30+ year career in teaching composition. I would teach one more semester in the spring, to another mute group at Southern, and that would be it. Between semesters, the extreme stress of my lack of job prospects and subsequent unemployment (under-employment) led to health problems – stress! But all my health tests showed that I am healthy and strong, thank goodness.

I secured work at the Yale library, a temporary position that was turned into a longer term limited appointment, physical work with no nightly grading, a trade I was willing to make. So I lost a good 6 weeks of writing in the winter, followed by a week-long vacation in August to Belgium, my first trip to Europe, in which I did not bring work with me. That was followed by another month of struggling to get back into writing.

But here we are, the beginning of November and I’m still writing. Transitioning from an academic life to a writer’s life is the challenge I now face, a challenge that, after a year of writing, I am winning.