I’ve been in a classroom as a lecturer, teaching assistant, teaching fellow, instructor, or professor off and on since November ’91, and consistently as an adjunct associate professor for the past five and a half years. I’ve taught roughly 2,000 students in that time (not counting the high school students I worked with when I was Director of Curriculum with Presidential Classroom in ’99 and ’00). I’ve probably had about 100 or so difficult to impossible students in that time. But no group of students I’ve taught have been more difficult for me to work with than teachers, actual and aspiring. Yet I’ve learned more about teaching from teachers in my classroom than from any other group of students.
This month marks fifteen years since I taught my first graduate course, History of American Education at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. It was my first opportunity to teach since I’d graduated from Carnegie Mellon University the spring before. It didn’t necessarily show. I figured out fairly quickly, though, that the students in this required education foundations courses weren’t the wide-eyed grinders I had during my Carnegie Mellon years.
Twenty-two students in all were in my course, and nearly half of them were already in the classroom at suburban schools scattered through Western Pennsylvania. Most of my students had at least five years on me, and the youngest was my age, twenty-eight years old. I had only one Black student, and a classroom full of ready-to-be-bored White women with low expectations for any history course. On top of that, we were supposed to meet for two hours a day, five days a week for six weeks. And all for the wonderful salary of $1,935!
I wasn’t intimidated. But I probably should’ve been. I taught the course as if I was teaching a watered down upper-level undergraduate history course, great if the course was only for history majors or high school history teachers (of which I had two or three). With so many actual teachers in my classroom, though, I realized by the beginning of the second week that they were privately critiquing my teaching style. They noted that I lectured too much, that I didn’t facilitate discussions well when I did have discussions, that my paper assignments were too open-ended for a group of classroom and aspiring teachers.
A student who didn’t like their B+ on the first paper assignment aggravated some of the tensions in this first class. She stood up during my review of their first papers and yelled that her master’s “thesis committee didn’t find as many problems with [her] writing” as I did. I said in response, “Well, I didn’t read your master’s thesis or grade it, for that matter.” Just short of losing control of my classroom, I met with the student in the hallway to settle her down (albeit by threatening to report her actions in my classroom to the dean) after that class meeting.
That first semester resulted in a love-hate relationship with the teachers I taught. Most truly liked the way I related US history to the short and winding history of American education. About a sixth of my students tore me apart in evaluations, criticizing everything from my lecture style to how I pronounced certain words with a “New York” or “Black” accent.
This only grew worse in my fall ’98 graduate course. I truly thought I’d drawn the worst group of students ever. Fourteen in all, and none of them seems interested in earning an MAT (Master’s in Teaching), much less in an ed foundations course. They never seemed to do the readings, much less understand them.
Two weeks before Thanksgiving, one of my students brought a chicken and broccoli stir-fry dinner to class, which she proceeded to eat during the lecture portion of my class. She continued during the break and into the discussion. No one was prepared. I finally asked, “How many of you have done the readings for this week?” Not a single student raised their hands. I immediately dismissed the class for the week, adding “there’s no need for us to have a discussion this week, then.” I said to the female student intent on eating her way through a three-hour class, “Now you have plenty of time to eat. Don’t bring your dinner to class again.”
I was so frustrated with this group of students. I mean, they were grad students, right? They seemed about as motivated as a group of ninth-graders at a low-performing school, on the verge of dropping out. I decided to do some background checking into my students, and realized that most of them barely met the 2.5 GPA requirement for the MAT program at Duquesne.
That’s when I also realized that some of what my students had said about me during my summer course was correct. I did lecture too much. I didn’t devote enough time to discussion. I never discussed what I wanted to see in their papers. Most importantly, I didn’t meet my students where they were before raising their expectations in their own academic performance. I treated them as if I didn’t care if they learned the material, even though I obviously did care.
I immediately began to apply these minor epiphanies in the last six weeks of this class, with my students more involved as I became more of a facilitator and less of a lecturer. While this group was hard on me in their evaluations, they also noted how their views of history as teachers had changed. Meanwhile, my views on teaching had changed, and for the better.