Teaching Teachers – and Learning, Too

June 5, 2013

Sad teacher, May 9, 2013. (http://www.guardian.co.uk).

Sad teacher, May 9, 2013. (http://www.guardian.co.uk).

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!

Canevin Hall (where I taught for four semesters, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA, June 5, 2013. (http://w4.campusexplorer.com).

Canevin Hall (where I taught for four semesters, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA, June 5, 2013. (http://w4.campusexplorer.com).

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.

Chicken and broccoli stir-fry over rice, February 2013. (http://slimimzsolutions.com).

Chicken and broccoli stir-fry over rice, February 2013. (http://slimimzsolutions.com).

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.

The Arrogance of Youth, Grad School Style

June 5, 2012

Me taking the most thuggishly-goofy-arrogant picture I could, June 5, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins).

I’m sure that there are plenty of folks I’ve met and known over the past three decades who think that they could sum me up in one word – arrogant. I know beyond a doubt that’s what Crush #1 thought of me back in ’82. I know that some my grad school classmates and friends varied between seeing me as “aloof,” “arrogant,” “cocky,” and “focused” in my five and a half years of master’s and doctoral work. And I know that one person I worked with in the past fifteen years thought of me as arrogant, even though I doubt that he would know what arrogance looked like if he saw it in the mirror every day, which he did (see my post “The Messiah Complex At Work, Part 1” from November ’11).

Former Sen. John Edwards [and new symbol of arrogance], after acquittal/mistrial, Greensboro, NC, May 31, 2012. (AP/Chuck Burton via Salon.com).

But arrogance isn’t simply cockiness run amok, or people bragging about what they intend to do without doing it, or doing it and then showing off with a Tiger Woods’ fist pump or my occasional cross-kick. It’s making assumptions about the things of life as if the march to success is a given, as if victory is guaranteed, like taking the next breath or being able to stand upright.

I did that in the spring and summer of ’93, in the transition between my grad school days at the University of Pittsburgh and my more successful yet gloomy times at Carnegie Mellon. I was a year removed from my great first year of master’s work (see my post “The 4.0 Of It All” from December ’11), and a summer removed from working for Westchester Country Department of Community Mental Health in Mount Vernon for the last time (which I will discuss later this summer). The way I saw things, I knew that God was on my side, that my hard work would pay off, that everything I did led to more success, or more money in my pocket.

I acted on those beliefs that March, April and May. I wanted to move out of my crappy studio and drug-infested apartment building on Penn Circle South in East Liberty, to what I called grad student’s row — Stratford Avenue — off North Negley and Penn Avenue between East Liberty and Friendship. I even put a deposit down on a one-bedroom apartment at the beginning of March, anticipating that I’d find something work-wise for the summer. “Something would come up,” I often thought and said. So typically American of me!

Terrell Owens, somewhere between arrogant and suicidal, 2012. (http://queensofkings.com).

I had applied for three fellowships that year, including a summer fellowship through Pitt and the Ford Foundation’s Predoctoral Fellowship Program (via the National Academies). I just knew that I’d get at least one. But the least laid plans of the arrogant often lead to the land of losses. Throughout April and May, I received rejections for all of my well-received, coming-in-second or “Honorable Mention” applications. Not to mention that my soon-to-be former grad program wouldn’t allow me to teach a US history course, though they didn’t have anyone else to teach it other than me at the time.

I realized after my mid-May root canal (see my “Facing The Tooth” post from May ’12) that I was about to enter a tough summer financially. I managed to get back my deposit for my dream apartment two weeks before I was due to move in, paying my Penn Circle South studio rent in the process. Then, with $350 to work with until further notice, I waited.

It wasn’t until the end of the first week in June that, after some qualms about my over-qualifications, Randy Brockington and the Allegheny County Department of Federal Programs hired me to work on a report. They wanted me to assess the work of their staff on the Job Training Partnership Act portion of their department. And all to the tune of $6 an hour. My mother spent the next four years teasing me about it. As if I had another option, as if coming back to 616 for the summer would be less torturous than falling six weeks behind on my rent and receiving an eviction notice.

I made one minor adjustment in my halcyon days of grad school that in-between summer of ’93. To simply not assume anything to be a sure thing, even when it was, to make Richard Marx’s “Don’t Mean Nothing” my mantra when it came to anything around money. Who knew that a little more than two months later, me and my friend Marc would have a controversial article in Black Issues in Higher Education? Who knew that less than two years later, I’d have a Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship, this despite my advisor? Life is a funny, ironic walk.

Golden State Spencer Fellows

February 12, 2011

Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellows Retreat, Berkeley, CA, February 17, 1996. Donald Earl Collins (psst - I'm the young and cute Black guy in the white turtleneck in the back row)

Fifteen years ago this week I went on my first trip to the West Coast. It was for a Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellows retreat in some villa of a conference center just off UC Berkeley’s campus. It was our second meeting as a cohort, presenting some of our doctoral thesis work in front of a group of professors from Berkeley, Stanford, UCLA and other places. It was also a chance for the thirty-three of us to meet the selection committee that had made it possible for us to be Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellows in the first place. We spent so much time in Berkeley and in Oakland that most of us didn’t bother to take the BART into San Francisco, so the trip was a failure in that area — not really.

But it was very important in one aspect above all else. I learned during our three days of meetings how I wasn’t alone in the world of academia. That I wasn’t the only misfit was the first revelation. There were other Fellows whose departments and classmates had shunned them and their work because it touched on the “soft” field of education. Or because it wasn’t hardcore quantitative analysis. Or because they weren’t thirty years old yet. Or even because of the age-old academic issues of looking at educational issues through the trifocal lens of race, gender and class.

Some of us talked about our dissertation advisors and their lack of support for us and our work. We were individuals who had won a prestigious individual award and a $15,000 grant to research and write a doctoral thesis, but somehow had managed to do this without the support of tenured faculty at major, even elite, universities! I found that fascinating. I also would’ve found that unbelievable if my advisor hadn’t been Joe Trotter. We didn’t have any obvious solutions to the problem of asshole advisors who may well not have supported us on the job market. Nor did we have a solution to their midlife crises or male pattern baldness. Yet it was good to spend significant time talking about this.

I also discovered through this retreat that I wasn’t the only one of us ambivalent about having a career as a professor. It didn’t help that we had a freshly minted associate professor from U Chicago talking to us about her average work week. Not because a forty to forty-five hour work week seemed anywhere close to arduous. At least to me. The half of the Fellows who really did want academic careers moaned quite loudly at the prospect of teaching, research, writing and serving on committees for so many hours. I, among others, looked at the list and found it rather mundane and restricting.

Many of us were concerned about becoming institutionalized, kind of like the way Morgan Freeman’s character “Red” talked about it in Shawshank Redemption. My own fear was that I could make myself a successful academician, molding my imagination and writing more fully into the forms of academic prose. Meaning that I wouldn’t be able to communicate with anyone outside of my subfield or field, and certainly not with the general reading public, who usually wouldn’t use words like fait accompli unless they were French speakers. There were a few other Fellows who didn’t want to write or do research at all. They wanted to teach, to change the world of K-16 education somehow.

Catherine Lacey, the director of the Dissertation Fellowship program at the time, concluded with a lofty and philosophical speech about our bright futures. It was a good speech. It made me begin to think about what to do with my life if I didn’t get a full-time gig as faculty at an elite university. For many of us, though, this would also be the last time we could be this honest about our hopes, fears, and warts when it came to our doctoral theses and post-doctoral careers. If only I had known about the Ford Foundation’s associate program officer program when it existed back in ’96.


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