Dead Poets’ Society: one of my favourite fantasy films.

I am treating this post as a sort of sequel or at least a bookend to my previous post about PhDing from Afar. In this stunning next chapter of my narrative, I will reflect on my experiences teaching in the Great White North thus far.

In a previous life, I was a high school English teacher. I got the degree to show for it and everything. It was a good job and one that I enjoyed most of the time. I especially enjoyed my last secondary gig teaching at a Catholic school. I was apprehensive about taking that particular job because I did not know how or if I would fit in. My fears were allayed quickly and I ended up making lifelong friends there. As short and enjoyable as my high school teaching career was, however, I could see the limitations to it for me  academically. It’s not that I didn’t think what I was doing was important or mentally taxing, just that I really wanted to be in the business of creating the knowledge that high school English teachers teach. While I can argue both sides of the equation —  my current research will never  be taught in high schools *or* some things I and the people in my field are doing might eventually be incorporated into secondary thinking and, therefore, curricula — my main concern is that I do the best work I can without any thought about who might (or might not) benefit from it. In this way, I am an unabashedly selfish researcher. And I think this is necessary to a certain extent in all forms of academic work. I’ve realized recently that selfishness is, for me, a great teaching tool as well. And…

…segue. I am, at heart, a selfish teacher. There are few things I truly care about in this world and feeling like I’ve done a good job conveying information to students so that they learn well is definitely up there. Sure, I care about their feelings and self-esteem and all of that, but at the end of the day it’s on me if they don’t get what they need out of my class — and I ain’t talking about grades here. What good is an A+ if all you’ve done is figure out a way to game the system and you’re still an asshole?* For me, the feeling I get when a student is expecting a certain grade and ends up earning a higher one is great. It means that I’ve done something right to facilitate that student’s success. Not that the student didn’t do anything. On the contrary, they worked damn hard. After all, I don’t assign grades. Students earn them and it makes me feel good to see an engaged student really killing it academically. That’s what it’s really about: how good it makes me feel.

So, there’s the whole accomplishment thing, which is good. There is also a formula for inside the classroom that brings about my maximum enjoyment, but I haven’t quite worked it out yet. I’ve pinpointed a couple of things I know that do not contribute to my enjoyment, however, and they are on offer here.

Disengaged or Uninterested Students
This was really more of a problem when I was teaching high school. I know some teachers like to see that as some sort of mountain to climb and to inspire kids to love Shakespeare or some other movie-of-the-week bullshit, but it was one of the things I really hated about high school teaching: there are some members of your audience who are openly hostile and actively trying to derail whatever meticulous plan you may have had to shape minds or otherwise be a savior. I think I was lucky in that I was, in fact, part of that hostile crowd when I was in secondary school so most of those students I encountered as an educator I could deal with swiftly. Did I get them to love Shakespeare? I don’t know and I don’t care. Did they do/learn something in my class? Probably. Win! But because I don’t plan on teaching high school again, I don’t have to really deal with that particular brand of hostility. In post-secondary education, it’s a student’s choice to be anywhere at a certain time. That concept of real choice and self-responsibility really messes with some students’ heads and can have negative consequences. Plenty of freshmen (or first years, as they’re known in my home country), when they get that first taste of real freedom, act like my dog when I leave a bag of food open where he can reach it. They show up to class or they don’t. It’s not really my responsibility to keep track of them. It is my responsibility to deliver content and be fair when it comes to students’ learning and, of course, to deal fairly with any sort of extraneous circumstances.

Onerous Use of Technology
There’s a troubling theory in education that if we throw technology at students they will somehow be, like, I don’t know, better off somehow. I’m not just talking about schools ditching books here. I taught a class recently that was half in person students and half video link students. I thought it would be one of those intriguing ‘challenges’ that teachers are supposed to like.** It turned into, for me, kind of a nightmare situation. It was nothing to do with the students or their motivation, but rather the technology that is not quite ready for this type of interaction yet. Our internet connection was not sufficient to have less than a 5 second delay, so the video students really got short shrift in terms of participation because they were always at least that much behind what was happening in real time in the physical classroom. It also meant that I was unable to move around the classroom unless I wanted to use a remote control to have the camera stiltingly follow me around the room. I couldn’t even write on the black- or whiteboards because what I wrote didn’t show up on the video feed. I understand the motivation for equal access to courses regardless of geography, but to try and run a half-and-half class like that when the tech just isn’t up to par really diminishes my enjoyment and, perhaps more importantly, ability to provide the best possible experience for all students. I have yet to see a good substitution for in-person instruction/education that wasn’t some uninspiring simulacrum.

I suppose, then, the takeaway from this brief piece is that if I’m not enjoying teaching then I can’t really expect my students to enjoy learning from me. And that’s a real shame. A bit (or a lot) of selfishness in what you do is good I think. For me — cynical and jaded as I am — educators who claim to only be working for others’ benefit are disingenuous at best and liars at worst. You’ve got to be getting something, other than a paycheque, out of the deal or you’ll hate every damn day of your life. Many do, and that’s sad. Be selfish.

*I’m not saying that all students who get an A+ are doing this or are assholes. Most of the time, in my experience, it is the opposite.

**I liken the challenge dynamic to the big film stars that pine after ‘real’ acting in the theatre. Quixotic notions both.