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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

A Letter to My Students

One of the biggest things I've learned since I started teaching was how many of my former teachers and professors I owe an apology to. But I'm saving that letter for another post. First, I want to write a letter to my ALL my students, from the middle schoolers to the college students. I'm writing this because there are some things I think you should know. Things I want you to know when you sit down to send any teacher an e-mail demanding a grade change, to write a negative review on ratemyprofessor, or just complain in the hallway about how mean your teachers are. I don't claim to be writing for all teachers (after all, one of the things I hope you've learned from me is to think as an individual and to think of people as individuals), but I think there are a lot of teachers who would I agree with these things. So, here are 10 things I wish you knew about me, and teaching.

1. I care about you
I mean this. Even in big lecture classes where I'm not able to learn all your names, I care about you. Each of you. You (or your parents) have trusted me with providing you with a part of your education. That is a trust I consider sacred. Each of you is a wonderful, unique, human being with your own skills and gifts. I respect that. I am in awe of that. And I will do everything I can to help you be the best person you can be.

2. I'm not trying to fail you
I realize it seems this way sometimes. After all, I'm the one creating those challenging tests, tearing apart your paper with red ink, and taking away points when you miss a deadline. But here's the truth: I'm not doing it to be mean. Remember what I just said about caring about you? Those tests, those papers, those deadlines...they all serve a purpose. They are all designed to teach you something, to push you to do more and be more than you thought possible. I do not sit up at night designing tests with evil glee. I spend days making tests that I think will challenge you while still allowing you to demonstrate what you have learned.

I don't take sadistic joy when you fail. In fact, every time one of you fails, I feel like I have too. I rationalize. I say it's not my fault you didn't come to class, not my fault you didn't study. Other students got 'A's', so surely the test wasn't too hard. But it is all lies. Every time one of you fails, I blame myself. I wonder what more I could have done to help you. So don't ever, ever think I want you to fail.

3. I don't like tests/quizzes/homework any more than you do
For every one assignment you do, I have 10, 30, 50 (depending on class size) to grade. And this isn't just about the work load. I know not every one tests well. I know some days things come up and you just don't have time to do your homework. I get it. I do. But. But I have to be able to evaluate your work, and I have to be fair across the board. In an ideal world, I would have no more than 10 students. They would love learning so much that they would go home at night and review what they had learned during the day. Then, through class activities and instructions, I would be able to gauge how well each student had mastered the subject I was teaching.

This is not an ideal world. I know that even those of you who love learning sometimes need motivation to study at home. Hence homework. And because I have to be fair, because I must show some level of objectivity, I can't just willy-nilly decide who passes my class and who doesn't. I have to give the same form of evaluation to everyone and grade you with that. It isn't fair, it isn't right, but I didn't design the current education system. Please don't blame me for its failings.

4. I do like papers
I'm not going to lie to you. I like papers. I may be alone in this amongst teacher because papers are incredibly time consuming to grade (they take much longer than tests). That being said, I like them for a lot of reasons. First, they let me learn something about you. I can learn a lot about a student from reading a paper, and this can help me understand how best to help you to learn. Second, I believe good writing and communicating skills are universal. A lot of you, especially my college students, do not actually need my class for your career path. I am very much aware of this. But being able to write well and defend your opinions in a logical manner are skills that will serve you well no matter where life leads you. Finally, when you write a paper, you have the time and resources to get it right. A single bad day can ruin a test, but I usually give you several weeks to write a paper. And during that time, I let you bring as many rough drafts as you want to me for review. This means even if you are a weak writer, I make sure that you have every chance to write an 'A' paper.

5. I'm not out to destroy all your free time
Remember what I said in number 3? About how for every assignment you have, I have it ten-fold? You think I can get all those assignments graded during my office hours? I give up a lot of my free time planning lessons and grading papers. Time I would rather spend doing other things. And I know you feel the same way when you have to write papers, do homework, or read texts for my class. But just like my office hours aren't long enough for me to get all my work done, a class period isn't enough to teach you all you need to know. I give assignments so you have a chance to practice new material before it counts for a lot more on a test. It is not an evil plot to take over your social life. It's just meant to help you prepare for class.

6. I sometimes refer to you as 'my kids'
(this one is mostly for my college students)
Yes, even you, my 45-year-old non-traditional student with more years of teaching experience than me. I don't mean this in a demeaning way. I don't mean that I think of you as children. In fact, this is more about me than it is about you. It hearkens back to number 1 and the trust you've given me. I feel responsible for the tiny part of your life that takes place in my classroom. So when I call you 'my kids' it's my expression of that responsibility.

7. I don't think I'm smarter than you
You all are amazing. I mean it. Your talents and skills, your experiences and knowledge, all astound me. And I respect them. I don't expect you to be an expert in my subject. If you were, you probably wouldn't be in my class. But that doesn't mean I'm not aware that you are experts in other things. Many of you have skills and knowledge that I will never achieve, and I will never confuse a lack of expertise in one subject for a lack of intelligence. So when you do poorly on a paper or test, don't worry that I'll think you're stupid. I don't. I just assume your talents lie elsewhere.

8. I teach because I love it
I had student come to my office hours once and ask "If I gave you a million dollars right now, would you still teach?" I said yes. Sadly, he didn't give me a million dollars. Here is a simple fact: no teacher teaches for the money (at least not in the US). No amount of money is worth the frustration, the sacrifice of time, and the heartache that comes with teaching. We do it because we believe. Because we believe that we might, in someone small way, make a difference. Because we believe that a love of learning is one of the greatest gifts you can give someone. Because we believe that the skills we teach can help you succeed. Teaching is, at the end of the day, an act of hope, faith, and love. And that is why I put up with all the angry e-mails, with all the class-skippers, and with all the grading. Because I believe I have something worthwhile to teach you.

9. I used to be a student
Ah, yes. That famous refrain muttered by all students, everywhere (including me, in the past). "How could they do this!? Don't they remember what it is like to be a student?" Yes, yes I do. And now I can pass on the horrible tortures of overwork and impossible tests that my teachers gave me. Ha! Ha, Ha! HA HA HA HA!

Actually, yes, I do remember being a student. And I remember asking the same question of my teachers. And when I look back at my time as a student, it's those teachers who pushed me the most that I learned the most from. Some of you have heard me say, when you were overwhelmed with school work, that I am empathetic, but not sympathetic. I know how you feel. I've been there too. Some days, I still am. But I'm not changing the assignment deadline just for you. Nor am I going to give you an extra credit assignment because you chose not to do the one I offered to the whole class at the beginning of the semester. I am teaching you to be a good student and a good employee, not just how to get an 'A' in my class. I survived the rigors of school. You will too.

10. I'm a person too 
One of my colleagues has a sign in her classroom reminding students of this. I think it's an important reminder. Like you, I have good days and bad days. Days when I look forward to coming to school, and days when I don't want to get out of bed. I too have personal tragedies I deal with, and days where my relationships with my family and friends aren't going the way I want them to. I have feelings. It hurts when you send angry e-mails accusing me of being a horrible person. It makes my day when you thank me for a job well done. I make mistakes. I get angry at classes when I shouldn't just because I'm having a bad day. Please be understanding of this condition we share.


There are are. Students. are there things you wish you could tell your teachers? Teachers, what other things would you tell your students?