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As a teacher, there have been many times that I have questioned my own effectiveness in the classroom. Perhaps it’s my own insecurities. However, I have to believe that I am not the only educator that looks into a sea of blank faces and wonders if my students have heard anything I’ve said. I wish I could claim with confidence that I always knew that I was a good teacher. The truth is, it’s taken me all of the years I’ve been in the classroom to be able to say that confidently. I AM a good teacher, and teaching college courses is part of what helped me realize that.
Teaching college helped me see my high school students with fresh eyes
I was recently given the opportunity to teach freshmen composition courses at my Alma Mater, McKendree University. I’ve always dreamed of being a college professor, and I was thrilled to already be fulfilling that goal. I walked onto that picturesque campus equipped with a syllabus, a smile, and an idealistic vision. I pictured students who weren’t just there because the state mandated attendance but because they wanted to learn. We would have lengthy discussions over academic articles, debates over literary theory, and essays that would be inspirational. At least, that’s how it went in my imagination. Less than a month into the course, I realized that my expectations were dramatically different than my reality.
The students that filled my classroom were not English majors that were excited to write essays and discuss literature. They did not want to be there any more than my high school students wanted to be in class; these freshman composition courses were required. Moreover, I hadn’t really considered that these students were mere months older than my high school students. These weren’t mature academics that filled the seats; these were teenagers, excited, scared, and navigating through life on their own for the very first time. The majority of them were also athletes on scholarships. They weren’t just away from home, cultivating a social life, and dealing with academic requirements. They were additionally burdened with rigorous practices and game schedules.
Expectations VS Reality
My next shock came when the first assignments began to role in. Many of these college freshmen knew nothing about citing sources, structuring an essay, or developing an argument. I know that this doesn’t necessarily mean that they didn’t learn these skills. But somewhere between the initial instruction and getting to college, a huge disconnect had occurred. Those first few months of class, I was reading essays that I wouldn’t have accepted from my high school freshmen. It left me questioning my own high school classroom. I tried to picture my students in a college setting. Would they forget all of the lessons learned when faced with a new environment and new instructors?
Avoiding the disconnect
We often become so focused on the curriculum that we forget to teach the real world application of those skills. We emphasize the how, and forget to answer the why. From the first day of freshman year, I try to show my students why we do the things we do. In my opening speech, I confess to my class that they’ll probably never really need to know the literature we read in class. We don’t read and analyze literature because we will need to recall the plotline for future job interviews. We read and analyze literature because it transports us to new worlds. Reading teaches us to empathize. It gives us the skills to analyze and assess a situation so we can try to predict the best outcome.
Likewise, when we are assigning essays to our students, we need to emphasize why we are doing it. What real-world skills will they take away from this assignment? So many of our students claim to hate reading,. When we then ask them to write an essay analyzing that story, they instantly shut down. My college students fill out a“Writer’s Profile” on the first day of class. It it I ask them how they feel about writing and their own writing skills. So many students think that it is “stupid” that they have to take Academic Writing. They say they “will never need these skills” in their future careers. If students really believe they will never need basic writing and researching skills in their futures, then we have failed them miserably as teachers.
How we fill the gap
We need to explain to our students that their methods of communication are a direct reflection of who they are and what they know. They need to understand that even their social media posts are up for scrutiny when they apply for a job. It doesn’t matter what career they wish to pursue; they will have to communicate and they will have to do it effectively.
In the same vein, we need to emphasize the importance of research; how to find the information, evaluate sources, and cite those sources. Sure, they may not be using that information for writing research papers. But they will need to make judgement calls about politics, research products, evaluate the reliability of an article, or countless other ways researching skills are important.
They need to understand how it feels when someone takes their ideas and tries to present them as their own. This will make them feel the importance of citing sources and giving credit where credit is due. Plagiarism is stealing, and they need to understand that ideas and words are intellectual property, owned by the creators. If they would be loath to steal money or items, they should be just as appalled to steal someone’s words.
When we give an assignment and fail to explain the purpose, they fail to retain the information they acquire. They might do the work, but their drive is the grade they will earn, not the lessons they should learn. Even as adults, we are more likely to work hard if we know that we are personally benefiting in one form or another. We need to show our students exactly how they will benefit in the long term from the instructions we are presenting. That is the only way we can ensure that they will retain that information. Then they will successfully use the skills we are working so hard to impart on them in their futures.