Next week, I’ll be in Kansas City to give a keynote address and a workshop at the Kansas City Regional Mathematical Technology Expo, and while I’m there I’ll also be speaking to the Missouri regional Project NExT cohort. The keynote and workshop will be on flipped learning and using cheap/free technology to make the most of class time in a flipped learning context. That’s fairly standard for me topic-wise. The Project NExT talk on the other hand is turning out to be a lot more personal. The group wanted me to speak not so much about something as to something – namely, to speak to some of the issues that new faculty face, especially when – like many of the NExTers in Missouri – your job consists of 4-4 teaching loads, occasionally (!) unmotivated students, and a high number of low-level courses mixed into your teaching schedule.
This is a personal topic for me, because I very clearly remember coming out of graduate school in 1997 with the idea that my purpose in life was to use the weird skill set that God gave me – a middling ability with abstract mathematics and a halfway-decent ability to communicate myself and connect with students – to make a positive difference in the lives of young people. So I wanted to be that prof for my students, and I deliberately chose to start my career at a small liberal arts college where the community was small and where the potential for an individual faculty member to make a difference in students’ lives was great.
And about one month after starting that job, I was ready to call it quits.
There was so much heading into that job that I was not prepared for. First of all there was the personal culture shock of being a lifelong southerner and moving to northern Indiana, where I was a 5-hour drive away from anybody that I knew well and we got more snow overnight than I saw in an entire year as a kid. But there were other shocks:
- The jump from teaching three sections of calculus a year in grad school to four different courses each semester.
- The jump from working with students who were uniformly outstanding (at the time I was at Vandy, 50% of the undergraduates were valedictorians of the high school classes) to students who were… not. While there were some students who were amazing, and some who were not geniuses but who were curious and industrious, many students simply didn’t care, and were at my college because they failed to get into their top four choices, or because of basketball, or because their parents made them go there (it was a religious school in a small denomination). I was not equipped to handle the variances.
- The jump to teaching courses that ran the gamut, from abstract algebra down to remedial algebra.
- The jump from having a single-minded quasi-monastic existence as a grad student to being a Real Grownup. For example, having a paycheck with a comma in it for the first time and not having any idea how to manage it.
I cannot stress how much disorientation came with that first job. I wasn’t ready, despite teaching throughout grad school and winning teaching awards as a grad student. When I got my first course evaluations at the end of the first semester, my heart hit the floor – I had always gotten great evaluations from the Vandy students, but these students didn’t care for me at all.
What was the problem? Had I forgotten how to teach? Was I really good at teaching but only relative to the top students? Was I doing just fine in my job but the students were terrible, or the job terrible? What was going on? Was my calling to being a professor just a terrible mistake? Do I need to quit and try to get on at another university? Or what?
Fastfoward back to now. I eventually made it to a much better place, psychologically and professionally speaking. While writing the talk for the Missouri NExT people I started to wonder, How did I get from there to here? There are many moving parts to that answer, but I think the single biggest was I had to radically transform how I think about students and myself. Specifically I can identify four movements in my behavior that I had to work through before I was the kind of person who could have the kind of career that I wanted.
- Moving from unprofessionalism to being a professional. Unprofessionalism towards students starts small. A student would ask something like “Did I miss anything in class?” when they were absent, and I would mock them in my head. A student would send an email making it clear she hadn’t read the announcement I had posted two days ago, and I’d think: What a dumbass. This sounds innocuous, and it might be if it only stayed small. But it doesn’t. When I started the blog in 2004 that eventually became this blog, those thoughts ramped up and reached a worldwide audience. I’d post direct attacks on students and student culture; and Twitter made things worse. At one point I posted a tirade on Twitter that left me speechless when I had finished. I took myself offline for 40 days to do some soul-searching about just what kind of person I wanted to be. Eventually I came to understand that as much as students seemingly deserve otherwise, sometimes you have to treat them like people, like a professional educator would and not like some lay figure out of academic folklore. This implies the remaining three items:
- Moving from the reflex of assigning blame to the process of solving problems. A pastor I once knew told the story one time of going to his car in the garage, backing out, and then realizing that he hadn’t raised the garage door all the way yet. Upon crashing through it, the first thing he thought of was: What are some ways I can blame somebody else for this? I think we are wired to have an instinct for approaching problems by trying to affix blame to the right person. It’s especially true for teachers. When something goes wrong in class, the instinct is to blame students (and high schools, or the government, or the lack of government, etc.). At some point as a professional you have to exit the cycle of blame unilaterally and instead think circumspectly about the problem in your class, or the problem with a student, or with a dean, or whatever it is.
- Moving from having it be about me and my personality, to having it be about students’ lives. I referenced this in an earlier post about inquiry based learning, when I said that teaching should be about what students do, not what the teacher does. This is hard at a small college, where it can be like Hogwart’s. Nobody ever talks about the pedagogy at Hogwart’s; we only see personalities. Teachers should have personalities, but it’s very easy for personality to overrun teaching and learning. For me, I saw students in my first job liking the profs that had the biggest personalities and this drove me to try to act like someone I wasn’t. Students then pick up on that disingenuousness and like you less. There’s no escape except to simply be who you are, even if you are a low-key kind of person like me, and worry about student learning instead of being liked.
- Moving from thinking of students as objects to students as human beings. This is really just the sum total of all the others. Realize that students, for all their faults, are human beings with unique backstories, areas of interest and competence, deep relationships with parents and friends, and raging battles going on in their lives that you just can’t see without focusing on them. I’m not suggesting math professors should befriend every student, just that we should realize they aren’t dumb, they aren’t blank slates, and somewhere out there are people to whom those students mean the world.
I can definitely say I am a long way from getting all of this down on a regular basis. As a Catholic, every night before bed I read through the Examination of Conscience and think about how it went for me that day, and when I reach the items about whether I have treated people with mercy, I think about how I treat students sometimes in my thoughts and I end up in a facepalm. It’s an ongoing battle. But I hope when I talk to the Missouri NExT people that we can join that battle together.