Saturday, October 11, 2008

Hank from Halifax, a Former Educator, Ruminates On, Well, Everything That's Wrong with Being a Proffie.

I am a former educator. I didn't so much leave the insanity of the system several years ago, but escape from it. Reading through the posts on RYS, I was reminded that any resemblance between the educational system and the dissemination of wisdom and knowledge is purely accidental. That's quite a change from when I started university thirty-five years ago. I became aware of how different things were when I returned for grad studies a few years later. Sadly, it's much worse now, but we all know that, don't we?

I, too, have my tales to tell based on my experiences as a graduate teaching assistant and also as a full-time instructor at a two-year technical school. I started the latter with the idealistic sense that I was about to begin a job that had honour and respect, but it didn't take me long to change my mind and it got worse after that. What was I supposed to think when, a few minutes after I officially began, I sat in an in-service session and was told by the "facilitators" that one of my tasks was to ensure that my students didn't have a "negative learning experience"?

That change in perspective was largely due my students (or customers or learners, their title or designation changed at least twice while I was an instructor), though administrative policies and the administrators themselves made major contributions to my decline into cynicism.

Over the years, I had quite a variety of students, among which included such gems like the self-appointed princess who was failing a service course I taught to her class because she didn't do any work and was constantly chatting with her closest classmates. I put supplementary material on reserve in the library only two blocks from her building but she refused to look at it because that place was too far for her to walk to. She failed the course, didn't dispute her grade (at least I never heard about it), but graduated anyway.

Then there was the bright boy who whined to his father that he was *failing* my course with 85% and whose same father called my department head about it. That head, in turn, hauled me into his office to rake me over the coals about it. Evidently I caused the young lad a great deal of distress but his behaviour didn't surprise me. A number of his fellow students told me similar stories about him.

I also had a self-appointed genius in one class who couldn't read the instructions on the final exam, completed 4 out of 4 questions (rather than the "any 3" required), made a complete hash out of all of his solutions, and then blamed me for his failure to make it on the institution's honour roll.

How about the students who whined because I didn't punch holes in the handouts I gave them but were too lazy to go to the department office and borrow the hole punch or, for that matter, actually buy one? The father of one of the whiners was a principal with a prominent local firm which hired a number of the institution's graduates, so, by implication, I had to be "nice" to the kid, even if he behaved like a spoiled brat.

Inevitably, there were the students who yowled when I returned their assignments all covered in red ink because I took the time to draw their attention to important points in their work, though not always deducting marks. (Gee, an instructor who actually looks closely at what students hand in and takes the time to comment on it because he thinks they might learn something--what is this world coming to?)

Students like that were bad enough and I could have put up with them as part of my job as an instructor. My disgust with the system increased when I had some who mysteriously managed to pass my course after failing it. They made arrangements with me to write the supplemental exams but, by some miracle, were given credit for that course when they received their statement of marks. Worse still, I had students who failed a different course, didn't qualify for supplemental exams, and still graduated. Administrative interference? Naaaaah!

I guess I forgot that I should have felt privileged to be in the presence of such mental superiors, the intellectual titans that they all were. I should have burned my degrees in front of them, resigned my membership in Mensa as I was clearly out-classed, and publicly apologized for presuming that I possessed an intelligence higher than that of a doorknob. Rending my raiment and wearing sackcloth and ashes were implicitly expected to follow.

Then there were administrative fun and games, such as the students who dropped out but were allowed back in after coming up with the whiniest tear-jerking sob stories and telling them to a department administrator who was an absolute sucker for such hard cases. Proof of misfortune was rarely required, apparently.

I often spent up to a quarter of my lecture time reviewing and, sometimes, teaching material that the students should have learned in previous background courses in order that I could do my job. Voicing my displeasure to the responsible parties fell upon deaf ears. It was bad enough I had to deal with bad student but bad colleagues were inexcusable.

Then there was the department head who never failed anyone in his courses, even if one did nothing in it at all and then dropped out part-way through, lest it showed his department in a bad light and possibly jeopardize his campaign to become dean. That same department head also refused to do in-class evaluations because that would be have "policing." (Wasn't that part of his job?)

I seriously thought about getting out of the business altogether when I was threatened with severe disciplinary action by senior department administrators because my students addressed me as Dr. XXXXX. The reason was that it "intimidated" them and they wouldn't, therefore, want to ask me questions lest they believed I might think them dumb. (Uh, maybe because I actually *earned* the degree and the right to use the title? In an educational setting? What did they do when they dealt with a physician or dentist?)

In addition, those same administrators reprimanded me for not allowing students to call me by my first name, in the diminutive or otherwise, rather than Dr. XXXXX or "Sir." Why? Apparently, it didn't create a "safe" learning environment and formality was considered a barrier to learning. I guess the concept of proper and courteous behaviour must have escaped someone. (By the way, I never addressed my students by their first names but as "Mr." and "Sir," or "Ms." and "Madame", whichever was applicable.)

Being a TA wasn't a picnic either.

For example, there was the research associate in the department where I did my Ph. D. She taught an undergraduate engineering course and I graded the student assignments. I was reprimanded one day for pointing out things on their submissions when I marked them even though I didn't always take off marks. Apparently, it upset the little darlings who, presumably, might have given her a bad evaluation. As an experienced practitioner in my profession, I did that as a favour to those students as I thought it might help them later after they got their degrees. Then again, I spent several years in industry and had never seen answers on calculation sheets highlighted in pink, but what did I know, eh?

I was also admonished by the other prof in the aforementioned course for penalizing students for not showing the calculations they did to get their answers because it wasn't a *math* course. Maybe I should have given the marks to the calculators they used as they actually did the work.

I could go on, but I think you get the picture. My teaching experiences were the epitome of what Mark Twain said about truth being stranger than fiction. Fiction, he said, has to make sense, after all, and I couldn't make up what I described even if I tried.

I quit teaching at a time and in a matter of my own choosing.

I got tired of having to deal with work-shy dullards and spoiled brats who thought that since they paid their tuition, they deserved to graduate, regardless of whatever rubbish they handed in.

I got fed up with butting heads with administrators who thought that standards of any kind were elitist and that I should put all of my energies into student "success" by passing as many as possible, even if they were lazy and completely lacking in talent.

I didn't want to keep being pressured to sell out and become a corporate academic sheep by lowering the standards required by the discipline I was teaching in.

I couldn't stand working in an environment where the students could do no wrong, every allegation against me was assumed to be true, and I had all the responsibility but no authority.

I wanted to stop going home each day feeling like I had gone through several hours of hand-to-hand combat, questioning at the end what I actually accomplished and what the point of it all was.

I'd had enough of a place that pretended to pay me well, the students pretended that they learned, and I had to pretend that I was actually teaching.

Don't even get me started on all the edu-babble and biz-speak that I had to endure.....

I regret losing a steady paycheck, but each time I recall what I endured as an instructor in order to earn it, I'm glad I'm not doing it any more. Had I stayed where I was, I would probably have left within a year or two on medical grounds, either in need of extensive psychiatric care or because of eventual alcoholism. (I used to make a joke: "Do you have a drinking problem, Mr. XXXXX?" "No." "How soon can you acquire one?")

I resigned several years ago and haven't taught since. It took about two years for all the stress that had built up from my teaching to finally dissipate. Maybe it's good I never became a professor after I finished my Ph. D., after all.

So much for the idea that an educator has a soft job.