Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Better Teacher, Hah, Hah, Hah! or: Learning to Ask for Help

This post is a sort of an epilogue to my "better teacher" series (see here, here, and here). Unfortunately, it's not the happy ending that I had hoped for. You see, despite having done more advance preparation for the semester than ever, and despite totally revamping my teaching to offer more mentoring, more scaffolding, more one-on-one conferences, and letting go of where I thought my students already ought to be in favor of working with where they actually were, the final papers and the first final exam have showed that they, on average, have spectacularly tanked this semester. Not just "they're not improving like I expected them to"; they've actually gotten worse -- much worse.

I am, needless to say, feeling discouraged. I've worked harder this semester than ever before, and gone into it more prepared than ever, and the results have been... well, bad. And I've been at a loss as to what to do about it.

Fortunately, I remembered a bit of advice that I am constantly giving my students: "If you're lost, I will do whatever I can, but I may not know unless you tell me. So ask for help."

So I did something I haven't done since I was a rookie teacher: I reached out to a superior teacher in my department (demanding of her students, and they rise to the occasion; won a university-wide teaching award a couple of years ago), told her about the problems I was having, and asked her if she'd take a look at what I was doing and offer me honest feedback and whatever constructive suggestions she had. Her first response was to reassure me that this may not be my fault at all; that our students lately had been less than stellar. But then, generous soul that she is, she went beyond mere reassurance and said, yes, let's meet for coffee and really see if there's something you can be doing better. Not "more" -- she's a firm believer in efficiency of effort and understands where there's a point of diminishing returns -- just better.

We are meeting on Friday. I'll report back then. But whatever happens, I'm grateful to have such a generous colleague, and happy that I remembered the simple rule: If you're struggling, ask for help.


reassignedtime said...

I think it's awesome that you went to a colleague for help.

One thing I'll say (not knowing any of the specifics) is that it's helpful to remember that students' writing tends to regress when they are confronted with either a) kinds of writing assignments that expect a greater degree of sophistication or b) kinds of ideas that require more sophisticated writing. That regression doesn't mean they're not getting it - it actually means that they ARE getting it and so they're backsliding. In other words, the students tanking may actually be an effect of them learning, although that seems counter-intuitive.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Wow, Crazy -- I hadn't thought of it that way. Something to ponder, for sure. I'll have to run this by my colleague, and see what she thinks (based on our own student population). You may just have something there.

squadratomagico said...

I wonder if it's possibly an effect of them being freaked out by the sense that you are reaching out to them *too* much. It may be that the individual meetings, and feedback, and pre-assignments made them realize that learning certain kinds of writing and analysis skills were important to you, and to the class; from there, they can easily begin second-guessing both you ("what does she *want*???") and themselves ("what should I do???"). If you communicate the sense that you feel students are your institution need to learn some basic skills from the ground up, skills they generally don't have, then the students can begin to think, "Oh no, I must be approaching History the wrong way -- I'm doing it wrong -- I have to reinvent it all from scratch!" Then they can begin to freeze up in their panic to do something different, and thus lose the skills they *do* already have.

Just a thought.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Another thought that had occurred to me (though not nearly so well thought-out): am I doing too much? Is there such a thing as too much guidance? (And I'm not talking about spoon-feeding here; just too-close mentoring.) It was something that I was planning on bringing up in my meeting. Students have told me (unsolicited) in these meetings that they appreciated them, but I have wondered about it.

Keep those ideas coming, people. I could use it.

Dr. S said...

(I just wrote you a really long post, and my freakin' internet connection deleted it. I will write it again, but it will have to be tomorrow. Just wanted to say that I'm with Dr. Crazy, almost certainly, on the question of what the hell happened with your students' seeming to worsen. Cognitive growth is MESSY MESSY business. But more after I file mass quantities of letters of recommendation.)

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I always assure my trainees that when we write shitte together, it's gonna be really painful for them and they're gonna suck asse, but it's part of the process of (1) generating good writing and (2) becoming a better writer. So, yeah, I agree with Dr. Reverb.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Huh. Okay, so this is interesting. I thought that a semester would have gotten them moving forward. Hm.

And Comrade, I am imagining myself using your phrasing, and laughing.

reassignedtime said...

Notorious - the semester *may* have gotten them moving forward, except there won't be actual *evidence* of that until next semester or the semester after. That's the thing that sucks about teaching writing, no matter what sort of students one teaches. As I understand it, this whole regression thing is well-documented in scholarship on the teaching of writing, and it does cut across different student populations (i.e., it doesn't matter whether you're teaching the top 10 percent or the bottom 10 percent or someplace in between - it happens to all students). Anecdotally, I can tell you that my experience corroborates this.

That said, this may not be true for all of your students who are tanking - lots of things can be happening at the same time, depending on the individual students. That's why I think it's good that you're talking to your colleague - doing so should give you a sense of the range of things that might be going on.

Aside to the Comrade - if you continue to call me Dr. Reverb I'll kick your asse. :)

Susan said...

What Dr. Crazy said. According to one colleague, the research got going when law professors at an elite law school started complaining about their ivy league graduates not being able to write. Then they figured out that they had never written a brief before. Or whatever they were doing.

New kinds of writing sends you backwards.

Dr. S said...

My comment that disappeared yesterday said exactly what Dr. C. said in the post that ends with the asse-kicking threat: your students almost certainly *did* move forward, but you're not necessarily going to be the one who gets to see the benefits of that. It might take a semester or so before they come out the other side of the tunnel of improvement (and chaos!) that they've now entered. (Also: you too have entered the tunnel, in your pedagogy! Remember that *we* too don't make isntant progress, and that some things will get messy and weird as you make major changes to the way you do things.) This is part of the reason why longitudinal studies of student writers are really interesting and important, I think. And yes, again as Dr. C said, the writing pedagogy research suggests that *everyone* moving to new levels of cognitive difficulty backslides on some previously mastered ability. Need to write in a genre you've never tried before? Watch your passive verbs and weird nominalizations get out of control. Or watch that comma splice issue you dealt with in your sophomore year come back at you with a vengeance. Or, if you're my first-years, watch yourself fall back into the good ol' five-paragraph essay on draft one of the most complex paper of the semester--simply because your ideas are outgrowing that form so profoundly that falling back to it becomes almost inevitable. Writing research is really fascinating, to my mind. Studies of error and of the long-term and unpredictably directed nature of students' cognitive development are also totally fascinating.

I have also just gotten a book that's about burnout in the teaching profession, and I'm going to let you know if it's of any help to me... don't discount the power that December has in our judgments of how well we and our students are doing.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

You guys all are amazing. I'm reminded of Tiger Woods. No, not that; the part way back when he decided to change his swing (no, not that swing), fell back in the rankings for a while while he got comfortable with it, then came back stronger than ever. Anyway, thanks to your comments, I'm thinking about this in a totally different way right now. It also helps that I just read an excellent primary source explication on a final exam -- really, it hit *everything* just right.

Feeling more cheerful already. Christmasy, almost.