In a recent classroom discussion about cliches, I asked students if they had ever heard the expression “the master will appear when the student is ready.”
Several shrugged, some showed confusion, a handful yawned and rolled their eyes while only a few nodded and smirked. I had the smirkers explain the cliche, and I saw the other students’ faces light up: “Oh, now I get it. I have to be prepared and engaged to learn stuff!”
Yes, students the world over: You have to be prepared, engaged and willing to open your minds in order to learn. Unfortunately, recent articles in the Bangor Daily News would have us believe it is the fault of the instructor — aka “The Master” — to lose a class, cause plummeting test scores or create discontent in the classroom.
A recent BDN article about Maine School Administrative District 72 (Fryeburg) reports a recent trend: Let’s ask kids how they learn, what they want to learn, what they expect from the classroom environment and which characteristics they expect from a teacher. How soft and squishy. Yet the obvious problem is this: We are asking “kids” to perform an evaluation for which they are ill-equipped. When I ask my college students which pedagogies and assignments they prefer, they respond, “less reading, no homework and more group work.” When prodded for rationales, they note “I want to do as little as possible to get a passing grade and group work makes that happen.” I suspect high school is no different.
Despite my 30 years in the classroom, I have no rationale for this trending student behavior: Colleagues complain about the “entitlement generation” or about the “degree-grabbing mentality”; recent high school graduates complain about being underprepared for college because of not being challenged intellectually as their high school teachers were tasked with being social workers and “pulling everyone through” more than with actually teaching and challenging all students; administrators wring their hands over graduation rates, ignoring the genuine learning that may occur in any given classroom on any given day. Clearly this is anecdotal, yet a troubling theme emerges: Teachers are being asked to do more than just teach, and in that effort they are not reaching all students. At the same time, despite reassurance from administrators, teachers risk being punished based on “kids’ evaluations.”
I also am troubled by the trend of employing off-school and, often, out-of-state consulting groups to administer surveys to students in order to determine teacher effectiveness. MSAD 72 hired Boston-based Panorama Education to conduct surveys. According to the BDN, the biannual surveys from Panorama — which notes a $499 annual service charge on its website — “ask questions that seek to elicit thoughtful responses from students”
I’m not saying a 14-year-old can’t be thoughtful, but, once again, students are not familiar with the vocabulary or the structure of education; they are tuned into WiiFM — “What’s in it for me?” — and may fail to appreciate the dynamics of a successful classroom.
One survey question read, “If you came to visit this teacher in three years, how excited would they be to see you?” Grammar issues aside, this question does nothing to analyze the instructional efforts of the teacher. Another sample question — “If you came to class upset, would this teacher talk to you about it?” — is another grammar quagmire. (Yes, I’m a cranky English teacher.)
The end result? Schools use information “to inform teachers how they can improve and adapt to help students be more engaged and successful,” according to MSAD 72 Superintendent Jay Robinson. “We have been trying to move as a district to a more learner-centered approach, one in which the students play more of a role in deciding how learning happens.”
I have no problem teaching to different learning styles, but when we ask 14-year-olds what works for them, can we expect anything more than an emotional response?
When I was in school, the master was ready. My teachers taught me, critiqued me, engaged me and at every turn told me my voice mattered; however, at no point did they ask me if I was happy or “satisfied.” Still, if I had an issue the instructor would roll up his or her sleeves and work with me through it.
Education is the new Big Business. It is up to us — teachers, parents, students and the community — to decide who is in charge: us or an out-of-state for-profit company. Which is better in the long run — easy money spent on a distant corporation whose evidence may punish faculty or labor-intensive sleeve-rolling efforts to connect with our students?
As E.M. Forster wrote, “only connect.”
Carol Lewandowski is an English instructor at Eastern Maine Community College.