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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Educating Myself and Others

            I’ve always loved learning. It’s the little things that we want to know about and that we choose to fill our minds with, which make us feel a geeky sense of trivial pleasure or a prideful sense of accomplishment in what we are now able to do. For my whole life, I’ve loved this, but through junior high and high school, I found school challenging in trying to make my life connect socially. This is something that I had trouble succeeding at, so I went to the sad places, where I lost track of me for the better part of a decade. Not to get into this story (a story for later), but I did manage to relocate myself when I went to community college after my time in the Air Force and in England (during and after the Air Force). My early twenties allowed me so much learning in retrospect that when I got the formal learning I did much better because I was more mature, divorced from the peer pressure / bullying / puberty nonsense of those earlier years that I managed to find me again.

            Now, I enjoy the learning I love because it makes me happy. Life is too short to put up with other people’s judgement. As a result, I get to go places like the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia to see the animatronic dinosaurs. My wife Heather and I really enjoyed this day, pushing ourselves through the hordes to learn about velociraptors (much smaller than in Jurassic park), stegosaurus, triceratops, T-rex, and brachiosaurus as well as a few other fanged reptilian friends. Mixed with The Cheesecake Factory, a pretentious but delicious adult prelude to our childlike fascination, we enjoyed our day tremendously before heading home just in time to beat the snow, sleet, and rain.

Days and events like this fire me up to teach people, and the winter term promises to be a great one as another semester is upon us. This is officially the 12.5 year point of teaching at a college that is local to me. I also taught high school for 3 years. It feels like ages since I made the decision to be a teacher in 1998, which was when I drove back from California and concluded that this was the path that I was meant to take (a long story for later). Since finishing up my education at Reading Area Community College and Alvernia, I’ve acquired my Masters of Education degree, and I’ve learned a lot about who I wanted to be in a classroom with regard to education and management.

Including student teaching, I’ve been in the education game since January of 2001, which was when I began student teaching. In my time, the greatest learning I have had is based on a quote by Abraham Maslow, who said, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Another version of this quotes is by Abraham Kaplan, who said, “I call it the law of the instrument, and it may be formulated as follows: Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.”
As a teacher, we teach in many ways. Many of us force our love of education, our love of topic, and our understanding of what education can do down people’s throats. I know because, well, I’m guilty of forgetting that not everyone learns and likes things like I do, but the trick is to give them the best value for their dollar that they want and need. As a result, I’m trying not to be so caught up in my world and views first as much as I once did (like my former boss Karen once said and I agree, "I'd like to go back to my early students and apologize for my mistakes"), and I know I’ve changed, but I’m still working at being professional and not being the boss in charge or a dictator. While I do that, I’m moving away from the podium as a 15-week lecturer and working more 1 on 1. I like that, and it seems like the students do, too.
I’m also being conscious of looking at rules in ways of making them here to make the room better as opposed to something that I have to enforce in a George Orwell “a sahib has to act like a sahib” kind of way. On days with constant behavioral issues (not paying attention / talking in class / intentional disruptions, for example), it’s not always easy, but like Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, I’m trying really hard to be a good guide to redirect bad behavior instead of creating conflicts that are impossible to win.
Thus, the hardest thing to do in teaching is to step back when we can’t help people win despite our best and most conscientious intentions. We can motivate, ask questions, redirect, or discipline, but still, no homework comes in. Tests aren’t studied for. It just is. As a teacher, it’s hard to just say, “Whatever will be will be.”
But we have to while hoping students get it later.
Nevertheless, seeing people’s lives and frustrations hold them back from success is also tough, so for that, it’s great to have had the successful students that I have had to balance out the others. We don’t always see them, but when we do, it’s great.
And on a quick aside, with very little exception, it's a known fact that teachers remember very few students who caused problems later... unless they were students who went on to use the nuclear options against us, in case anyone is wondering. Nevertheless, we always remember the good ones who taught us and honestly acknowledged our teaching.
Working with some of the great students, either those whose educational light goes on or those who go from good to great is the best. In college, we get to do honor’s contracts with these people, if they elect to. About two years ago, I did an honor’s contract with 2 different guys. Both of them were non-traditional students. In fact, every single student I’ve ever done an honor’s contract was non-traditional. Both of them blew me away. One was a former drummer from a frat boy band that had gone big and national (I’m keeping the band name confidential to respect his privacy, but their 1 mega hit has 215 million views on Youtube as of today). The other was a former high school newspaper writer with a lot of interest in social media, networking, music, and auto racing (safety issues in F1 racing was his essay). In the past, I’ve had a host of honors people researching a lot of different things. They're always done well. Even the non-honors papers teach me a lot when they're done conscientiously.
Anyway, I hadn’t done an honor’s contract in a while until last semester when I worked one with an online student whose drive and interest in charitable organizations in the developing world inspired her to spend a decade or so working in Guatemala and having her life changed for the better. Well, let’s just say her project was great, and I was green-lighted to work an independent study with her on learning how to be a non-fiction memoir writer. I never thought that was an option for an adjunct like me, but I was.
How do you say, “Man I’m jazzed on this” in a professional adult way, because I sure am?
Additionally, I will also be teaching a Sociology of Deviant Behavior class to students regarding criminal justice at a different school. I took a lot of social science and humanities classes as well as do my part to keep up with the news, but this subject, too, is something new. Another different thing about this class is that it is also all male except one woman. Normally, I teach female dominated classes, even if they’re only slightly more gals than guys. Here, everything will change, too, on how things are done and the entertainment / education / behavior concepts.
But all the same, I’m doing, and I’m learning, and I’m ready for the stretch run that is the end of the 2016/2017 academic year. Here’s hoping I get a lot of good thoughts, research questions (what effect if any does X have on Y?), and testable responses to these questions to go with the students teaching me because it’s really all about back and forth learning.
I’ll be honest, I may be my best student ever, but I’d rather follow the advice of e.e. cummings than be stuck in my own head lecturing myself all day, every day.

You shall above all things be glad and young.For if you're young, whatever life you wearit will become you; and if you are gladwhatever's living will yourself become.Girlboys may nothing more than boygirls need:i can entirely her only lovewhose any mystery makes every man'sflesh put space on; and his mind take off time.that you should ever think, may god forbidand (in his mercy) your true lover spare:for that way knowledge lies, the foetal gravecalled progress, and negation's dead undoom.I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing

than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.

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