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Monday, December 12, 2011

Monday Morning Check In: Teaching and Purpose

I am blessed in my line of work to have many colleagues who are involved in the education field at various institutions besides my own. I enjoy my discussions and the free exchange of ideas between us. Recently, however, I had a conversation that has stuck to me like a limpet. I would like to share it with you, along with a few of my own thoughts.

The teacher was younger and assigned to teach theory classes, and the classes were filled to capacity, which I know can lead to issues of effective class management. So, I was interested to hear this teacher's ideas about methods to streamline the grading, testing, and attendance taking process.

This teacher was laughing, almost gleeful when describing how the class syllabus was set up to act as a barrier to most student problems. I had to admire this teacher's cleverness in setting up an online assessment test to determine whether the student had read the syllabus. The student could take the exam as many times as needed until the student passed the assessment. Thus, the teacher then had proof that the student had indeed read the syllabus and arguably was familiar then with the syllabus provisions regarding attendance, homework assignments, excused (and unexcused) absences, and grading policy. I walked away from that conversation clearly aware that this teacher was almost giddy about how she had set up her syllabus program to prevent students from being able to offer up any conceivable excuse about anything.

The part of the conversation that puzzled me was the teacher's gleeful, cheerful attitude when describing the syllabus. I clearly got the picture that this teacher thought of the classroom situation as a "me against them." Along with that, the teacher exercised a very rigid approach to situations and very seldom permitted any room for emergencies or situations that we can only refer to as "life happens." For example, although I allow plenty of time to get to places on time (I set my clocks ahead), I cannot predict when I will be thwarted from my punctuality by an unexpected train or unavailable parking situation.

At this point, let me throw out three words here: teaching, equity, and discretion. Over my vast years of teaching experience and living in the world generally, I have come to a comfortable coexistence with these three words, well, concepts actually. Each word represents more than just a simple definition. Each word leads to richer discussions:

  • "Teaching" leads to the ability to learn or at least it should in my opinion. When I teach my students, my purpose is to help my students learn. I will stand by this as my top priority as a teacher. Granted there are many lessons we teachers impart to our students besides the obvious lessons of our subject area. I advise us to take care that we monitor our motivation behind each "lesson" we seek to teach.
  • "Equity" leads to the ability to structure remedies to fit the circumstances of the situation. The syllabus rules are not to be wielded about like some sort of rigid club in a game of student whack-a-mole. There are situations in life when the rules and regulations we previously set up do not apply, or at least they do not apply in a satisfying manner. There are times when the results of our rigid rules and laws offend our sense of justice and fairness. That is when the concept of equity steps in and allows us to create a solution that will fit the situation. 
  • "Discretion" leads to the power to exercise compassion.
Few issues are black and white. One of the biggest lessons I have learned during my stay here on this planet is that there is a very large gray area to explore. Even in the field of music there are few absolutes. Take for example, rubato and musical expression.

During my conversation with the teacher, I wondered what was the teacher's real motivation and purpose. Was it to teach? I ask this because what I heard in the tone of voice and saw in the smile on the teacher's face were more like the giddiness and glee of having the power to thwart and stymie the students. I wondered if the teacher had ever experienced or would ever experience the joy and energizing motivation that comes from embracing the purpose of teaching students so that they learn.

Yes, I know, there is probably more to the story, and indeed there is. I also know more to this story, which is why this conversation is still haunting me a week later. As it happens, while I was having this conversation with the teacher, a student that I know well was vainly trying to get to school in time to meet with this teacher. Unfortunately, the student failed, and 10 minutes later was sobbing in my office. Despite the exam period lasting over several days and despite the fact that there were many open slots still available to fit the student in, this teacher opted to adhere to the syllabus proscription about tardiness. The student was dead in the water, and I could not interfere. What was the lesson this student learned? Not to be late? Gosh, I think the student always knew that. To expect a train? A flat tire? An alarm that went off but wasn't heard? No, I think this student learned a different message, and that saddens me.

As I consoled the student, my thought was: I hope that the next time the teacher is speeding just a little to get to an appointment on time, and a policeman stops to give a speeding ticket, that the teacher will reflect on the lesson about teaching, equity, and discretion when the policeman decides to give a warning instead of a ticket.


  1. Thanks for sharing this! We truly must be compassionate towards others if we expect others to be compassionate towards us in our hour of need!

  2. Thank you, cellochic! This post was a difficult one to write and mostly cathartic for me in the process. I'm still thinking about that conversation. I appreciate that the post struck you in a positive way. I wasn't sure how others would receive it, because it does touch on a sticky subject. It is certainly a reminder to me to keep my focus on my purpose and motivation as a teacher.

  3. I'm guessing the teacher wants to be firm in order to give the policies teeth. But I always remember Barbara Coloroso's teaching. While it isn't good to be a "jellyfish", neither is it good to be a "brick wall". "Backbone" is strong, but flexible, and a good way to be. If it's a power thing for this teacher, that's too bad.

  4. Thanks, Barb. My husband thinks the lesson the teacher taught was that she isn't someone to mess with. After remembering the tone of voice I heard, I think he may be right. It just seemed so rigid, especially when there were two more days in the exam period and still some open slots to fill. Sad.