On Teaching

I know I’ve only been on the job for four months, but I feel that I have acquired enough experience to say the following with confidence:

1. I’d rather do homework than grade it.

Let me tell you, there is nothing more tedious than grading. You look at the same things over and over again and while it’s not hard to check answers, it is boring as hell (and sometimes depressing – especially when you see everyone making the same mistakes. It makes you feel like you’ve failed your students somehow). At least when you’re doing homework, you’re (presumably) looking at the assignment for the first time. It’s still fresh and interesting – kind of like a game or a new toy that you’re trying to figure out (okay, so maybe only nerdy Type A people like me feel this way about homework). Plus, even if the homework isn’t that challenging and is mostly busy work, at least you’re getting something out of it (practice, reinforcement, etc), whereas you’re getting nothing but a cramp in your hand when you’re grading. Then there is the tricky matter of partial credit. I’m pretty sure partial credit is the only thing that prevented me from failing subjects like Stats and Evolution and I’ll be the first to tell you that giving partial credit is only fair. I still feel this way as a teacher – I mean, I want to give partial credit, in part to encourage students and show them that they did something right, and in part so that they don’t fail English. But trying to *objectively* decide how much credit to give for answers and to make sure that you’re distributing partial credit fairly is pretty much impossible. In fact, I no longer blame my chemistry teacher freshman year for not awarding partial credit and taking off ten points for a problem that was mostly right except the answer. Sometimes, it’s just easier.

2. I’d rather study for tests than make them.

Students are brats. They’re always begging their teachers to divulge details about tests before the poor teacher has even had a chance to make it. How long will it be? How many questions? Multiple choice? Short answer? Essay? Fill in the blank? Do we get partial credit? Can we use a pencil? What material is actually going to be on the test? Can you give us a study guide? I used to think Ken was copping out when he would tell us to study everything because it was all going to be on the test, but now I understand why he did it. Making a test is hard. You have to make it hard enough to challenge your bright students, but easy enough where your lower level students won’t be overwhelmed. You have to assess which material is most important and then you have to come up with questions that test that material in a comprehensive way. And those questions? You must make sure that they are *specific.* Otherwise you end up rewarding full credit to students who said that this pencil is bigger than that pencil, that apple is as big as this one and that Takeshi is the biggest in his family (sure they know how to make comparative sentences, but they also didn’t learn the vocab words “long,” “heavy” and “tall”). Studying is fairly straight forward – you review your notes, you read the textbook, you do practice problems. Sure it’s a lot of work, but your job is merely to store information in your brain, as opposed to trying to come up with a good way to make other people recall that information. I’m convinced that teachers spend as much time making tests as students do studying for them (okay okay, this clearly isn’t always the case – Bio 151, anyone?).

3. I’d rather sit through a class than teach one.

It’s not nearly as embarrassing to be a bad student as it is to be a bad teacher. When you’re up in front of a class you have to be engaging and entertaining, while still conveying the important information and making sure that everyone understands it. And you have to come up with a variety of activities to do this. You also have to control your class and manage your time. You have to improvise – if the lesson is running too long, you have to decide in an instant what to cut; if it’s going to finish early, you have to decide what to spend more time on or, God forbid, come up with something else to do. If your lesson is falling flat, you have to change it entirely to fit the pace/ability/mood of your class. Of course, you also have to keep one part of your brain focused on what you’re doing and the other part focused on how your students are receiving the information so you even know whether or not you need to change your lesson plan. And perhaps the hardest part of all: you have to be *on* all the time. As a student, if you’re not feeling well, having a bad day or didn’t come to class prepared, you can keep your head down and hide behind the rest of your classmates or even zone out if you want to. You can’t do this as a teacher. In fact, I want to write to all of my teachers over the years and apologize for all the times I fell asleep or day-dreamed in class, didn’t participate, or didn’t at least give them so positive energy to feed off of. As a student, all you have to do is think. As a teacher, you have to get people to think, which having been on both sides of it now, I think is a lot harder.

I’m not quite ready to give up my job and go back to school just yet, but I will say this: I think I’d rather be a student than a teacher.

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