I’m not a doctor, or am I?

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Many people look at higher education as a business. Staff and administrators with no close ties to the classroom can, and maybe even should, look at it that way.  The leadership at the college where I work believes strongly in the business model for education, and that’s a-okay with me.

In the end, I think when they say, “run this place like a business,” all they really mean  is”organize this place like a successful business with happy customers and employees.” Those tasked with strategic planning, raising funds, balancing budgets, managing payroll, processing complaints, and other important institutional purposes are right, to a great extent, if they see the college as a business and  the students as customers.

However, as a faculty member, especially one who is tasked with helping students become more competent readers and writers, I would be, excuse the Southernism, in deep do-do if I treated my students like customers. Here are some reasons why I don’t:

  • The customer isn’t always right. Besides being a dismally outdated expression, it has almost always been poor business practice to believe that the customer is always right. Furthermore, it would be a ludicrous attitude for an English teacher to have because one of the biggest aspects of my job is pointing out how my students are in error and helping them correct and avoid those mistakes in the future.
  • My classes are often a required part of every student’s curriculum, a requirement that an increasing number of my students resent having to take. However, more and more businesses and institutions are telling educators, as I wrote about in a recent blog post, that the reading and writing skills of many potential employees are inadequate. Employers are turning more and more to colleges and universities, especially two-year colleges, to help bridge these gaps. Therefore, although my immediate customer, the student, does not always see the need for advanced technical writing skills and comprehension of complex texts, the college’s stakeholders most certainly do, or should.
  • Customers hire people to do things for them; I require my students to do things for me. A business model approach would put the emphasis on me doing things for my students instead of my students working for me. Of course, I am tasked with disseminating the information clearly, but I can’t help a student who does not complete assignments in a timely manner. The few students who are hyper critical of me tend to be ones who have put the onus of their education on me, which deprives them of developing in the subject.
  • Generally, one should not discipline a customer, but I must discipline my students. I spend a portion of almost every class managing disruptive students. I must also confront students when they are falling behind, correct them when their attitudes are inappropriate, and challenge them when they speak untruths or violate classroom policies.  If I am to be effective in the classroom, my students must see me as the authority, not only in subject matter, but also in matters of classroom management.
  • The classroom can not be dictated by customer satisfaction. Not that I don’t want my students to be satisfied and happy. I want them to enjoy my class, and  most seem to enjoy my courses very much. However, students must still earn grades. Sometimes, if students do not earn the grades they desire or if I do not conduct the class in a way that pleases them, they will criticize or blame me for their average or poor performance in the class. The same sometimes happens if I insist on adherence to class rules or the college’s policies and procedures. These students may be unhappy customers now, but down the road, they may thank their lucky stars that I challenged them, maintained strict standards, and disciplined them when necessary. If I treated these dissatisfied students as customers, I fear I would be far too conciliatory, and they would be harmed as a result.
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For these reasons and more, I like to look at myself as a doctor rather than a business person. Doctors and college instructors are both in the “business,” not of making money, but of enriching other people’s lives in a myriad of ways. We can only succeed if the patient or student is dedicated to exerting the effort needed to improve. My general practitioner and I talk a great deal about the similarities in our professions and share some of the same frustrations about how the customer approach, while useful in some ways, if taken too far, can be hurtful to both medicine and higher education. Here are some ways I see myself as a doctor:

  • Just like my doctor, I am an expert in specific disciplines, holding advanced degrees.  I have had five years undergraduate school with degrees in English and German, two years for a Bachelor of Science in English Education with graduate level classes in Chaucer, 17th Century English Literature, Modern British Literature, and American Poetry. My final degree took two years; I earned a Masters of Education and sat for comprehensive exams in 19th Century British Literature,  Rhetoric and Composition, Linguistics, and Curriculum Development, graduating summa cum laude. I was also awarded the Kim L. Brown Award for Excellence in Tutoring my first year and the Theodore L. Huguelet Award for Outstanding Graduate Assistant my second.
  • Just like my doctor, I must constantly seek professional development to stay current in my disciplines. I have attended numerous state and national conferences, including those conducted by the National Association of Teachers of English, The League of Innovation in Community Colleges, the Southeastern Theatre Conference, the North Carolina Community College System, and the North Carolina Writers’ Network, often times presenting, and always attending multiple sessions on issues ranging from developmental English to teaching advanced literature and creative writing courses to increasing student success and retention. I continue to read and study in my disciplines, as well as write. As I have written many times in my blog, I believe writing for publication is one of the best ways to become a better writing instructor. I practice what I preach, having published dozens of short stories in print and online publications, written two novels (working on my third) and having had four plays produced (soon to be five). Last year I launched the literary magazine Teach. Write.  35CCB4F0-960F-43DD-9348-E2C6A8D04B40(Submissions open until August 15–click to see submission guidelines) My third edition will come out on September 1.
  • Just like my doctor, I do my best work when I confer with students one on one. When students bring their papers to my office and we work on them together, they leave better writers. I can almost guarantee it. I have always preferred to teach writing one-on-one. When I can concentrate on one student and give her or him my full attention, I am at my best. I’m no slouch in the full classroom, but I’m best when there is just one student and little ‘ole me in the room.
  • Just like my doctor, I am an excellent diagnostician. I ask my students to write a diagnostic paper on the first day of class in my composition courses. After thirty years of teaching writing, it only takes a paragraph for me to have a good grasp of what a student’s primary writing issues are whether they be content, organization, sentence structure, word usage, grammar, mechanics, or a mixture of all of these, which is usually the case.
  • Just like my doctor, I must deliver bad news. It was very difficult for my doctor when I broke down after hearing a diagnosis of Type II Diabetes. Although my case isn’t particularly severe, my father, a double amputee, had died from complications of diabetes just two weeks before my diagnosis. Despite how difficult it was, my doctor had a moral obligation to inform me, calmly and compassionately, what was at stake and what my treatment options were. I have the same duty, not as severe maybe, but it can be difficult for some students to hear that I can not extend a due date, change a grade, or allow a re-write. I have had students dissolve into tears in my office over the stresses of managing school, work and family obligations. Trying to be as compassionate as I can while still maintaining my standards, I seek for a solution that will satisfy both of us–usually I do.
  • Just like my doctor, No matter how well-trained, experienced, compassionate, and effective I am, if the students do not accept my authority and follow my prescriptions for improvement, I am powerless to help them. I wish I could convince all my students that my methods, although they may be different than other instructors, really do work. Improvement, even over only sixteen weeks of instruction, can be astounding, under one condition–Students must dedicate themselves to applying what they’ve learned to the work as it is assigned. 
  • It is unfortunate that just like my doctor, although I am highly experienced and effective at what I do, many people, including those in the general society, sometimes do not recognize my expertise or don’t trust me to manage my own professional affairs. My doctor and I lament this sad fact more than any other. In her profession the insurance companies, hospital administrators, and patients, even though they are not the ones with the ability to deliver the required service, are increasingly the ones who make decisions that, in the past, were her purview–things like how much time to spend with a patient, which treatment options to offer, even something as basic as a diagnosis.
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So far, I’m happy to say, at my college anyway, although there have been moves toward standardized curriculum in some non-discipline specific classes, the English faculty still dictates what is in the English curriculum, and I, as an instructor, am given ample latitude, to conduct my classes as I see fit, as long as I uphold the college’s mission and the state’s expected goals and objectives.

I am sorry to say, however, the same can not be said for many of my colleagues. The overall move to standardize college-level instruction (mainly, it sometimes appears, to appease the data-collection gods) continues to alarm this 30-year teaching veteran. The short-sighted idea of making all classes look, sound, smell, feel and taste alike may be the kind of fast-food academic meal that pleases the palate of a freshman or sophomore, or fills the plates of the textbook industry, but what happens when students arrive at the four-year college or enter the work world and are suddenly asked to slowly eat a full, home-cooked, balanced meal, including green leafy vegetables and begin exercising their critical thinking, reading and writing skills to boot? I care about my students. I want them to eat right and exercise now!

Just like a doctor, I am tasked with helping sometimes unwilling patients/students look far into the future and see their lives ten, twenty, thirty years from now. I must convince them to take care of their academic health, building their strength with a diet of informative lessons and  strenuous writing exercises that will help them grow and develop, prepared for the rigors of the life ahead of them.

Okay, I’ve carried the metaphor about as far as I can, I know, so I will stop now. 

Wait.

One more thing. 

Reducing or eliminating faculty autonomy, also called academic freedom, in any area of curriculum, including planning, delivery, or assessment, will surely limit the diverse content, instructional styles, and varying assessment methods that effectively prepare college students for further education, training, and employment. 

Wait.

I can’t help myself.

The Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACSCOC), which accredits colleges and universities in the southern states, seems to agree with me. Standard 6.4 (page 53) says:

The institution publishes and implements appropriate policies and procedures for preserving and protecting academic freedom.
(Academic freedom)

Rationale and Notes
The essential role of institutions of higher education is the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge. Academic freedom respects the dignity and rights of others while fostering intellectual freedom of faculty to teach, research, and publish. Responsible academic freedom enriches the contributions of higher education to society.

If college-level education is to deserve the adjective “higher,” then it must offer students more than the homogenized curriculum of their elementary, middle school, and high school years. After all, as the great British poet William Cowper wrote in the poem “The Task,” (1785) “Variety is the very spice of life, That gives it all its flavor.”

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To Everything a Season

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“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:” Ecclesiastes 3:1

Part of summer for me is evaluating the school year and analyzing some of its positive and negative aspects. What worked? What didn’t? One thing that struck me this year was how much pressure some of my younger high-achieving students put on themselves.

I had several students, especially early college and dual-enrolled ones, who seemed to be in a constant state of agitation, worrying about minor grades, wanting to turn in work before instruction was complete and becoming defensive, sometimes even arguing, over relatively unimportant comments on essays.

Once I lost patience with one of these students who would just not let go of her concern over a minor assignment she missed due to an absence, even after I explained that in-class assignments can not be made up, according to class policy as stated in the syllabus. Rather than argue with her, I gave in and let her make up the assignment.

Now, upon reflection, I think I should have stuck to my guns, but at the same time, I want to find a better way to communicate with students who struggle with perfectionism, help them learn how to better manage the pressures they face at home, at school, and increasingly, at work.

NPR correspondent Allison Aubrey’s article, “The Perils of Pushing Kids Too Hard and How Parents Can Learn to Back Off” offers some sensible advice not only to parents of high school-aged students but to educators as well, such as, offer resilience training, celebrate all kinds of success, don’t supervise everything and under-schedule.

I am thinking of ways to start a conversation with my students early in the semester through journaling and conferencing that can help them understand my expectations and build their resiliency as well as help them find a healthy life balance on their own terms. Another idea is to change the way I present grades to better reflect each assignment’s relative weight so students can more easily see how each one affects their grades.

My hope is for my students to embrace the idea that everything has its season, like summer is for me this year—a time for reflection and refueling.

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If you are or ever have been a writing teacher in any capacity or at any level, please consider submitting to my literary journal, Teach. Write. Submissions are open until August 1. See submission guidelines.

Mrs. Winkler Settles Down

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View from balcony of Schloss Neuschwanstein near Füssen in Bavaria, Germany — Photo by Katie Winkler–June 2018

Whew!! I have been busy, y’all! End of a stressful, albeit successful school year, a successful, albeit somewhat daunting, writers’ conference at Brevard College, a daunting, albeit wonderful ten-day trip to Germany to see my brother and his family, two days of recovery, and I am ready to settle into the rest of my summer.

One issue  nine-month faculty members consistently face is how to handle the glorious three-month sabbatical that they receive each year. Here in the South, we laugh and tell the old joke–What are the three best things about teaching?  June, July and August. According to my daughter, however, I don’t know how to enjoy those halcyon days of summer. I can’t stop thinking about teaching, even when I need to be thinking about my writing, and most importantly, refueling my body, mind and spirit with reading, studying (for fun), and above all, spending time with my family and friends. Somewhere in there I need to do housework, too. Oh, I forgot–cataract surgery on both eyes in June and July.

That old plate just keeps getting full–just like dinner on the grounds at a Southern Baptist church homecoming. So, I have a plan. Let’s see if I can stick to it this year and practice what I preach to my students about time management. Maybe writing it down on this blog will help me hold myself accountable.

Here are the primary objectives (in order of importance):

  1. Spend quality time with family and friends
  2. Prepare for cataract surgery and rest afterwards
  3. Finish rough draft of the new play–Death or Love?
  4. Finish the rough draft of the novel–Flood
  5. Write blog post at least twice a month and work on Teach. Write. 

 

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Speaking of Teach. Write. Submissions are now open (until August 1) for the fall 2018 edition. If you have ever taught English composition at any level, then please consider submitting fiction, non-fiction, poetry or drama. You can find complete submission guidelines here. I would love to see your work!

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The Gap in the Skills Gap Debate

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A 2017 article in MIT Technology Review validates what I have long felt regarding the current move away from emphasis on basic skills and overemphasis on STEM subjects: the so-called “skills gap,” if not a complete myth, at the very least suffers from grave misconceptions. According to Andrew Weaver of the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the skills most often associated with difficulty in hiring are not programming, not knowledge of advanced technologies, not even mathematics, but high-level reading in manufacturing and higher level writing for help desk technicians (“The Myth of the Skills Gap”).

Weaver bases his conclusions on data acquired through extensive national surveys of primarily three groups–skilled workers in manufacturing, IT help desk technicians and laboratory technologists. The results of the surveys are surprising: if there is a skills gap, it is not as much a technological problem as it is a soft skills problem, but again, not the type of problems people most often associate with the skills gap myth:

Proponents of the skill-gap theory sometimes assert that the problem, if not a lack of STEM skills, is actually the result of a poor attitude or inadequate soft skills among younger workers. But while demand for a few soft skills—like the ability to initiate new tasks without guidance from management—is occasionally predictive of hiring problems, most soft-skill demands, including requirements for cooperation and teamwork, are not.

The article goes on to say that a closer relationship among employers, workers, and schools, leading to more tailor-made educational opportunities, is key. Community colleges are at the forefront of this push, and administrators are beginning to see the need for close communication with area employers. However, some community college systems continue pursuing the decimation of developmental reading and writing courses and decreasing opportunities for students to improve their reading and writing skills, in a vain attempt to push underdeveloped students through their educational programs faster.

It is good that administrators recognize the importance of closer communication with stakeholders. However, that alone will not solve the problem of an underdeveloped workforce if the  perception of too many administrators, employers,  students,  the general public, and even some educators remains–that learning to write clearly and concisely,  reading complex texts to complete research assignments, or analyzing a literary text is a waste of time.

I am determined to combat students’ misconceptions by providing as many real-world writing experiences as possible while teaching high-level reading skills, whether I am teaching freshman composition or British literature. In future posts I will expand on some of the “summer” ideas that I am working on and fleshing out for trial use in the fall.

 

 

 

Poetry’s Power

Poetry’s power partly lies in its ability to distill a great deal of meaning into a small space. An English teacher friend of mine used to explain to her students that poetry is the tomato paste of the literary world. Novels are crushed tomatoes, short stories are tomato sauce, but poetry is the thick paste that only comes out of that tiny can with a spoon (or opening both ends of the can and pushing the paste out in one big flavorful lump).

 

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The compact nature of poetry also makes it useful for teaching English composition, especially in college-level classes that often must stuff yards of material into inches of calendar space. For example, when the state where I teach decided to re-design developmental English, shoving 16 weeks of material from two separate 16-week reading and composition classes into one class of 8 weeks, I was having difficulty fitting in essential grammatical information.

 

Our old developmental English textbook used Langston Hughes’ “Harlem” as a way to teach vivid verbs, but my students had a hard time understanding what a verb was in the first place, so the poem became my way to simply identify verbs and introduce the concept of syntax, denotation and connotation as well as  analyzing concrete texts and the original purpose of verb usage.

In addition, we would discuss the importance of symbolism, metaphor, simile, and other figurative language, all concepts the re-design material stressed as important information to cover.

It worked beautifully.

I would introduce the poem and put it into historical context–an African-American writer titling a poem “Harlem”that he wrote in 1951 New York. We would talk about the importance of the title and how it helps the reader understand the poem better.

I would have students identify the action verbs and verbals in the sentence–happens, deferred, does, dry up, fester, run, etc.

Then we would look at the similes  “like a raisin in the sun,” “stink like rotten meat,” and “crust over like a syrupy sweet.” We would talk about the imagery and the importance of syntax and rhyme. Why is it important, I would ask, that the two lines rhyme and come one after the other in the poem?

Inevitably, I would have at least one student who would, in the beginning, question the relevance of studying a poem in a developmental English class, but by the end of the discussion, I would have almost always won the student over to the importance of using connotation, syntax and figurative language in their writing.

No doubt about it–plain and simple. It was the Power of Poetry that won them over in the end.

***

The Power of Poetry is certainly displayed in the fine poetic contributions to the

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Spring 2018 edition of Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal.

Check it out!

 

 

What is our mission?

The primary mission of the community colleges in the state where I teach is the following:

The mission of the … Community College System is to open the door to high-quality, accessible educational opportunities that minimize barriers to post-secondary education, maximize student success, develop a globally and multi-culturally competent workforce, and improve the lives and well-being of individuals by providing:

  • Education, training and retraining for the workforce including basic skills and literacy education, occupational and pre-baccalaureate programs.
  • Support for economic development through services to and in partnership with business and industry and in collaboration with the University of System and private colleges and universities.
  • Services to communities and individuals which improve the quality of life.

 

 

For whom, then, were community colleges created?

They were created for those high school graduates who can not get an education any other way or were unprepared for the rigors of college, for those young high school graduates who want a four-year degree without crushing debt, for those who are the first in their families to attend college, for young adults who spent their first years out of high school seeking direction and are now ready to commit to their studies, to those who were unsuccessful at their first attempts at higher education and need a fresh start.

Community colleges are for parents, especially those with few resources, who want to make life better for their children, for workers languishing in low-wage jobs who want opportunities for advancement, for the veterans who have served their country and now need the country to serve them, for the unemployed who need to be re-educated to enter a new field.

These are the people who should be the primary focus of the community college.

But these days, I have to ask, are we straying from our mission?

 

Carefully Consider Dual Enrollment

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According to an article on Education Insider, entitled “Should High School Students Take College Classes,” over 70% of high schools in America offer some sort of dual enrollment program and with good reason. The article enumerates several seductive benefits including

 

  • increased rates of enrollment at four-year institutions
  • higher GPAs in college
  • decreased cost of a college education
  • impressing college admissions officers by suggesting persistence and initiative

But, and it’s a big but, only if the student is adequately prepared, and I will add mature enough, for the hardships of completing demanding college courses at the same time he or she is enrolled in college preparatory high school classes, which can also be demanding.  According to the article,

Even the most socially well-adjusted and academically talented high school students can struggle with the unique pressures of college… It’s important for students to understand the demands of just one college course.

Is it fair to a 16 or 17-year-old who is navigating the physical and emotional stresses of late adolescence to compound the difficulty of this time with the stringent demands of college-level courses?

Maybe.

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I freely admit that some of my dual-enrolled students have been my best ones, largely because they were indistinguishable from their classmates in appearance and levels of maturity, often times more mature than their college-aged classmates.

Yes, I have had some very good high school students who make very good grades and whose behavior is very good. And I have also seen some of them stress unnecessarily over minor grades that carry little weight. I have seen them put inordinate pressure on themselves to make A’s and dissolve into tears in my office over the demands of sophomore-level survey of literature courses that they simply were not emotionally prepared to handle.

Even the most mature and successful high school student may not be ready to navigate the pressures of college. Think how many post-secondary college students struggle emotionally in their first year, many dropping out.

Therefore, if you are a parent who is rightly concerned about the cost of education and are considering dual-enrollment classes, please ask the following questions:

  • Is my child adequately prepared, emotionally and academically, to take on the demands of college-level classes?
  • What will my child’s rights and responsibilities be when in a college classroom?
  • What are my rights and responsibilities when my child is taking a college class?
  • How involved can I be without interfering with my child’s college experience?
  • How will I and my child react if he or she receives a less than expected grade on an assignment or in a class with demanding material?
  • Do I expect my child to work as well as take high school and college classes?
  • Is this dual-enrollment program right for my child?
  • Should my child take more than one college-level course?
  • How much help with my child’s classes, from the high school, college or myself,  will be too much and negate the benefits of the college experience?
  • Does my child want to take college-level classes or would she or he rather have a less rigorous junior and senior year and enjoy social and extra-curricular activities?
  • And something many people don’t know to ask: Am I aware of the potential NEGATIVE effect on college admissions if my child takes too many classes?  Some college-level credit can be a good thing when applying to colleges as it can show initiative and resilience; however, too much may be detrimental, as noted in the article mentioned above:
    • Parents, counselors and teachers might encourage their students to take on a college course under the assumption that admissions officers look favorably upon applicants with postsecondary credits on their transcript. In fact, many college admissions officials are concerned some high school students are spending too much time in dual enrollment programs, in effect ‘dropping out’ of life at their high schools. This may act against students’ admission chances at colleges that highly value community involvement.

If dual-enrollment is not right for your child, you can still save money on your child’s education. Consider the following:

  • Monitor your children’s academic progress but let them manage obstacles on their own –ask questions about school, look at homework, read and learn along beside them.
  • Show an interest in all school activities.
  • Seek a tutor for difficult subjects–my father found a math tutor for me through a local college at no cost to us. I made an A in geometry that year. The only A in a math class that I made in high school.
  • Begin searching for scholarships early. If you know the academic or athletic requirements that will give your child the best chance at gaining the scholarship, you can use those standards to help motivate his or her performance in the classroom and help the student choose appropriate classes and extracurricular activities
  • Encourage your child to pursue community service opportunities. Many civic organizations offer scholarships to students who are active in the community. More importantly, service to others develops character and helps children become more externally motivated, so important in these “me first” days in which we live.
  • Apply for summer programs at a nearby college–more and more colleges are offering “college experience” programs for sophomores and juniors to ease into the college experience without the demands of college-level assessment.
  • The list goes on and on.

Having completed a Masters in English Education, been certified to teach English and German (6-12) in four states (Ohio, Colorado, Georgia, and North Carolina), taught in both private and public high school as well as having spent 23 years at the college I now serve as both an adjunct and full-time instructor, I have come to the conclusion that dual enrolled students can be highly successful in a well-conceived and administered program that offers a true college experience, but only if they are properly prepared both academically and emotionally for the experience .