Throw Back Sunday

My Work Home

My Work Home

I used to write a BRCC column a couple of times a month for the Hendersonville Times-News. Here’s one of those columns, from back in 2003:

A series of events the past few weeks has caused an identity crisis in me, forcing me to ask that question teachers often find themselves asking. “What exactly do we have to offer—what is our role?

Should we be entertainers? After all, it is difficult to keep students engaged, especially when many have grown up passively viewing a television screen or matching wits with an exciting computer-generated opponent. Sometimes we try to “jazz things up,” yet no matter how witty our illustrations or detailed our demonstrations, despite our high tech visual aids, we teachers can’t match the special effects of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings.

Of course, teachers should make attempts to prompt student responses through group discussion and student comments, but in the end it is the teacher who has the responsibility to bring student discussions to the sticking point, to summarize key points of any discussion. I know it’s become a dirty word in some circles, but sometimes we even need to lecture.  For many students, that’s not entertainment.

If it is not a teacher’s role to be an entertainer or merely a facilitator, is it to be an encourager? Everyone needs praise.  Good teachers know this and try to find real reasons for praise. One word of encouragement from an admired and respected instructor can fuel some students for an entire semester. Sometimes praise can even change a student’s life; however, constructive criticism has also been known to be the making of a person.

Teachers sometimes see themselves as physicians, highly trained professionals who diagnose problems and offer cures.  But others sometimes see us as nothing more than dispensers of grades—recorders. I do the work; you write my A in the grade book and raise my self-esteem.

Are we here to make students feel better about themselves?  Are we counselors? As a writing teacher, I sometimes find it difficult to even constructively criticize a student’s work if I’m aware of his or her difficult circumstances. I ask myself, what if he or she takes my criticism personally. Could my words so sting that the student becomes so angry or discouraged that he or she drops my class or quits school?

In the end, good teachers know avoiding the errors in student performance, no matter what the students’ difficulties, can only block their ability to learn. Our job is to assess students and inform them of their problem areas, not to assure them, “Everything is okay.”

At the beginning of the semester in my freshman composition classes, I relate to students my educational philosophy by describing a scene from the movie All That Jazz, based on the life of Bob Fosse, the late choreographer and Broadway director of Chicago.  The Fosse-like character becomes frustrated with a beautiful young dancer who gets her job more for her sexual appeal than her dancing ability. When the young woman breaks down in tears, the choreographer stops the music and goes to the girl, saying something like this: “I can’t promise you I’ll make you a great dancer.  I can’t even promise I can make you a good dancer. But if you work real hard and listen to what I say, I’ll make you a better dancer.”

Like the choreographer, we can’t make many promises. We can’t say for sure that our students will be stimulated or get A’s or even pass. But we can make the promise that if they will listen, even if the delivery is not of their liking, even if the grade is not what they expect, they will learn.

Reminded then of our promise, our role becomes clear. I know what it is we have to give. It’s not entertainment, not unreserved praise; it’s not a shoulder to cry on. The only thing we can offer our students is what we know—about our disciplines, about learning, about life.

The rest is up to them.

More from the CAMPUS

Another frustrating day, so another installment from my musical in progress CAMPUS–a Satire of Higher Education in Appalachia. This song is sung by the arch villain of the piece–Mr. Mediocrity. An actor friend  living in Raleigh who did a reading there for me suggested I rename him Governor Mediocrity. I might just do that. Anyway, here it is, folks, me venting my spleen, yet again.

Bread and Circuses

By Katie Winkler

(from the musical CAMPUS)

I consider myself

A student of history

The Romans had power

That’s no mystery

But how did the elite

Keep their society replete

With ignorant masses and slave labor

Don’t forget the gladiators?

How did they keep them from starving

Or stop them from harping

About their miserable condition?

Do you know what the secret is?

I’ll tell you

Bread and Circuses

Bread and Circuses

They certainly do have their purposes

Everything will be just fine

If you keep them wined and dined

With a little food and relaxation

They’ll be ripe for some taxation

So give them

Bread and Circuses

Just not too much

I consider myself

A student of psychology

I sure know my way

Around society

Just a few things that they need

Enough to go out once a week

We keep open all McDonald’s

And Cracker Barrel too

These schmucks will pay good money

For that kind of food.

The finer restaurants need not fear

The rabble go to Red Lobster just once a year

Just give them

Bread and Circuses

Bread and Circuses

I’m sure that’s what the answer is

As long as we don’t discriminate

Denying advancement to every race

Enough bad food and home entertainment

Will keep the proper containment

So give them

Bread and Circuses

Only just enough

The secret to giving them satisfaction

Is lowering their expectations

This is the secret to our democracy

Let the rabble live long, long lives of mediocrity

Living on

Bread and Circuses

Bread and Circuses

If you want to know where the power is

Then open up your eyes

It’s the people who fill them with lies

That there’s no hope for anything more

When you’re born southern and poor

Just give them

Bread and Circuses

Bread and Circuses

Bread and Circuses

Then look away,

Look away

Look away