Brian's Ramblings

My thoughts in text, photo, and video form

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Why Teaching is Such a Great Profession

"In teaching you cannot see the fruit of a day's work. It is invisible and remains so, maybe for twenty years." ~Jacques Barzun

The life of a teacher is filled with many emotions.  On some days, you can feel like the worst educator, when your lesson plan or agenda doesn't go as you planned.  Students could see you as the bumbling fool, watching your lesson spiral more and more into the ground.  Then there are course evaluations, where students provide feedback on the course and on you, as an instructor.  I always aim for a 100% completion rate for my evaluations, as it is important to hear from your "audience," who are my students that pay a good amount of money for tuition.  Inevitably, you will have a few students who share feedback about factors that you have no control over.  These can include the temperature of the classroom being too cold, to disliking the time that the course was held; I have NO control over this!

But, when I see comments about the course being too demanding, feeling like discussions dragged on for too long, or feeling like the instructor wasn't "available enough;" this catches my attention immediately and I become fixated on these comments, forgetting the majority that had really nice things to say!  I reflect upon this feedback and take it to heart, as much as I can.

It will be in these moments that a teacher can grow and develop.

On other days, an educator can feel on top of the world, watching the bright eyes of students staring back at him or her, indicating full engagement and comprehension.  Reading feedback that praises you for having the best course that a student has taken in their entire college experience, or words of appreciation for demonstrating a genuine care for them (students), or thanking you for being really organized. These moments help to boost your self-esteem.

This summer, I'm teaching in the statewide program, which allows students across all islands in Hawaii to pursue an undergraduate degree in education.  I've taught in this program for the past 5 years.  Unfortunately, due to restructuring and pruning the statewide program, the course I teach, SPED 480, "Technology for Children with Disabilities," will no longer be required.

In 2010, my department chair, Dr. Amelia Jenkins, presented me with a grand opportunity.  She asked me if I wanted to teach SPED 480, a course that I served as a teaching assistant in for many years under the mentorship of my friend, Dr. Jim Skouge.  When I was asked, my reply was, "Let me think about it and I'll let you know."  I went into Jim's office, a technology-lover's heaven, and sat there pondering what I just heard.  In a matter of minutes, I realized I provided the most silly answer possible.  Here I was being presented with what I had dreamed of and imagined each time I observed Jim in action; how could I NOT say yes emphatically?!

So, I worked up the courage to go into Dr. Jenkins' office and told her I was more than happy and ready to teach the course.  No one knew how this would work.  Dr. Jenkins had to rely on the suggestions of Jim and another colleague, and friend, Dr. Kavita Rao.  Together, they assured Dr. Jenkins I would be more than capable to take on this challenge.

Another amazing tidbit that adds to the unbelievability of this story is the fact that I had never taught a class by myself, ever!  Sure, I could do presentations and guest lectures, but such engagements don't require a prolonged relationship with students.

I actively sought out advice from my colleagues in the Department of Special Education; they ALL were extremely generous with their advice and support!  The statewide program required the course be delivered in a hybrid form; meaning the majority would be online, but there would be face-to-face weekends when students all gathered at Wist Hall for a weekend of learning.

The one person I consulted first, and probably the most, was my friend, Jim.  He is one of the "fathers" of SPED 480, so surely he would have ideas!  "Jim, how would you teach SPED 480 online," I asked one afternoon.  

"Brian, that's a great question.  I'm not really sure because I haven't done it that way!  But, I'm sure you'll come up with a great plan, friend!" Jim said.

This was extremely comforting to hear, as my mentor wished me luck on this new journey!  But, I continued to seek advice, soaking in every idea shared!  My friend, Kavita, is one of the most organized people I know.  She's also extremely intelligent!

"Surround yourself with people way smarter than you, friend," Jim said.  I've took that to heart, even to this very day.

Well, my summer course was fast approaching and I managed to map out a plan for the course, complete with activities, projects, and content.  What served me the best was Kavita's knack for structuring things extremely clearly!

I found myself printing our calendars for the months and actually writing on them!  Using a calendar for my own life was so very foreign!  But as I broke each week down, I gained confidence in knowing that this monumental task could be accomplished!

The statewide program coordinator, Dr. Jennifer Herring, did not know who I was prior to my teaching her cohort.  She has a genuine care and passion for every one of her students, making sure the students are receiving the best educational experience possible.

Another complexity in this incredible story is the fact that face-to-face sessions run for 4 hours for each course during a face-to-face weekend. Teaching for 4, FOUR, hours?!!!!

I wanted to succeed, but more importantly, I wanted my students to succeed!  I did not want to mess this up, as students deserve the best educational experience possible.  So, my plan for the first session, my first time teaching solo involved many hands-on activities.  

"Welcome to SPED 480!" I programmed into my Dynawrite, an augmentative communication device with speech output.  In order to reduce as much "dead air" possible, I spent hours typing in my "lectures" for each class.

The first group, called cohort in educational jargon, was a mixture of traditional and non-traditional students.  In other words, I had students who were more mature than me.  I had to keep their attention and provide them with new knowledge?!

Dr. Herring sat in on my first class, in the back, observing her "children" like a proud mom.  She wasn't just observing them, she was observing me!  

Things went amazingly smoothly and somehow I made the class run for the whole allotted time.  My only concern came when I asked if anyone had questions after reviewing the course syllabus, one student said, "Yes, but I have too many to ask you now!"

But I had their attention, they listened to a synthesized voice that "boomed," as much as it could.  ALL of this was so new, both for the students and for me as an educator.  I was fortunate that the students listened, and were  genuinely interested!

After class ended, I had a few students come up to shake my hand and said they were glad to have me as their teacher.  Before I left, Dr. Herring came up to me and asked, "How long have you been teaching?" 

"This was my first time!" I replied.

"I wouldn't have guessed, " Dr Herring said.  "You were extremely organized!"

"Thank you, I'm relieved it went okay!"

The rest of the summer went really well; I taught the course asynchronously via the university's online learning system, Laulima.  This was something I had to learn to use, and I didn't have the luxury of time to do so.  Yes, I've used it as a student, but using it in the role of an instructor was much more complex!

It was at that point that I realized educators (professors, instructors, lecturers) at a university have to put in just as much work, or even more, than they expect of students.

I took pride in making the content be as easy to access, along with establishing a framework that allowed students to know exactly what was going on, and when.

In the summer of 2010, I discovered that I LOVED teaching.  Despite investing many hours to prepare for classes, the satisfaction I received in hearing very relevant dialogue between students over the summer during Blackboard Collaborate sessions (an online learning environment, allowing a class to meet in "real-time") made every long night worth it.

By the end of the summer, I earned the respect of my students; they asked to take a class picture with me after our final face-to-face session.  I maintained communication, and still do, with many of the students.  I also earned the respect of Dr. Herring.  This was the tipping point for whether I'd continue having opportunities or not.  Fortunately, my course evaluations were positive in nature.

This is the cohort (506) that started my journey as an educator!  

Dr. Jenkins saw me in the hallway one day after the summer course ended and said, "Good job on your course evaluations, I'm glad you did well because I need someone to teach the course in the fall!"  That was a very EASY response on my part, "YES, I'd love to!"

Here we are some 5 years later and I'm in the midst of teaching another statewide cohort.  I've developed confidence to try new things, such as taking the students to the Honolulu Zoo to do an activity involving technology.  I'm also much more aware of what goes on within a class, such as noticing a student who might be texting, or someone who is tired and not as engaged as usual.  Instead of letting it go, I approach students or reach out to make sure they're okay and we're on the same page.

Planning for a trip to the Honolulu Zoo requires a LOT of preparation, so students feel confident doing the activity.  It also requires my having to trust that the students are capable of creating work in an environment that is unpredictable and not sterile.  Things are bound to falter!  But, as teachers, you can NEVER give up!

After a long and tiring day, just this past Saturday, at the zoo - one of the hottest days I can recall - I thanked students in an e-mail.  I've made it a habit to thank students after every class session, providing reminders about deadlines, too.  I don't expect any student to reply.

But ONE did!  That made my whole day, as the student thanked me for such a wonderful experience at the zoo.

When I came home, I was tired and felt "gross," as I was covered in sweat and sun block!  Not the best combination.  But, I proceeded to review their videos.  Seeing students enjoying learning by creating a product provided a great feeling!  I don't see myself as teaching them anything grand, rather I simply share ideas with students that are very doable in their own classrooms.  

Of course, teaching cannot always be a grand experience. You'll encounter issue with students not submitting work on time, some with very personal issues, and some who aren't as into the content as others.  It's MY responsibility to adjust and improve my teaching so students WILL be excited about what they are learning weekly.

As an instructor, I don't always receive immediate feedback after a class session, leaving me to reflect upon how I could have improved, what worked, and what flopped.  In this respect, I cannot see the fruit of a day's work.

Another example is creating a podcast for students, in an effort to complement their learning.  Last week, I found out, thanks to very honest students, that NO one viewed the podcast I created.  Disappointing?  Yes, but I need to just continue "swimming," as Nemo, of Finding Nemo, said.

This evening, I spent 2 hours creating a second podcast.  Will students view or listen to this one?  I honestly don't know!  But, it's my role to providing as much as I can to make learning as enriching as possible!

Another factor that REALLY helps is having a friend who I can vent to; in turn, my friend can vent to me.  This support system is simply invaluable!  And just making me stop working to go enjoy a movie, as any other adult would do....this is PRICELESS!  But it is the long and late-night conversations that I truly value and appreciate the most!  The funny thing is we worked in the same department for a while, but never really stopped to get to know each other.  But through the craziness called work, we were able to learn more about who we are as PEOPLE!  I don't know how sane I would be without this support; for that, I am EXTREMELY grateful!

Though many efforts don't yield immediate results, maybe in 20 years I'll be able to see the invisible "fruit of a day's labor."  And, hopefully I can have you, my friend, to share the joys of what we're blessed to do in our professional lives - TEACHING!

Until next time...

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