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2004-02-21 - 10:53 p.m.

the philosophy of teaching.

Hurray! I have made it through another week of teaching! Life is full of small victories such as these. Furthermore next week promises to bring a mild reprieve because I will be giving out my first exam. This has a number of implications:

1. I must write an exam.

2. I must ultimately GRADE an exam.

3. I must wait and cringe at the expected comments about how unjust I am from my overly-verbose students.

4. I must face the inevitable reality that some of my students have completely missed the boat of understanding, and I will have to fail them.

But also:

5. Tuesday's lecture will only be review for panicked students, and

6. Thursday's lecture has been replaced by a silent room full of tortured students with little blue books and #2 pencils.


I will let you know if my standard Thursday afternoon headache appears anyway.

I have to say that the students are generally quite enjoyable. They are funny - they contribute when I ask questions. But sometimes...they make me crazy. And because of the impending EXAM the students are beginning to get especially ridiculous. I taught them cumulonimbus and nimbostratus clouds and one guy raised his hand and asked "is it okay if we only remember the nimbos part for the exam?" ... ??????? WHAT? I've only used the word CUMULONIMBUS 50 times in class. This may sound strange, but THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT CLOUD, OKAY??? This is a guy in my high-school-teacher-certification class. I'm beginning to suspect that he teaches gym. He's constantly concerned about the exam, AND he wears a gold chain around his neck. Not to typecast or anything...but I've never had an earth science teacher who wore a gold chain.

The undergraduates are a little more relaxed. But I had the humbling experience of giving them a homework set and realizing just how much they DON'T understand. I asked a question about which planet (mars or earth) emitted longer wavelength radiation - a simple blackbody radiation question. I got this long involved reply about how Mars doesn't have an iron core...whew...But fortunately about half of them really seem to get it. But I feel a little sorry for this clueless mars-no-core guy - he transferred out of car mechanics school because he wants to be an earth science teacher. And he clearly isn't getting it.

And so this brings me back to the feeling that my worst regret is #4 - I am now convinced that some of my students will fail. I so want them all to get A's. Well, at least C's. They are very nice people.

I've spent all of my time worrying about getting my lectures together and not sounding foolish - I had forgotten this dreadful point of teaching that soon I have to sit in judgement of their abilities. This totally sucks, actually.

Recently I wrote a letter to a professor of mine from my college days who taught me plant physiology. I remember falling asleep in his class twice. I remember doing superbly on the lab section and poorly on his exams, and getting solid B's on his term papers. The end result was a solid B in his class, which I thoroughly enjoyed. In my overachiever's brain, this B felt like failure.

I went to Professor Holowinsky's office to pick up my final exam (B-) and my final term paper (A- or B+, I forget). I met with him - a charming bearded man with an east european accent who looked kind of like the old music professor on the television show "Fame" - and I was positively shocked by what he had to say. To me, my performance represented failure because I didn't do everything perfectly. But as I sat in his office he told me what he thought of me: that he was always impressed by my ability to think and observe, and that I had what it takes to be a wonderful scientist. If I ever needed a letter of recommendation or an additional letter from him, he would be happy to give it to me.

I remember feeling confused by this: to me a wonderful scientist was someone who understood and remembered everything, and got the perfect score. But he taught me the very important lesson: that performance on an exam and personal ability are not the same thing. People can recognize your abilities even if your performance on one exam is less than stellar. I learned this lesson as a student and it helped to completely change my thinking as a student - not that I was a grade-mongerer before Holowinsky's class, but I was even less of one after it.

But now, I am faced with how to apply this from the other side, as a teacher. It is my goal to get these students to LEARN. It is not my goal to judge them - and I abhore putting a number on their performances when I hear their intelligent comments in class. I am struggling with how to give some of them credit for their effort without belittling the efforts of those who truly have understood everything. I am fighting with giving students the benefit of the doubt while still being fair. And perhaps fighting with my own ingrained notion that a grade reflects not only their performance in my class, but their performance as people.

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