Teaching: On Whether It Matters If Students Care

Teachers do care about whether or not their students care.
I hear teachers say: "My students just don't care. They come to class late. They text in class. They just don't care."

While I certainly agree that some students chronically show up late, text, yawn, seem detached, and so on -- I don't think these facts alone demonstrate a lack of caring.

I teach at a community college in New York City. My students juggle family obligations, multiple jobs, and for some of them, court appearances and meetings with a probation officer. Most of them are looking for a second chance. In their late 20s to early 40s, they turn to community college to help them gain an "edge." It's a mixture of chance and hard work that will determine their success.

We live in a society that deems college is for the few. Community colleges want their cake and eat it too. Is it possible to offer everyone a college chance?

The problem is the concept of community college has been a conflation of "trade school" and "associate college." At one time in America, the two were distinct entities. One went to a trade school if you wanted a certificate in air conditioning repair or a plumbing license. The term is seldom used. The elevator I take every morning reveals a vestige of this past. Engraved on an inconspicuous plaque one can see the school I teach used to be a trade school. The moniker has now been mostly eradicated. We say "college" now but we remain ambiguous about what such a "college" should provide.

I teach Introduction to Philosophy. It's better suited to an associate or bachelor undergraduate program. But at my school, it's offered as an elective. The students in my classroom want to be police officers, medical assistants, pharmacist aids, or paralegals. The majority of them do not see the value of philosophy.

Does this mean they don't care?

A teacher who teaches College Algebra also complains her students don't care. "They come in late." I ask her if they see Math as important. "Nothing is important to them," she says.

I too am irked by the tardiness, the texting, the seeming lack of care. But is it lack of care or confusion about what a community college should be.

I'm not sure if you will ever need philosophy to be an effective medical assistant.

Nor will you need "system of equations" or "slope-intercept form" to be a successful police officer.

The confusion lies in what it means to be college-educated.

I'm not saying throw out Introduction to Philosophy or College Math from the community college curriculum.

But we should as teachers address the issue of "care" head-on.

I'm suspicious of teachers who claim students don't care. It's not a matter of students not caring, but more precisely it's a matter of students not knowing HOW to care.

If students don't seem to care then it suggests they were never instructed how to care.

How to teach students to care? Show you care.

Even this alone will win over a few.

The sad reality is that all our students care (this fact alone does not determine their success). They care very much (or they would have never enrolled in the first place). But care is not enough. Other things take hold of our students. Things we can't control.

So all we can do is hope. Hold fast to our expectations. Start class on time (even when only two students out of twenty are on time). Hope.

If we say, "our students don't care" then what we are saying is "I don't care either."

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