Friday, September 21, 2012

Teaching the Dude with No Stuff

Teaching has been taking over my mind these last few days.

Maybe it's the Chicago teachers' strike, or maybe it's a couple of ballot measures in my state that could profoundly change public education (Yes on 30!  No on 32!), or maybe it's that the college where I teach just wrapped up the fifth week of the semester and I've got stacks of papers to grade.

I should be working, but I'm thinking about teaching, so I'm going to write about that.  About a student. 

One of the reasons I love teaching at a community college is that my students are so diverse.  It's a rare semester when I'm the oldest person in my class, and there's a wonderful mix of cultural background and life experiences and points of view that I never experienced in my own schooling.  I've taught first-generation college students, single parents, newly unemployed heads-of-households, the physically-challenged, and a whole host of others.  By and large, I get energized by my students--their stories, their questions, their observations.

But there's one student that I'm starting to see way too often in my classes.

I call him the Dude with No Stuff.  He shuffles into class late (when he bothers to shuffle in at all), slumps into a seat (usually in the back), and sits there with his hands folded across a desktop as blank as his mind.  When we discuss the reading, he pulls out neither book nor handout; when we do in-class writing, he leans to a neighbor to borrow paper and pencil.  This really gets me.  I've been known to ask the Dude with No Stuff, "Would you go to a P.E. class without shoes?"  Uh, no...  "Then why would you go to a writing class without something to write with?"

Sometimes a little embarrassment does the trick, and the Dude with No Stuff becomes the Dude with Some Stuff--in other words, a dude that doesn't raise my blood pressure.

I say "dude," but this behavior cuts across gender.  I've seen both men and women in my classes without any class materials.  One of their favorite activities is to stare down at their crotches and smile.  It took me a while to figure out that they're texting a friend.  Something really important, I'm sure, like class soooooo boring wt r u up2.  At least, I hope that's what they're doing.  Maybe they just like their crotches.

Before I embarrass them, though, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and ask them (privately, of course), if they're waiting either for financial aid money to come through or to get paid.  But this question is kind of a formality.  The students that are financially strapped and dedicated to their education have already been in touch with me, asking if copies of the books are on reserve or in the library or available anywhere else.  Those are the students who understand that nobody should care more about their education than they do, and that getting that education is not a right; it has to be earned through hard work.

No, the Dudes (and Dudettes) with No Stuff are just sleepwalking through higher education in much the same way that they probably drifted through high school.

So how do I teach the Dude with No Stuff?  I don't.

Oh, I give him a chance to change.  I'll discuss the value of education and the work it takes and the options that it creates for those who do the work.  I'll talk with him about effort and expectations.  

But if he still shows up with no stuff, then I'm done.  He's welcome to take a seat (he--or someone--paid for it, after all), but my energy is finite and I'm spending it on the people who at least take the trouble to bring their book to class.

I've been thinking about the Dude with No Stuff in light of all the news and debates and forecasts about the state of education.  How public schools are failing.  That if a business produced such a shoddy product as today's graduate, why, they'd be put out of business and damn quickly.  This is my least favorite popular misconception of what it is teachers do--churn out a "product."  Schools aren't factories for lots of reasons, but the biggest one is that in a factory, workers can at least expect a certain level of quality raw materials.  

The materials that a teacher gets to work with--the students--are hardly "raw" and far from perfect.  They exist in complex, often challenging family and socio-economic conditions that sometimes exert tremendous force against the learning process.  They may come to school tired or hungry--two conditions that make them extremely resistant to any kind of "molding."  They may not get much support at home or from friends.  Or they may just be lazy and see nothing wrong with showing up to class with nothing but a cell phone.  

As a teacher, I can assign reading and homework, but I can't go home with them and force them to crack open the book.  I can tell them everything I know about writing--that it's a process, not a night-before-the-paper-is-due-frenzied-typing-crapathon--but I can't force them to give that process a try.

The problem with most educational reform plans--other than the fact that very few actual educators are involved in their writing (they're too busy teaching)--is that they're based on the assumption that everything is within the teacher's control.  Low test scores?  It's the teacher's fault.  Poor grades?  Blame the teacher.

The problems that face education--like most things--are complicated.  But the biggest problem is that we live in a society where people want simple answers and someone to blame, and our politicians are more than happy to provide both.  The truth is, there is no quick fix and no obvious culprit.  

Well, there may be a culprit.  The Dude with No Stuff.  That guy really bugs me.