When Teaching is Like Social Work

I am writing from the 11th week of our semester and kicking myself. What was I thinking agreeing to write a post at the end of April? So here you have my most honest and unfiltered thoughts now that I am nearing the end of my first year teaching community college full time.

Wow. It is hard. It is brutally hard on my body in a way that is completely unfamiliar from my previous experiences in higher ed. Teaching so many students at two different campuses requires much more communicating than I have done as an academic introvert. And it’s not just the teaching/ meeting with students/ grading responsibilities. While my students try to complete freshman writing, they are dealing with childcare worries, hunger, homelessness, domestic violence, drug and alcohol addiction in their families, and significant health concerns. While I have been decent at setting boundaries in my past teaching experience, I find the cumulative weight of teaching in poverty conditions is starting to get to me. I am even questioning where those boundaries should be now that I am seeing life seep into school for all of my students. Is it really fair to ask them to talk to me mainly about their classwork?

In graduate school, I taught one writing course, or one literature course at a time. I usually had 25-30 students and there was a quiet consensus among grad students that we should be terrifying on the first day of class so that we could shrink the enrollment. This seems completely illogical to me now. In a research-focused culture, students (especially struggling, unmotivated, or underprepared students) are a distraction from the real work, and if they don’t learn, that is seen as their own fault. In a community-college context, it’s the opposite. We have a massive course completion problem that becomes a degree completion problem and a transfer problem. So I am slowly learning to change my ideas of student effort, and the value of resistance in those students who I would have ignored or allowed to drop. What is truly surprising to me is that my colleagues and I shared a belief that we were engaged in a social justice mission as educators in a public university. How can so many motivated scholars miss the glaring flaw in our teaching practices?

I’m looking forward to reading Alexander Astin’s new book Are You Smart Enough? How Colleges’ Obsession with Smartness Shortchanges Students after I saw his interview in The Chronicle this week. I was struck by this passage:

“We concentrate far too much on our smartest students. Smartest in the traditional sense, kids who get the highest grades and test scores. We put tremendous emphasis on these students to the detriment of everybody else — the average student, the underprepared student. We have created an institutional structure that reflects this bias. Teaching an average student doesn’t get any value in academia. And a side effect of all this is we define smartness in a very narrow sense.”

In elite environments, innate talent shines brightly, especially for those whose intelligence aligns with the cultural values of whiteness and wealth. I remember a friend of mine in high school whose family paid for her to take the SAT 6 times, with a test-prep course before each attempt. I can’t imagine how much money they spent on that test. She ended up doing very well eventually and found herself at an elite university in the northeast. This is not a judgment of my friend or her family- I can see why they would use their resources in this way. It is rather a belated indictment of an academic system that I cherished because I thrived there. Now that I work in rural poverty, I cannot believe how wrong I was. Teaching engaged students who live on a verdant campus and get fed every day was easy for me. I plan to do a lot of writing in the future on what I would have needed to do in graduate school to prepare for the career I have now.

So that’s really it. I am exhausted in week 11 and thinking about how elitism works, particularly about how I was able to thrive in academia  and how much I need to learn so others can thrive here. I welcome your thoughts.

8 thoughts on “When Teaching is Like Social Work

  1. Pingback: pflatterme

  2. Helping a stellar student to succeed isn’t much of an accomplishment, especially when your role could be replaced by a text book or video series without much change in outcome. Yet that’s the kind of student teachers seem to prefer to teach. Helping a student that would otherwise fail? Now that’s something that I am proud of.

    I am very much looking forward to future posts on what you would have needed to do in graduate school to prepare for working at a community college.

  3. I do not teach in colleges/universities (but involved in nursing staff education/development in a clinical setting) so my knowledge is limited. But I’d just like to say that teachers love motivated students and often, motivated students do well academically. So, does wanting to focus on and help those students who want to learn mean you’re concentrating too much on smartest students? Is that elitism? I don’t agree. If a student has no interest in learning, that’s not a failure of the educator. A teacher can inspire and provide guidance, but is not responsible for students who refuse to put in effort. There are far too many youths who do not enjoy or see the value of education, but that is a result of numerous societal issues.

  4. Thank you for the article. I feel that I can have a bigger impact teaching at a community college than a 4- year institution. Plus many of these students appreciate the opportunity to get an education, have life experiences to contribute to class discussions, and are a bit more mature and respectful. And yes, grad school did not prepare me to be a social worker!

  5. I work in the city at the grade school level where the focus is on students who perform at about the lowest quarter. It’s incredibly challenging because there is a tremendous amount of pressure to push this population forward despite all odds. Perhaps philosophies on this differ depending on location.

  6. Thank you for this! My experience was the reverse, teaching students with all the life challenges you describe at a public, urban university where I got my PhD, then arriving for a post doc at an elite research university. I definitely appreciate the opportunity, but have struggled with the conservatism and lack of diversity, as well as the fact that the enormously wealthy university is basically in an enclave outside of which nearly everyone is poor and struggling. It sounds naive but, up close, l can’t believe the extent to which this type of institution is celebrated and am currently working through why l thought this was a good idea for my career path. It mostly clarified to me that my vocation lies elsewhere. Teaching as solidarity work is not for everyone, but as I’m heading back to it, it’s very heartening to read your reflections. Take care of yourself and try not to get totally isolated when exhausted (sometimes complicated for introverts). I found a weekly low key exercise class helpful (yoga, pilates etc). The first few years are probably the most taxing. Don’t sweat the boundary stuff. Yes, you aren’t a social worker but academic success can’t be untangled from all these other issues, and in my experience a lot of students mainly need someone to listen to them. Sometimes you’re the first remotely official-seeming person who gives a shit, and sometimes you can provide useful referrals towards people who are better equipped to support students with complicated life stuff. You sound like you’re doing an awesome job so far. Thanks again for this thoughtful piece.

  7. Thank you E for your post, I have been struggling with writing a comment. I agree with E that intellectual ability is not necessarily associated with socio-economic factors. I am disturbed at some of the stereotypes around in our society, where “motivated students” and “high-achieving students” are associated with the privileged universities, and those students struggling with all sorts of other events in their lives, and possibly with no culture of “how to study” within their families, are somehow not so motivated or high-achieving. In my experience, there is a proportion of very bright students in all sectors of our society, and a proportion of ne’er-do-wells in all sectors, even in the privileged places. As teachers, surely we strive to be guides on the side, not sages on the stage. As such, we need to see where student problems are – and yes, there may be more problems in some places than others (and I have taught in such places) – but we need to help where we can without trying to be or pretending to be social workers. So, in my experience, we can listen to the problems and if we can alleviate some of them by extending a deadline or just saying we understand why last week’s lab work was not quite as good as the previous week, then that is our job. It is not our job to try to solve the problems, but we can help there too by maybe suggesting counsellors or places where they can go for financial help or whatever.

    Imagine you are in that situation (and many people contributing to this blog have relayed stories of hardship during their student years). From my experience, these people need to be MORE motivated than someone from a privileged background to get through, despite the other responsibilities and worries in their lives. Let’s not think, as E mentions, that it is any easier to teach in one area than another. Teaching is always hard, and always requires sensitivity to the particular cohort of students (or individual student), and it always takes a toll if done successfully.

    On the other side of the coin, it is absolutely not true that bright students “will succeed anyway” with online or other personal study. Yes, they will achieve passing grades (whether they are from priveleged or low socio-economic backgrounds). But none of them, not even the brightest of the bright, will achieve their maximum potential without the help of a teacher who understands their personal needs. Gerty Cori (half of the Cori cycle fame) ran the lab, and from memory, that lab produced something like 10 Nobel prizewinners. Now THAT is successful mentoring of bright people. I am sure those grad students and post-docs would not have achieved the same high levels without her help.

    So yes, we all need to draw our boundaries so that we can maintain our own equilibrium, and this post is a sensitive discussion about those issues.

    As to “training” – I found that becoming involved in high school workshops, where students and their teachers came to the University for one or two days, gave me an insight into the social norms of the area where I was teaching, and the conversations with the high school teachers was invaluable in my understanding of the students’ needs when they came to first year at Uni.

  8. I am a teacher of others as well and I find is a mixed bag of alot of professionals but mainly Social work. Social work opens your eyes to how to interact with a diverse group of people. I feel blessed to get to understand and help others learn. I enjoyed your post alot mainly because I think your eyes are open to how difficult it is to balance all of the hats one must wear. I hope you will check out my blog for possibly a small dose of encourgement along the way.

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