Monday, August 1, 2011

Chalk Dust

Once upon a time I was a university professor. But the experience of teaching was an ongoing source of frustration for me. Students seemed to put more energy into being lazy than digging in and doing what was required. It ate at me that I had to constantly push and prod them toward taking their work seriously. I was developing ulcers trying to connect with them and engage them, all while they seemed so relaxed, so ambivalent. I feared that all of my effort and the long hours of preparation were going for naught. But one experience kind of changed some of that for me.

I was teaching the first semester of a two-semester electronics lab. My experience taught me that the students would only understand the material when they could explain every aspect of why the circuits behaved as they did. During class, I moved from team to team and asked question after question to force them to think and engage. They were not allowed to continue in their work until they had demonstrated sufficient understanding and mastery in response to my enquiries. However, this required diligent consideration of their homework and careful thought and analysis in preparation of their lab reports. Oh my how they moaned and complained. I was painted as a cruel and unreasonable taskmaster.

During the second-semester of this lab course, I was asked to substitute for the regular instructor when he went away on travel. During this week there seemed to be an intangible appreciation from my former students regarding my approach. I couldn't quite explain the vibe in the room, but they seemed genuinely happy that I was there. At the end of the week, the students came to my office en masse, pleading with me to take over the class. They were getting good grades with the current instructor, but they felt they were gaining no true depth of knowledge. They had come to understand why I pushed them so hard. The funny thing is that I would never have known any of this had I not gone back.