My Road to the Ph.D.: Students are NOT a “Waste of Time”


Last night, a handful of my classmates and I went to a nice Italian restaurant for dinner.  Clearly, I didn’t choose the establishment as we’d otherwise be at a pub where I could have a fresh pint of local off the tap and some hot wings–what else is there in life to go out and eat?  It was nice to be in a town away from school and to socialize a bit with one another aside from things directly related to our studies and the work that always follows us (and is sitting a pile not far from where I’m typing, no doubt waiting for me).

Of course, put a bunch of teachers in a room, at a table, and inevitably the discussion of teaching will come up–last night being no exception.  The conversation came around as to what group of students each of us teaches, etc, etc, and everyone at the table pretty much teachers various forms of Freshman Composition or Introduction to Literature.  So when I told them that I’ve adjuncted Developmental English the past couple of years and will be doing so now on a full-time basis, I was somewhat surprised at the number of groans and eyes rolling.  Here are a few of the remarks I heard:

  • “I had to teach developmental students once.  Worst experience ever.”
  • “I had so many students failing–only about 40% passed my class!”
  • “I had to teach them basic skills like the importance of coming to class, being responsible, and begin organized.  I even had to re-teach sentence writing skills to them.  Sentence writing!”
  • “Teaching students who didn’t want to learn was the biggest waste of my time.”

Wow.  Now admittedly, two of these students possess vastly different personalities and world views than I do, but as fellow teachers… I was absolutely floored and quite nearly disgusted.  Thankfully, I didn’t have anything to drink that night as I might’ve demonstrated less discretion than I did.  But we all know teachers aren’t “in it for the money,” so why say those things?

After teaching students with learning disabilities, students who are non-native speakers, adult learners, and frankly, students who developed very bad study habits, I can pretty sum up why some of my classmates expressed those feelings in one word: Lazy.  Sure, they are very hard workers and exceptionally bright people–stronger than I am in some regards.  But that is because they work hard in areas that are of interest to them.  And it’s really not hard work if it is something you love.  Instead, these developmental students were hard, did not conform to the teaching models that these teachers  were comfortable with, and did not show up to class with the skills and abilities they want them to have.  Teaching these types of students was going to be hard.  And so, it sounded to me like they quit.

The statistics of a 40% passing rate (if one includes those students who gradually drop off throughout the semester as well) is about standard for most developmental English courses–give or take 5-10%.  But that means there is still that approx. 40% who remain and  want to learn.  SO many of them are looking for their 2nd or 3rd chance at improving themselves–and often, improving the lives of their children.  We as teachers have every responsibility in the world to this 40% in our class–and perhaps even that 60% who don’t make it then but have a better idea of what will be expected of them when they next return.  We have to be prepared to put aside our brilliantly thought out lesson plans of creative writing, and maybe just spend 30 minutes talking about some strategies for being better organized.  Sometimes, it’s actually okay to forgo that lecture on the different logical fallacies in order to spend some time reviewing some fundamental rules on how to use the dreaded and much-misused comma.  If their work is showing a need, then it is our job as educators to address those needs.  Why else are we standing in front of that classroom?

I remember particular instructor of mine saying (along these lines) that he wouldn’t have wasted his time if he thought I didn’t actually care.  It had far less to do with my producing the exact results but whether or not I was giving my very best.  The results would eventually follow–and they did.  I was worked like a dog because that is simply what I needed to catch up with my peers.  And these students need to be worked hard in order to catch up as well.   But if they think their teacher doesn’t care or see a point in making them work hard, then they won’t waste their time on that teacher.

I was supposed to empathize with them for their frustrating experience of teaching a class that wasn’t intellectually stimulating enough for them, but I really feel bad for those students who had professors who neither know how or cared enough to learn how to properly teach and work them.  Watching students who aren’t “supposed” to do well succeed and achieve academic success is about as intellectually stimulating as I could hope for.

Waste of time my ….

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About fhelvie

I live in CT with my wife and two sons. I am also writing my doctoral dissertation, which is focused on the relationship between American literature and comic book superheroes. I have served as a panelist at a number of conferences discussing my research in comics, medieval literature, and pedagogy. Most recently, I had the good fortune to present at the New York Comic Con. In addition to my work in comics scholarship, I'm also a full-time professor of developmental English.
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3 Responses to My Road to the Ph.D.: Students are NOT a “Waste of Time”

  1. amyruthj says:

    This is so true, Forrest! The population I work (welfare recipients) with are generally perceived as lazy or stupid, and it’s frustrating because while some of them need a good kick to get moving, so many others have never been given a chance. I consider it an honor to do what I do.
    Amy (“Joe”) Huffman

  2. Erin says:

    I didn’t realize that was the population with whom you worked. It’s a difficult group but the results can’t be measured quantitatively–it’s all qualitative. Yep, there might be 40% of your class that fails, but there might be 3 students who were totally inspired and learned so much that they’re ready to further their education. I find a lot of teachers and administrators are in teaching because it’s a steady job and they don’t know what else to do. And I get it–I do. I’m in that boat right now being without a job and all I can think about is “Man, I have $80,000 in loans acquired while studying to become a teacher–I need to find a teaching job–it’s what I went to school for, right?” But so many teachers dislike working with students and well, teaching, and they just end up making the rest of the teachers who care look really bad. Maybe someone should have a teacher retraining program so that people who really don’t like teaching but are teachers can be retrained to do something they won’t be so miserable about. The sad thing is I truly feel that unless you hate and bitch about your students, you don’t fit in. It’s like a requirement if you are a teacher.

    • fhelvie says:

      I’ve been working in developmental English at the college level since Fall of 2006 as a part-time adjunct. It’s been interesting because many of those students (though not all) often come from working class to below the poverty line whereas the high school students I taught were almost entirely from upper-middle class and higher. Despite these class differences, you found many of the same difficulties that they struggled with. And sure, not everyone was successful with me. I have a… *distinct* personality and I know it doesn’t translate with every student I have, but it was a real privilege and pleasure to see a good number of students look back on their progress and become more confident in themselves and their potential for future success.

      And I agree—complaining is SO easy to fall into and I’d be a total hypocrite to say I haven’t willingly indulged in the practice. It’s healthy to vent with our peers so we don’t unconsciously take it out on our students, but there needs to be a point where we must ask ourselves, “What now? What’s the root of this frustration and how can I positively address it?” It’s a question that might force us to be a little more introspective and recognize that perhaps there are times when students poor behavior/performance can be an unspoken response to ineffective teaching methods we are using.

      I read a wonderful book by Catherine Beers over the December break last year called “What to do When Kids Can’t Read.” While I still feel I was doing a good job of employing some progressive pedagogical methods during the fall (with both my high school and college students), this book really opened my eyes to the many ways in which I was not addressing the needs of a number of my students–and no surprise the students she described matched up with ones who I identified as not living up to their potential. So you’re right, sometimes our students need to do more work, have a better attitude, and put forth a better effort. Other times, we need to look past the guaranteed paycheck and summer vacations, and put forth a little more work and model the attitude that we expect from our students.

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