My Road to the Ph.D.: High Risk Environments Kill Students

Sometimes walking into the classroom, committing yourself to sitting at a desk alongside your classmates without changing your mind, and preparing to steel yourself for an extended period of listening, thinking, and possibly talking about something you most likely would not engage in given the choice can be a real act of quiet courage.  Think about it:  how many of you have been in a class and heard your teacher say (in front of everyone) something along these lines:

  • “You don’t have your materials?  Well, find someone who does and ask them if you can share,”
  • “That’s enough.  You’re disrupting the class and we have other things to do,”
  • Or my personal favorite, “No, that’s completely wrong” or some variation.

As teachers, we have SO much to try and juggle– developing substantial, rigorous, and yet accessible and (hopefully) interesting lesson plans; managing classroom behaviors to ensure a healthy rapport is built with students at the same time ensuring we support an equally healthy learning environment; and of course, helping students stay on-track and learn the core ideas of what we toss at them on a daily / weekly basis.  Now don’t forget to smile!-)

And let’s be honest: we need some level of willingness from our students to see this happen, right?

I’m going to pick on my last example of things I think all of us have heard teachers say to us when we were students: the dreaded shoot down.  As I student, I only knew the effect this weapon of instructors held for me, though sometimes my classmates and I might talk about a particular teacher’s brutality if the situation warranted it–a particular 8th grade math teacher of mine who screamed “Are you stupid?!?” to my group (and me in particular) comes to mind.   Funny how I’m an English teacher now and hate math, eh?  As I teacher now, I can immediately see the ripple effect of that tool on the faces and body language of students as it emanates from the victim (who typically puts his or her head down and proceeds to scowl or turn red as they mentally withdraw from the class).  Now, when the question is asked a second time, eyes no longer look forward, less hands shoot up with fingers outstretched reaching for a chance to pluck the answer from above.  No, arms cross chests, heads glance downward or out windows, and all eyes are nowhere near making contact with those of the instructor.  In video gamer terminology, this is referred to as the Epic Fail.

Now, I have to confess to not only being a devoted fan to deadpan humor when the tie is off (a nicer way of saying I can be a sarcastic you-know-what), but I can also be a bit of joker and smart aleck when I’m teaching.  Finding a good balance of this can help with breaking the ice and keeping the conversation going… but other times, you can pull out the wrong tool, and invalidate a kid or a student–bad jujus.

I think creating a low-risk environment for students is important.  I think they are typically pretty aware of those classes where the standard for performance is already high and therefore, the amount of time and effort that goes into those classes is as equally high.  We need to think of our classes as a sort of practice field where they can go out there, screw up and/or succeed, and realize that none of it will be held against them come game time.  When start attaching more importance on their results during these “off” periods, they’re going to less and less likely to want to try.   We provide the supports until that time they “get it” and then step back and let them go.  And sure, sometimes they’ll lose, but we push them to get up and try again.

I heard a professor of mine this week fail to respond to a very legitimate question that was creating a great deal of confusion for him, and after his attempt to “practice” his idea on the class, he was rather bluntly shot down by the professor.  This student is an undergraduate college instructor as well, and yet, his non-verbal response was no different than what I described above.   And let me tell you, I was much more aware this time of how that rippled throughout the rest of the class.  We might have had a few authors and works that we needed to understand the significance of, but what I can say is that the lesson that was reiterated to me was that high risk environments kill students.


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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