This was supposed to be a good dodge

My wife and I attended a child birthing class when she was pregnant with my son. Like an idiot I read all of the material and came to class over-prepared each week with a complicated question ready to ask the instructor. Her answer was always the same. She would smile and say, "Well, all babies are different, so it's hard to say exactly."

That's how I feel about each academic semester. Every one is different. Some come to a close with wistful regret, some with satisfaction and some you want to drown in the river like a sack of cats.

Ah, dear yes, all semesters are different (even when you teach the same thing year after year).  This is what most people fail to grasp about teaching. Those who do other work think teaching must be like any other job: you figure out what the goal is, optimize best practices, seek efficiency and assess the results so you can do better next time. You use the best procedures to get the best results.  It's easy.

The problem is next time is never quite like last time.  Students' personalities, interests and abilities vary from semester to semester.  You have to switch tactics.  What once worked doesn't work any more.  Why? Who the hell knows?  It just doesn't.

Teaching is more like being a film producer or a military general.  There are a few things you can do that will better your odds, but there's just no guarantee that your new movie or the tactics from the last war will be successful.  The raw materials and environment keep changing.

Take this semester, for example.  I don't think I have ever worked harder and been less satisfied with the result.  I've taught five course preps before, but I don't think this was ever as difficult as my five preps have been this spring. I've loaded up my courses with writing assignments for years (on average I grade between 900-1000 individual pieces of student writing each semester).  But I can't recall ever having so many 4:00 a.m.grading sessions.  Five freakin' days a week I am up at 4:00 am just to stay on top of it all.

I also can't remember being as unhappy with my students' effort.  I'm not seeing the improvement in writing, critical thinking or student engagement with the material I want.  Is it me?  That's usually my first suspicion. Maybe I'm just getting rusty or lazy.  If so, why am I running so fast just to stay in the same place?  It never used to be this hard.

Out of curiosity, I recently Googled ACT test averages for the past five years.  They've fallen almost a full point.  In 2013 only 25 percent of high school grads met the college-readiness benchmarks in the four areas they were tested on: English, Reading, Math and Science.  Twenty-eight percent met no benchmarks at all.  I also ran across a stat recently that said 47 percent of my institution's students enter college from the lower two quintiles of wealth distribution in the United States.   We've long known that family income is highly correlated to academic success.  Kids from less well-off families have a harder time succeeding.

So, sure, I could be working harder and smarter.  I could be getting up at 3:00 a.m. instead of 4:00 a.m. Professors who care about the work and their students always feel they should be doing more. It's called teacher guilt and it's endemic to the profession. Show me a prof who doesn't feel guilty and I'll show you a bad one.

Even so, I really do think this job is getting harder.  I'm not imagining it.  And this is not the way it was supposed to go.  I got into this work because I liked teaching, I liked the students and I liked my subject.   It's been a good dodge for the most part, especially for an ambition-less idler like me, but increasingly it just seems like plain old hard work.  And it keeps getting harder.


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