Students or customers?

Many months ago, I received a notice about upcoming webinars for teachers. One of the webinars caught my eye and raised my blood pressure. It was titled “4 Sure-Fire Ways to Improve the K-12 Customer Experience.”

I don’t know whether the college students in my freshman English courses have had good customer experiences in high school or not, nor do I particularly care. It’s obvious most of my students didn’t learn a lick in K-12 about how to write on demand the kind of nonfiction prose everyone has to be able to write. I do care about that.

It is not my job to improve the K-12 customer experience.

I’m a teacher, not a customer service representative.

It’s my job to take the students who didn’t learn how to write in grades K-12 and turn them into writers.

If students don’t like English 101, I don’t let them do basket weaving instead.

If students find writing evidence-based, logically presented documents is hard, I tell them, “Writing is hard for me, too. Just do it.”

If students don’t do their assignments, I don’t refund their tuition.

If your students show up in my freshman English class, they will learn what their K-12 customer service representatives failed to teach them or they will fail freshman English.

You have been warned.

©2021 Linda G. Aragoni

First-day-of-school memories

icon for school

I attended an informational seminar yesterday, which reminded me of classes on the first day of school.

The subject was a financial services firm’s offerings.

The presentation was 10 minutes late starting.

The sponsor didn’t introduce the presenters.

The presenters, a man and a woman, didn’t introduce themselves.

The presenters did not summarize what the firm’s primary service is.

The presenters, did not say where the firm is located, how long it’s been in business, or give any authority to vouch for the firm’s reliability.

The presenters talked to the sponsor and one person who used their service.

The male presenter kept asking if anyone had questions, but no one did.

About 45 minutes after the scheduled start of the session, the man passed out complimentary pens. I didn’t want one, so I left. As I left, I asked for one of the plump folders of printed materials they had not distributed.

The materials were just forms for accessing the company’s services, but nothing about the company or its services or its credibility.

There was, however, in tiny print on the back of the folder, contact information, including a website address that opens to a very attractive landing page. The single-page website explains in accountant-speak what the company does.

The site does not link to authoritative government sites.

It does not offer any testimonials from satisfied clients.

That reminded me of school.

That’s like the first day of school because…

Teachers expect students to know why they should trust their teacher’s expertise.

Teachers expect students to know how they’ll profit from taking those teachers’ courses.

Teachers keep asking for questions from students who have no idea what the subject is about.

Teachers have printed materials for students’ use that provide no benefit students recognize.

Teacher-speak doesn’t tell students how a course is relevant to them.

Teachers’ don’t offer any testimonials from satisfied students.

© 2021 Linda G. Aragoni

Teaching: Those who can, do

You’ve heard it said with reference to writing that "Those who can [write], do, and those who can’t [write], teach [writing]."

However, it’s is often true that those who do write, can’t teach writing.

And it’s sometimes true that those who can’t teach writing, do.

And it’s always true that those who can’t teach writing, shouldn’t.

Telling it like it is

Listening one night this week to Judy Woodruff’s follow up conversation with a group of Virginia voters about how they felt about President Trump a year into his presidency, I was struck again by the one comment his supporters invariably say: “He tells it like it is.”

“Telling it like it is” really means, “Somebody important else feels the way I do.”

I’ve been trying to think whether I’ve ever heard anyone make that comment about a teacher or a school administrator.

So far, I’ve not thought of one.






Schools’ role: enable teachers to teach curriculum expertly

America's oldest wooden schoolhouse,
America’s oldest wooden schoolhouse, St. Augustine, Florida

Every so often I run across something that makes me think there may be hope for American education yet.

Robert Podisco’s piece  “Time to Connect Professional Development and Teacher Training to Curriculum” at EducationNext earlier this month was one such encounter.

Podisco writes:

Slowly, slowly, a small but persuasive body of work is emerging which raises curriculum to an object of pressing concern for educators, and expresses long overdue appreciation for the idea that the instructional materials we put in front of children actually matter to student outcomes. A welcome addition to this emerging corpus is a new Aspen Institute paper by Ross Wiener and Susan Pimentel, which makes a compelling case—equally overdue—that professional development and teacher training ought to be connected to curriculum. A primary role of school systems, states, districts, and charter-management organizations, the pair write, “is to create the conditions in schools through which teachers can become experts at teaching the curriculum they are using and adapting instruction to the needs of their particular students.”

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I think making sure teachers are experts at teaching curriculum is long overdue.

And I’m sure the English teachers with 15 or more years experience who tell me they’ve never had any instruction in how to teach writing will agree it’s time to shake up teacher preparation and professional development.

It’s time to move to a new schoolhouse model.

Read the rest of Podisco’s piece at EducationNext.




Who’s responsible for teachers’ professional development?

I’ve participated in a few conversations lately about professional development for teachers.

Most folks, including me, say that the professional development opportunities provided teachers by school districts and/or educational institutions are, putting it politely, less than optimal.

(Such opportunities are usually what they want you to have, when they want to provide it, at a level that lets them cross “Teacher PD” off their to-do list.)

Kimo Kippen, Chief Learning Officer of Hilton Worldwide, speaking at a  webinar sponsored by College for America in March, had advice for “upskilling” employees that struck me as being as relevant to education as to the business world.

First, “establish a culture and expectation that individuals take ownership” of their own development.

Second, convince each employee that she or he is the heart of the organization.

Third, make resources available to help employees with their career path.

The third step would be relatively easy within schools.

The first and second take work.

Those steps might require a new mindset among the leadership because, if the teaching staff is to be responsible for their professional development, the leadership has to demonstrate what taking charge of one’s own development looks like.

Moreover, if the leadership is going to convince each teacher to believe and behave as if the school’s success depends on her/his work, the leadership has to make each teacher believe their work is valued.

At the same time, the leadership also has to make sure administrators don’t slack off on training just because they’ve shifted professional development from do-it-to-me to help-me-do it.

Is your school using a framework like Kippen’s?

Would it be useful in your school?

Is it doable?

What are your thoughts on this?

What I Learned When I Botched First Grade

My local school district newsletter tells parents of first graders to “have your child practice printing their first name.”

This is very important advice.Linda written three times, printed once

Because my parents didn’t know they were supposed to teach me to print my name, I botched first grade.

Here’s what happened.

One rainy, late fall afternoon, my first grade teacher was reading Holiday magazine. If you’re too young to remember Holiday, it was famous for its layouts, photography, writing, and general sophistication.

We first grade students were correcting mistakes we’d made in our We Think and Do exercises. They were, as I recall, sort of a black and white, nonfiction version of Fun With Dick and Jane.

I don’t know what We Think and Do exercises were supposed to teach. However, I think its fair to say We Think and Do pages were not noted for their layouts, art, writing, or general sophistication.

I had corrected my doing several times that afternoon. Each time I was thinking I’d done it right, but each time I submitted it, the teacher told me to do it over.

I had thought and done all I could possibly do without knowing what it was that the teacher thought was wrong.

At that age, I was still a timid child, but I’d gotten frustrated enough to Speak To The Teacher, something I’d never done before.

I found the prospect terrifying.

I stood beside her desk, looking at her magazine, waiting for her to acknowledge my presence.

To this day, I could draw the layout of that page. It was built on what I’d learn years later to call a seven-column grid. The large horizontal photo of a pristine beach in Bermuda covered roughly the top third of columns two through seven. The caption was about two thirds down the first column. The text featured dropped caps, very elegant.

We Think and Do did not use drop caps.

It seemed I stood there for an eternity, wishing she’d would say something, wishing even more that I could read about Bermuda in Holiday magazine.

When she finally looked up, I blurted out that I couldn’t correct my paper because I didn’t know what I’d done wrong.

“Stupid,” she snarled, “in first grade we print our name, we don’t write it.”

I went back to my seat, erased my signature, and printed my name in its place.

The incident changed the way I thought about school.

I wasn’t upset by being called stupid.

What I remember was feeling sorry for the teacher. I thought she probably was as bored by having to teach first grade as I was by having to complete We Think and Do exercises.

And that is why it’s so very important that students practice printing their first names: We don’t want anyone to find out that some teachers hate teaching.

Best Practices, Best Goals

rusty horseshoeI’ve been thinking a lot lately about best teaching practices.

As I’ve tried to sort research on teaching writing into logical categories, I keep getting the feeling that best practices are not so much a teacher’s actions but are primarily descriptions of the teacher’s attitudes toward learning, knowledge and students.

For example, we know from research as well as experience that repetition aids in learning a skill. Applying that best practice requires certain teacher attitudes. The teacher must:

  • Be patient as the inept struggle to become competent.
  • Observe closely to see what may be keeping a student from learning.
  • Be willing to try different approaches with different students.
  • Focus on the goal.
  • Put up with the boredom of teaching basics over and over and over.

It has also occurred to me that best teaching practices can be applied to poor goals — or even to bad ones. We can prepare students for careers as farriers, but if there are no horses to be shod, what have we accomplished?

Photo credit: “Rusty Horseshoe” uploaded by Maerik

External Summer Placement Possibilities

In an Inside Higher Ed piece recently, Michael Bugeja recommends colleges “underwrite professorial externships in the summer so that faculty can better provide career advice.” Bugeja directs the Greenlee School, home of Iowa State University’s journalism and mass communications program.

I’ve long advocated teachers getting summer jobs in their fields, even just filling in for a vacationing employee for a couple of weeks, to increase their awareness of what kinds of skills entry-level students are expected to do. Journalism faculty, however, are not representative of higher education faculty generally.

Journalism faculty typically have hands-on experience in journalism. They may not have hands-on experience with the latest methods or latest technologies, but they typically have a solid foundation in the basics. They wouldn’t go into a news organization as entry-level people. They should be able perform some useful work while they are updating their knowledge and skills.

I’m not at all sure college faculty are likely to have equivalent hands-on experiences in jobs that require knowledge and skill cultivated in their disciplines. Lack of job experience would make them much more expensive to place at a job site than someone with relevant job experience.

Despite those reservations, however,  I think Bugeja’s idea of summer externships for faculty has merit particularly for:

  • community colleges
  • vocational training programs
  • alternative education programs, including credit recovery
  • “career track” high school programs

Faculty in those programs need to know what’s being done in their fields in their communities to an even greater degree than college faculty whose students disperse around the country, if not around the world.

Of course, those institutions are typically far less able to afford externships for their instructors than higher education.  However, if the local business community sees the institutions attempting to meet their needs for trained employees, they might band together to underwrite some summer externships.

For that idea to work, someone in either the education or the business community has to suggest it, find others in both communities to support it, and do the grassroots evangelism to make it work.

Any takers?

When Learning Gets the Silent Treatment

Last week, a teacher I know slightly asked me what I’ve been up to. I said I’d just taken a wonderful course in Data-Driven Journalism that had opened my eyes to all all sorts of new (to-me) ideas and tools. I said the course was so exciting I wanted to take learn more on the topic.

The teacher said nothing.

Not one word.

Absolute silence.

I don’t think I could have been more shocked or more hurt if the teacher had kicked me. Her silence felt like a total rejection of the value of my learning, my values, and me.

If that’s a sample of how that teacher responds to students who are learning interesting things outside her classroom, I’m awfully glad I’m not her student.