Oh, teachers – seriously?
I know it’s not politic to say the things I’m about to say, but I’m frustrated and angry. Last week, about 1 a.m. one night, I got an email from a student who’s been having a really rough term. She’s come out of the junior college system, and is one of my students. She’s an older, non-traditional student, by which I mean she’s not in the 18-22-year-old age bracket – and she’s smart. At the end of her email was a statement I’ve heard or seen one too many times:
“All this time in school I have been looking for someone to tell me what I was doing wrong so I could make it right and when it happened, I did not understand it. Up until this term, it can be said that I have been getting by. I have had instructors giving me A’s on my papers and telling me how wonderful they were. When in all reality a high school kid probably could have written better papers… I have you and I have (another professor) analyzing my papers, for the first time in my college life. I appreciate all the hard work and time you have spent on me…”
She’s right in that her papers have needed a lot of work. But hang it all, it’s not her fault. As far as I can tell, it’s the teachers she had in high school and junior college who simply did not drill the basics of the English language into her head.
And no, this is not an isolated Oregon problem. When I first started teaching over seven years ago at a couple of public universities (in a couple of different states), I was shocked at what I was seeing. I checked in with my public relations colleagues teaching all across the country. “These kids can’t write!” I shouted through cyberspace. “They’re darned near illiterate!” To my dismay, they said, “Welcome to the club.” They were fighting the same battles. A whole generation seemed to be slipping away in a muddy whirlpool of illiteracy.
I finally started asking the students themselves what on earth had happened. When we’d get midway through a term and I was still being handed papers that were more or less at a junior high school level, I asked them how they were graded in high school (or in any previous college classes), and what they were taught. What they have said, very consistently, is that they weren’t taught grammar, punctuation or spelling; and that their teachers graded them only on intent.
Are you freaking kidding me? Seriously, teachers? How on earth can you gauge intent if the grammar is so mangled the message is obscured? How can you gauge intent when an entire essay is just “stream of consciousness” writing, rambling and disjointed, with little or no relevance to the topic at hand?
O.K., I’ll throw in something for the benefit of the doubt: maybe the problem is not with the teachers. I’ve never taught in a K-12 system or at a junior college, so for all I know the problem is with school administrators, school boards, and bureaucrats in general. Maybe people who never step foot inside a classroom decide what teachers should teach, and how, and then tie the whole mess to public funding. I don’t know.
Nor do I know if you can blame lack of parental support for the fact that a teacher is grading on intent and overlooking grammar and spelling. Conversely, too much parental support can also undermine a student. One colleague at a public university called her students “sweet little snowflakes.” I asked her why, and she said “Because nobody’s ever told them anything different.”
Sometimes we’ll see a news report about educators who pad grades in order to make test results look good or graduation rates look good – all at the expense of the students, who remain woefully uneducated.
I don’t know where the real problem lies, but I sure have some questions. How can any of us justify turning out minimally-educated students with a casual “good luck” as they try to make their way in the outside world? Why are we – the so-called educators – throwing this burden over to the businesses who now have to tell the students they just can’t cut it? When did we lose the understanding that you don’t give a kid self-esteem – he or she has to earn it? When did we forget that softening grades means we don’t believe a student can learn? When did we lose sight of the fact that constant praise will make a kid constantly feel entitled to more constant praise without constantly doing something to earn it? Deep down, those kids know it’s all a pretense; they know.
When I ran my public relations firm, I used to say I would so love it if I could get paid just for showing up in the morning. Instead, for some perverse reason, I would only get paid if I produced results. So I did. And so must our students. We are expressing faith in them when we challenge them; we are doing them – and our entire society – a terrible disservice if we give them constant praise, padded grades and grade them only on intent. That’s a direct and underhanded message that we don’t believe they can do it.