Caring: About the student's experience in class

This essay is about one minute in AP English during my senior year of high school, and what I learned in that moment about being a better teacher.

I believe every educational program and environment should be designed with an eye towards what it feels like to be a student, which goes beyond the formal curriculum to encompass the social and affective dimensions of each student’s daily interactions with faculty, peers, and academic content. The feeling of being at school and the feeling of learning important things are critical measures of the quality of an academic program or a school at any grade level, but it is these features that are ignored by most schools. I have not seen a single large school or school district treat students’ daily experiences inside and outside of the classroom as an area worthy of institutional focus and investment.

This is why I am revisiting one minute of one day in AP English 25 years ago, because in this moment I realized how oblivious even experienced educators were to the daily experiences of their students—about what it feels like to be a student. And, over time, I have seen how much good can be done if, as a teacher, you make the experience right.

The Question

We were well into the year in AP English and were reading James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.Among other works, we also read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I cannot imagine that Joyce or Dostoevsky wrote their books with adolescent readers in mind, but that is a point for another time. During one of our lessons on Joyce’s novel, our teacher, who had a doctorate and was highly experienced in teaching AP and advanced-level English, asked the class a question: “In the scene with the woman standing in the surf, what does the green seaweed on her leg represent?” Or at least, that’s how I remember her question 25 years later. I do not remember anything more about the novel, and upon closer examination, more literate readers might find that this question must have been stated a bit differently given the details of this scene in the book. In any case, this is the question I remember.

Our teacher was a serious person. She took herself, her courses, and the content seriously, which is understandable given her experience level and the difficult nature of the content. I do not remember her as being unkind, but I also do not remember her as being kind and approachable. She was somewhere in the middle. In my view, teachers and students are in a working relationship, and as junior colleagues students should feel comfortable asking their senior colleagues (teachers) questions about the content without apprehension or fear of judgment. If students do not feel comfortable speaking in class, it is a teacher’s responsibility to help them overcome their concerns.

5 Seconds Later: Silence

Her question was followed by silence, which was not unusual. As a student faced with this sort of question in class, you are thinking and feeling a number of things simultaneously. You are anxious about being called on if you do not know the answer. Even if you think you know the answer, you are not necessarily confident enough to volunteer to answer. If you are certain you know the answer and are socially aware, you still may not want to answer because you may be concerned about what your peers will think of you, particularly if you are often called upon or often volunteer to answer. You may not want your peers to think you care too much about being in the teacher’s good graces, or possibly even care too much about the subject, or you may want to give other students a chance to answer.

 15 Seconds Later: Silence

After the initial silence followed the awkward silence, which began about 15 seconds after the question was asked. Now, we were looking at one another, to see who might volunteer for the sake of the group to end the silence and to save everyone else from the risk of being called upon to answer the question. Again, if you answer incorrectly, your teacher is displeased and you fail in front of your peers. If you answer correctly, you stand to gain little, because you already knew the answer to begin with and any insight your correct answer offers your less prepared peers comes at the potential cost of their judgment that you are just trying to impress the teacher. A teacher who asks great questions and who is paying attention to the social and academic climate can remove these obstacles to active discussion in the classroom.

 30 Seconds Later: A Volunteer

About 30 seconds in, it became socially acceptable to try to answer the seaweed question, because you were putting your hand up for the sake of the whole, not just for yourself.

At some point in the awkward silence, as we glanced at one another to see who would volunteer, my friend Jason raised his hand. I was surprised because Jason did not volunteer often in this class, so he must have known the answer to stick his neck out (or his hand up) now. Reflecting upon what the green vegetation on the woman’s leg might represent in the larger context of the work as a whole, assuming he knew Joyce and his canon well enough to speak on this question, and assuming it meant anything to Joyce at all, Jason said it represented “life.”

“Great answer!” I thought. Of course it represented life, given the otherwise gray scene of crashing surf, against which the character stood. What else could the seaweed or whatever it was represent?

We all looked towards our teacher for her response, and hopefully her affirmation. Without emotion, she looked at Jason for longer than I expected before speaking, which was a bad sign. She stood with both hands clasped in front of her and held them against her waist as she leaned back, which always appeared odd but was her habit. She finally spoke: “No.” As she said no, her gaze was shifting to the other students to see who else would volunteer to answer.

 "No."

In that moment, I knew immediately she was wrong, and knew she did not know how wrong she was. She was not wrong about the content; I do not know what the right answer was. At the same time, given what I now know about Joyce and the nature of literary analysis, I do not know whether she knew or could have known the “right” answer. Disregarding this, she was wrong because Jason deserved more than a “No” when he risked so much. And she was wrong because any teacher who knew anything about students would know he was not going to want to answer another question in her class for the remainder of the year. Finally, given how she treated Jason’s response, no one else was going to want to answer the question, even though she sought other volunteers.

The Lesson

Even as I write this 25 years later, I am struck by how misguided or oblivious she was. I still cannot understand how it was possible for such an experienced teacher to have handled this moment so ineffectively, as though she had not learned anything about students in her many years of teaching.

More importantly, and one of the reasons I started a school and spend everyday thinking about educational design, I was surprised that teachers and schools knew so little about their students. What I saw in AP English that day I had seen many times before and would see many times again. Based on what I have seen, I believe most teachers make this sort of mistake regularly. Given how little educators know about their students’ experiences, and given how critical these are to maintaining student motivation and making school a valuable place for students, I am still surprised that the talk about education reform is always about legislation, standards, STEM, blended learning, or educational technology, and not what it feels like to be a student at school.

Jason ended up working as a programmer and then as an anesthesiologist. I cannot say that our teacher’s ignorance killed the possibility that this one student could love the subject she dedicated her life to, but I do know this is how students judge their proficiency and aptitude in a subject. One thoughtless moment can change how students view themselves, their teachers, their courses, and the whole enterprise of formal education. If, on the other hand, as teachers we get the content and the experience right, we will do more good than we ever imagined possible.