Marching Orders of the Classroom

School has been weighing heavily on my mind this week, as it does at the end of every long wonderful vacation when I realize that it won’t be long before every aspect of my life, even weekends, will be ruled by textbook chapters to read and projects to complete. But I have lamented on these feelings enough in past entries. So for this entry, it occurred to me that an angle that is rarely written about by students is the possibility that perhaps, teachers aren’t looking forward to getting back to school either, and not for the reasons you might think.

     Sure, it is true that teachers have to work 25 to 30 times harder than students do, as a teacher pointed out to me in elementary school once when I complained about homework, and she reminded me that I only have to do one assignment, but she has to read, grade and provide feedback on every student’s work. In addition of course, teachers have to create lesson plans and powerpoint presentations for each class they teach, and be available to meet with students after class hours if they need help. College professors have to keep up with research and write books in addition to their teaching responsibilities since most of them have a PhD. But standing in the shoes of a teacher for a moment, I wonder if it is not the onslaught of new responsibilities at the beginning of every semester that teachers dread most, but the discouraging task of having to educate sleepy, bored or simply unmotivated students. Nowhere could this argument be made more apparent than in the unenthusiastic responses of students like myself when a teacher gives a class marching orders.

     A frequent complaint of students when we fill out evaluations of our professors is that every day is so boring and all the teachers do is lecture, lecture lecture. So although lecturing is often the easiest most practical way to teach college subjects, in their well-meaning efforts to keep us engaged and provide some variety, teachers will change up the routine occasionally. For instance, one day, in a morning business class I had last semester that was especially lecture heavy, the professor decided to reenforce some information that had been lectured on the day before with a group activity.

     “Remember yesterday when we talked about how businesses conduct a SWOT analysis to determine how their business is doing?” he said.

     “Uhm hmmm,” some of us muttered, probably half in our sleep.

     Taking that as a yes he continued, “well to reenforce this information and have a change of pace for class today, I would like you to divide yourselves in to groups of four or five, maybe turning your desks so you are facing each other, and read this case study on the handout I just gave you. I figured you could spend about twenty minutes in your groups to do a SWOT analysis of the fictitious business in this case study, and then we will come back together and discuss what you came up with as a class.”

     With that, he prepared to sit down in the front of the room and maybe proceed to grade papers or check e-mails or whatever unless anyone asked for his help, when he realized that us students were still sitting at our desks, silent and blank faced.

     “Do you guys understand the assignment?” he asked politely, but with that trace of worry, or perhaps discouragement in his voice.

     It wasn’t until then that it occurred to the class that “oh my Gosh, we have just been given an activity.” I couldn’t see the rest of the class, but I had fingers positioned on my braille computer, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the rest of the class had pencils poised, ready to just copy the notes in their sleep to read later in the day when we woke up.

     With mumbles of “yeah” to indicate we understood the assignment, some of us stood up with a groan or a yawn and turned our desks. Others like myself just stayed where we were and craned our necks to jump in to the group that happened to locate themselves closest to us. Maybe we were a group of six instead of four or five, but oh well.

     “So, what are we doing again?” someone would say groggily. Fortunately there is always one half-awake person to carry the group.

     “I guess we have to read this case and do a SWOT analysis,” someone said.

     What’s a SWOT analysis again? We all flip through our notes. Oh yeah! Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. So we have to find the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats faced by this fictitious business. That makes sense.

     Then someone else yawns and says “I guess I can be the recorder,” as they tear out a sheet of paper from their notebook, and someone else reads the case study out loud for all of us.

     The remainder of the 20 minutes is smooth and productive with all group members contributing, and at the end of the group time, we came back together for a very lively, productive and interesting discussion. But this slow response to marching orders seems commonplace in my classes, and I have always wondered if this must drive teachers crazy.

     I have read several magazine articles, and heard several people interviewed on shows like “60 Minutes”, lament how my age group (also known as the Millennial generation) spends their whole life texting or hanging out on facebook, and how they wish we were more civically involved and enthusiastic about things like education, and when teachers see our unmotivated response to their efforts at educating and inspiring us, I wonder if they cannot agree more. Maybe they are thinking “if their response to tasks in the rest of their lives is as slow and lackluster as it is in my class, the future of our civilization is in trouble!”

     Now, I consider myself a serious student, but even I admitted guilt at my often lacking enthusiasm for education, and I am sure many of my peers feel the same way. It is not that I don’t care about education. When I am given an essay assignment, I tackle it with vigor and enthusiasm. When others might have said “go to bed! Your essay is good enough!” I find myself going back to sentences again and again saying “I could make this argument better!”

     This semester, I am taking a public policy course with a professor who is notorious on campus for her high expectations. But she is a wonderful teacher, and I know the deeper perspectives on public policy that I will get from her will be well worth the stress of meeting her high expectations, and I know several friends who choose to take tough classes for that same reason.

     As far as civic involvement which is outside the classroom but definitely still an educational experience, I sing in a community choir and volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters. I know many students who are actively involved in campus activities and in the larger community, passionately tackling everything from writing for the school newspaper, to tutoring their peers as well as younger students in the community, to organizing blood drives and spending their Saturdays doing service projects. Thursday evenings, the chapel is packed with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship students singing, praying and listening to guest speakers. My freshman year, I knew students who volunteered in the “get out the vote” effort for Barack Obama, and several students from my college went to a city council meeting to protest a proposal to remove a crosswalk students like to use to get to classes. I cannot speak about how this involvement compares to other eras like the Vietnam era which critics often compare us to since I wasn’t around back then. But my point is that from my perspective, I think my generation is passionate and engaged in other areas of our lives.

     But you would never know it when you see the very same students respond to the marching orders of our professors. There always seems to be a reason why I cannot get motivated to tackle these orders with enthusiasm. If it is not the early hour of a class, then it is the dreary weather outside, being brain fried after a test or something in a previous class, or the end of a busy week when I just want to go home, be done with school for awhile and do something mindless, like maybe hang out on facebook! (smile)

     I know that having the means to go to college puts me in a privileged minority compared to much of the world. Thus, I should show more gratitude for this privilege by embracing every activity with passion. I know that when teachers give marching orders, they are not doing it for their own health, as when it comes to undergraduate college courses, they have already been there and done that. I know that if students like myself would be as engaged in the traditional classroom as we are in the classroom of life, the education experience could be a lot richer. I have never talked to my peers about this issue, but like me, I wouldn’t be surprised if they have these same sentiments, and yet even so, cannot overcome this lack of motivation.

     But I think there is a saying that goes something like “change starts with you” so while I generally don’t make resolutions at the beginning of each semester, pondering this topic has inspired me to give myself marching orders to start a wave of change in the classroom. This semester, I am going to strive harder to be the leader of groups, not the sleepy unmotivated member along for the ride. When the teacher gives marching orders, I want to be the first one ready to march.

     Even if no one else wants to join me in this march, at least maybe I could be a positive influence that people look up to. And maybe just one more passionate engaged student, even if no one but myself notices this change, would subconsciously give professors a little more optimism about their jobs, and the future of civilization, not to mention lead to a slightly richer educational experience for all.

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