Sticking My Neck Out

The incomparable Taylor Mali, in his poem What Teachers Make, explains that:

I have a policy
about honesty and ass-kicking:
if you ask for it, I have to let you have it.


A few weeks ago, a colleague of mine at TCC circulated an email asking professors what we think our students’ strengths and weaknesses are in our respective classes. Of course, she asked for the weaknesses first – I really wish she’d asked for the strengths first; that was a much harder question.

Anyway, I sent her my observations of where my students struggle, and she returned with a question about where I thought the roots of those problems originated. She wanted my opinion, and I gave it to her.

Here’s the email that I composed over the course of a couple of days. I’ve got to tell you, I has some serious reservations about hitting the “send” button:

J, if I’m going to be honest here – and I recognize that sometimes honesty is a dangerous policy – I’d have to say that, while I think that the root of the problem lies in the generally rotten quality of primary and secondary education in our country – especially as it’s been sabotaged by standardized testing and No Child Left Behind, I think that a lot of OUR specific trouble comes from a lack of stringent standards when it comes to the kind of work that we expect of TCC students.

I recognize that we’re essentially a technical school and that our lack of admission standards means that we shouldn’t expect the same things from our students as other institutions should expect from theirs, but I’m not sure I agree with that as a policy (or, more accurately, perhaps, as a culture). I don’t think that it’s wrong for us to demand more quality work from our students across the curriculum; culinary and med. assist. and photography students – indeed, ALL of our students – should be able to read and write and speak well and eloquently – these aren’t skills that are the sole property of four-year degree students – or of English majors. I know for a fact that students turn in abominable work to their program professors that they wouldn’t dream of turning in to me – their program professors aren’t going to dock them for their rotten writing (in some cases, they won’t even call them on it – last term, during the Constitution Week celebrations, I saw a poster with GLARING grammatical errors that was mounted and displayed as part of the Bill of Rights presentation. I even got a photo of it). My point is that if we don’t expect the same high standards across the campus, that sends the wrong signal to our students. If we don’t care, why should they? (I realize that a lot of this culture comes from the desire for retention; the whole conundrum of education for profit (much like health care for profit) is something that will take smarter people than I to sort out.)

I think we do our students a major disservice when we make allowances for them because of the culture of the college or the lowered expectations of the student body in general. If anything, I think we should expect MORE of them; these are the kids who are going to have to work that much harder to prove themselves specifically BECAUSE they didn’t attend a more prestigious school or BECAUSE they “only have an Associate’s.” These are the kids who will be taken advantage of because they didn’t get the breadth of education that their four-year peers did, and I think that we owe it to them to send them out into the world – whether they’re going straight to work or on to more education – better prepared than I feel we currently do.

I may be WAY over my boundaries as an adjunct, but I really care about these students and I take my job – and the ethical and professional responsibilities that come with it – very seriously. I feel frustrated that most students don’t come to my classes (or, from what I hear, to my colleagues’ classes) with any sense of urgency or commitment, and I want to figure out a way to make them realize that they may be attending a little, low-prestige, two-year program, but that what we have to teach them is terribly important and they should take it seriously, especially BECAUSE we only have them for two years.

You did ask, however….



J emailed me back the other day and essentially said that she was grateful that I’d not only taken the time to respond to her, but that I’d pretty much hit the proverbial nail on the head as far as the culture of the school goes. “Thank you—for all of it,” she said, “…for your articulating this problem so eloquently and for caring so much…we are lucky to have you.

I near about deflated with my sigh of relief. I was horrified that my missive would land me in hot water – or worse, the chopping block. Well behaved women may not make much history, but they generally get to keep their jobs.

J met up with me in the copy room this morning and fired a warning shot that she may recruit me to help her institute a cultural shift at TCC. I may be called to run faculty workshops about writing standards, she may ask me to help her write guidelines and best practices manuals, and she asked my permission to tell others what I told her. I answered “yes” to all of it. TCC needs an attitudinal readjustment, and if it happens, I’ll be proud to be a part of it.

(you can buy the button here)



Filed under colleagues, concerns, frustrations, General Griping, I love my boss, out in the real world, self-analysis, Teaching, Yikes!

14 responses to “Sticking My Neck Out

  1. Yay you! If you haven’t heard it yet, you totally rock!

  2. We need you here. I’ve been outspoken, and while I am not on the chopping block, I have been made to feel uncomfortable. It isn’t that I am a woman, though. This happens to anyone, male or female, who rocks the boat and questions the decision-making where I am working.

    This culture of student-as-consumer is ruining a large segment of the current generation.

  3. Good for you for speaking your mind, and I’m so glad that thus far, it’s turned out well for you.

  4. Thanks for this post. I agree with you Elementary and Secondary ed in this country basically fails to give most students a quality education. By the time they get into higher ed of any sort they have been left behind. Though I think proponents of NCLB will continue to sing it’s praises even if it doesn’t deliver “real” results.

  5. sphyrnatude

    Sorry for the length, but this is a sore topic for me..

    One of the big lobbying efforts I was invovled in during my university days was the creation of “remedial” courses. Theses courses were for the kids that managed to get past admissions, but that were somewhat (or completely) unqualified to be students. Basic writing and math skills were often lacking, and even the most basic understanding of ANY science was often lacking.

    We werwe trying to set up a program that would allow a student to remain at university, take the courses they could handle, and take (non-credit) courses to help them catch up. Note that our goal was to help the students that were weak in one or at most two areas. This was not meant to take a completely unprepared student and spend a year or two getting them ready for the University curriculum (it may be mean, but those kids simply don’t belong at University. There are plenty of other venues for them to develop some basic skills before they come to U.)

    The end result was an entire department of courses with politically correct names, that counted as entry level courses (full credit, counts in the GPA, etc). End result? it very quickly became common practice for those courses to be used to bolster the GPA of any student that was having problems.

    I actually ended up lobbying to close the program after it became clear that all it was doing was lowering the standards of the university.

    I will be the first to agree that a set of campus wide standards are appropriate at ANY school. Students that can’t perform up to those standards should be assisted, and if they cannot rise to the challenge let go – there will always be another venue for them to go get the basic skills they are lacking, then they can return and try again.

    Cold-blooded? I don’t think so. In my experience, these students come from all levels of society. Yes, the poor, bad school kids have a hrder time, but even thoe worst schools can turn out kids with basic skill – if the kids are willing to put in the work. By the time a kid has reached the late teens, they have made a number of life choices. Choices that will effect them for the rest of their lives. If they were poor choices (dropping out of school, coasting through while doing nothing, etc), it is THEIR responsibility to correct their errors (if they so choose).

    I believe that it is the responsibility of a society to make the avenues for such improvement available. Not necasarily easy, but available. A series of educational programs – from adult literacy and life skills programs, to community colleges, associates degrees, and so on all provide a path for an individual that wishes to get a degree (at any level: from certification to associates to PhD). Yes, if they screwed up while they were in school (or in some cases simply had the bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time), it isup to them to take the bull by the horns and fix the situation.

    Having standards that actually mean something are an essential part of this system. Whena HS diploma means that a kid managed to sit through six hours of school a day for 12 years, it isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. When a HS diploma means that a kid can read and comprehend at aparticular level, is competent at mathematics (at whatever level), and has a basic set of inmformation and skills, it becomes possible to use that diploma as a measure for moving up to the next level of academia or when entering the workforce. The same is true for any degree, certification, or diploma. Without the standards, the paper is meaningles.

    A real life example: Microsoft used to offer MS certification for Windows support staff. When windows 95 was the predominate operating system, the certification was difficult to get – you really had to know your stuff. At taht time, any tech support position working with PCs pretty much required MS certification. MS realized that they had a gold mine, and began chasing the buck – eventually, anyone that took their courses would get certified (the courses became courses on how to pass the test instead of mastering the product). As a result, within a few years, MS certification became meaningless. To the point where it was actually a bad thing to put on a resume.

    Standards that mean something are essential.

  6. Kick Ass, Mrs Chili!

    I’ll tell you something – even in my top ten nationally ranked part-time MBA program, I find students who are completely incapable of writing clearly. Oh, the blatant spelling and grammar mistakes may not be what you’re seeing, but I see papers with dreadfully written sentences, horrible organization, poorly reasoned arguments, etc. On group projects, I’m typically the editor.

    My sister told me that her first year of law school was almost entirely teaching students how to form a well-reasoned argument, and then how to communicate that via written or oral means.

    So I don’t think it’s a problem simply because you’re a two-year institution. Across the boards, nobody is up to par. It’s all about our cultural disrespect for education. (Read my post from last night, I think you’ll enjoy it)

    Good Luck with everything – you’ll need it!

  7. Strong women will one day build this massive bridge that connects all the people with a sense of purpose, and will immediately detonate it when the sky-lost wide-eyed nose pickers come ambling across.

    I’m battling this same problem at school, where I demand high expectations of my junior high students because I know they can achieve it, and have been met on some fronts with calls to back off and let them have more “free time” or “less tests.” Bullshit, I say.

    And cheers to you, Chili! You made me smile first thing in the morning!

  8. That was an incredible letter, respectful, and well-articulated. You had nothing to worry about from the beginning.

    What I must highlight about it is that you mentioned being a low-prestige school. Therein lies part of the issue. What makes you low-prestige? Could it be that local employers know that students are coming out of your school with few of the skills they are expected to have learned with that Associate’s Degree? What the school should be striving for is to be a prestigious two year school.

    The majority of your students are heading into the local workforce, right? Shouldn’t local employers see TCC on a resume and think, “Okay, I know this kid comes to me prepared to do the work I expect from him?”

    My college offset its extremely generous and extensive scholarship program, an academic based 1/2, 1/3, or 1/4 tuition scholarship, by accepting pretty much anyone with the ability to pay full price. My college application pretty much required little more than the postage to get it to its destination to guarantee acceptance, even though I was a 1/2 tuition recipient.

    However, in keeping up with the Joneses, my school was also very concerned about statistics. Therefore, students who were failing midterms were placed on academic probation halfway through their very first semester of college and often encouraged to withdraw all together.

    Anyway, sorry for the sidebar. I wish you the best in effecting a cultural shift on your institution. My county community college has established for itself quite a reputation of delivering into the workforce a well-learned and well-prepared set of young adults. If the Philly suburbs can do it, you most certainly can as well. Drive the message home that TCC needs a reputation that local employers are chomping at the bit to take their students upon graduation.

  9. Oy, 4 hours of sleep; I’m not sure if my comment states any sensical version of what I was really trying to say.

    I guess just that my comparison about my college was meant to imply that while they accepted many many students who were nowhere near ready for the college experience, they erradicated those students quickly, so they couldn’t effect the college’s reputation negatively.

    Oh, and one other thing that occurred to me. In a world where the heroes are professional sports players, rather than presidents and political champions, our youth has been conditioned to believe that basic skills in their native tongue are completely unnecessary to achieve financial success. I have long wanted to launch a campaign to demand greater oratorical competency from every public sports figure. The language, or lack their of, being exposed to our children is abominable at best. If Joe Famous Football Player can make millions upon millions of dollars every year despite his inability to string a single coherent sentence together, what motivation does Joe Community College Student have?

    It’s not just the educational system, it’s society’s values and priorities as a whole. The change necessary is so much deeper than the educational system. It’s an issue at our nation’s very foundation.

  10. Organic Mama

    The students at little TCC, reflecting the disenfranchisement that so many community college students feel, desperately need a good kick in the pants academically, and I fear that until there is the cultural shift you so eloquently speak of, students will continue to pay very little heed to work harder to achieve the competencies they could, if they cared to. What I am left with so often with some of these students (with a few exception, including the Buffy fanatic in you Lit class) are kids who try to worm their ways through by doing as little as possible, rarely studying and rarely taking that extra step to create good, well-thought out, academic work. Too often, they simply don’t care, live with blinders on and I feel as though THAT’S the crux of the problem. Education, even if they are enrolled in our college, is NOT their priority, and that’s sad. That said, I think you’re about to help upset that dysfunctional applecart. Standards must go up, and if fewer pass, so be it; more will learn that a degree from TCC might actually mean far more than it currently does.

  11. hi..nice blog! would like to spend more time here..(fellow teacher) 🙂

  12. Pingback: A New Term « A Teacher’s Education

  13. Pingback: She Did it AGAIN! « A Teacher’s Education

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