Being Dissapointed and the Fractal Nature of School

We’re getting toward midterms and spring break at my college, which means that I’m wrestling with disappointment. This week, I’m disappointed that so many students are missing class. And I’m disappointed in the energy they are putting behind their work. Being disappointed really sucks. I immediately personalize it (“They hate me”) and then get incredulous (“Don’t they realize how hard I’m working for them? Don’t they realize that when they do lackluster work and don’t even show up that it hurts all of us?”) and then I get mad and mean (“I’ll get them back when their grades reflect their poor effort!”). I’m not proud of going from hurt to bewildered to hostile, but I’m only human and I can’t separate my feelings so easily from my job as an educator (as I wrote about a few weeks ago). Midterm time always feels like the end of the honeymoon to me. I realize that they aren’t the perfect enthusiastic students that I wanted, and they realize that I’m not the teacher that will make math easy or effortless. I have to remind myself that there are problems that I can’t solve for students, and that many of them have nothing whatsoever to do with me. I think back to what I was like as a college student and remember that I skipped classes like I was allergic to them and once wrote out the lyrics to a Beastie Boys song because I had no idea how to start answering any of the questions on a calculus exam. I turned out OK (although I did fail calculus) and they will too.

What I was really wanting to write about today is how as teachers our struggles are the same as our students’ struggles. You know what I want as a teacher? I want to know how to be successful. I want to know what tricks I have to do and what buttons I need to press in order to have students that are creative, competent, and successful. I want to know the best way to teach every topic and the right way to respond to student difficulties. I want to know an easy way of telling if I’m doing the right thing in the classroom. I get really frustrated when I look for those answers and they aren’t out there, and I also get frustrated when the answers are out there, but the methods proposed don’t work for me. I get easily overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem of how to be a good teacher.

You know what my students want? They want to know the tricks and methods that will make them competent and successful. They want to know the right way to do every problem. They want an easy way to tell if they are “doing it right.” They get frustrated when they can’t find that kind of structure, and they get frustrated when the methods they find don’t have any meaning or don’t work for them. They want sample solutions for every possible problem. They get overwhelmed by the enormity of the subjects I am teaching them and the difficulty of finding a path through those subjects.

And you know what my administration wants? They want to know the tricks to making a school that produces bright and capable alumni that go on to graduate school or successful careers. They want to know the right way to structure majors and general education to meet those goals in a cost-effective manner. They want an easy method to assess students and faculty so they know if the school is “doing it right.” They get frustrated when faculty screw up their plans  — they’re looking for simple solutions that are quick to implement everyone gets overwhelmed by the enormity of the task of providing students with a quality post-secondary education.

So we’re all doing the same thing, just at different scales. Kind of fractal, really, which is nice since I’m teaching students about fractals right now in Math, Art, and Design.

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