Saturday, December 19, 2009

Seen, Encouraged and Challenged

It’s been a long fall with lots to do and not much to say. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I’ve had lots to say to lots of graduate and undergraduate students who come to my classes, appear at my door, call on the phone and, of course, email – with questions that run the gamut from “what do you want on this [project, paper, presentation]?” to “what should I do when I grow up?” to “how can I handle this [breakup, challenge, death in the family]?”

There are many more students than in the past. A state budget crunch and a shortsighted political ethos re higher education has resulted in rapidly growing class sizes and many more advisees. In the face of this, I’ve been crunching the faculty/student ratio numbers. I’m pretty convinced by William Ouchi’s claim that any teacher’s “total student load” cannot exceed 80 if that teacher is to be an effective educator. And “effective” includes nurturing the relationships with students that make it possible for kids of any age to grow into smart and good people. My student load this semester is about 150. I’m way past Ouchi’s limit – and I’m not feeling very effective despite steady effort and many constructive discussions and interactions with lots of students.

Total student load is a topic that deserves more of my attention here. But for now, let me make an observation about what kids – and all of us -- need if they are to know much about and do good in the world.

Put bluntly, humans need to be seen, encouraged and challenged. Teachers who are able to do this for and with their students – and who have the time to do this – will have students who flourish.

What does this mean?

To be seen is to be recognized as the person I am, want to be and can be. To be encouraged is to be supported through the myriad fears that often block the effort to learn, to be invited to act with courage despite the sometimes painful and always uncomfortable feelings that accompany real change in one’s worldview and capabilities. To be challenged is to be moved beyond old habits of thinking and doing and understanding by the lure of interest or by the push of personal, intellectual or institutional pressure.

It makes intuitive sense that we would want to be seen first, encouraged second and challenged third, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, I’d say (admittedly stereotypically) that females tend to want to be encouraged prior to being challenged and males respond better to challenge prior to encouragement. What’s important is that all are encouraged and challenged and that each is encouraged and challenged in the order that prompts the richest, most generative response. The latter can only occur when students are known, when their teacher sees them.

I work hard to know and to see each of my students. It’s demanding and there are always a few who slip through because they seek anonymity, I just miss them due to lack of time or personal oversight or some combination of both. My sense is that more are slipping through – in part because there are more of them. I hope that someone else is catching those who slip through my net, that someone else is seeing, encouraging and challenging the kids I’m missing. But my colleagues too have many more than the 80 students Ouchi identifies as the research-based cut-off for effective teaching.

This isn’t directly about class size or even teaching quality. It’s about relationships and their importance to the very possibility of education. We need to see this clearly at every level.