I have been a classroom teacher for about 13 years. I teach social work and am a tenured associate professor. Typically, I teach first generation college students who have gone to under-resourced schools in the deep south of the US. This means they are poor and have not have the best educational opportunities. They come to university with many deficits in their basic knowledge or skill sets. Specifically, they have multiple deficits in writing skills and advanced math skills. Since I teach a variety of courses I must find ways to help students cope with all of their deficits. For example, since I teach statistics, I have to make sure we review basic algebra and math. Sometimes, honestly, I have to actually teach students how to do what they should have learned in high school. One class I taught didn’t even know how to graph coordinates. I have had to learn to be patient and to alter the syllabus or course schedule sometimes in order to “start where my students are” and bring them along. In social work we teach our students to “start where the client is” so I have to follow that advice as a teacher. While these students have deficits, they also have a lot of strengths. They are motivated to make a better life for themselves and their families, in general, and have lots of “street smarts.” This will help them when they begin to work with their clients after they graduate.
As I reflect on teaching my students sometimes I think of it as being a teacher in the Peace Corps or other NGO in a developing country. Louisiana is a very impoverished state in the US and there are entrenched ideas and processes which tend to keep poor people poor. My hope is that with education the students I teach will help to improve these entrenched ideas and processes.
While I am a first generation college graduate in my family, I was lucky enough to grow up in a major urban center (Philadelphia) with a very good school system and access to cultural opportunities. I was also blessed with a smart brain and a healthy body. I worked hard but also was able to obtain academic scholarships to pay my way through school. My students mostly do not have the luxury of scholarships. They work full-time jobs and go to school full-time. Many of them are parenting young children. Life for them is very different from my experience. Many of them also have to endure continued racial disparities in the US south. Even in 2012 prejudice remains. The deck is stacked against them from the day they are born and to get to college is a major accomplishment for them. I try to be keenly aware of my audience but I also have a job to do.
An important part of my job is to make sure that my students can take the knowledge, values, and skills they learn in my classes and apply those in the agency setting with clients. I try to make sure that each class period has an “application” part of the lesson. I believe that Kolb’s learning cycle is important to retention or true learning so I make sure students have the opportunity to use the cycle. While I don’t necessarily think learning style plays a large part in transfer of learning, I do think the cycle is important. Additionally, I try to help my students to understand that classroom learning is only the start of their life-long journey of learning. It is really important for them to understand that in order to be an expert social worker they must continue to learn and grow their entire career. Along with Kolb, major influences to my work to date include: Schon, Lave and Wenger, Goldstein, Reynolds, Dreyfus and Dreyfus, Secker, and Floersch. I will post more about this in upcoming posts.
The most enjoyable part of my job is being able to teach students who start with many educational deficits and bring them along to the point where they can actually be accepted to graduate school. I am especially proud of the students who go to the top graduate programs in the US. Of course, they were excellent students to begin with. It is always enjoyable to teach bright, engaged students.
Kolb, D. and Kolb, A. (2009). The learning way: Meta-cognitive aspects of experiential learning. Simulation Gaming, 40, 297.