On the Benefits of Messing Up
When invited to share my point of view on instructional challenges, I am typically in casual conversation with a fellow teacher. Except when they fall into “the rhetoric of complaint,” which David Gold rightly urges us to distrust, I think the discussions are fruitful. They permit me to rehearse interactions I’ve had with students in the classroom, over email, or in my office. I hope my stories help fellow instructors as much as theirs help me.
However, I wish my discussions about teaching happened more often with my students than my colleagues. Hardly ever do I hear from the mouth of a student questions like “what’s the hardest thing about teaching us?” or “what do you get out of teaching us?” or “what is your top priority as an instructor of writing or literature?” These questions are even less likely to come up between teacher and student when they are most worth asking, when the semester is drawing to a close. Why?
The “Bleak” Explanation: Despite the sunny turn of April, the classroom has become a dark pit of grade-stress, learning has long since been displaced by performance anxiety, and everyone is wondering, in silence, “why do we go on?”
The “Hopeful” Explanation: In keeping with the sunny turn of April, students have caught on to my teaching and learning ethic, are achieving new levels of thought and expression, and are working hard to learn how to learn.
Nearing the end, in either mindset, I wish students walked through the door (classroom or office), sat down with a purpose, looked me in the eye, paused for my attention, and asked, defiantly, “what do you get out of teaching us?” and “what are you expecting us to get out of being your student?”
I would answer in this way: “The greatest triumph for me as a teacher would be for you to experience learning without a fear of failure. I am no stranger to that fear–it is debilitating, the enemy of purpose and motivation. I always wanted a teacher who could release me from that fear, and I sadly cannot recall a single one. And I doubt whether I have ever been the kind of teacher who could have. Now a student of teaching, I fear that I cannot free you from a fear of failure. It is the key instructional problem for me–how can I help you see that messing up is central to your achievement? I teach in the hope of showing you, and myself, the benefits of messing up.”
Since 2008, teaching at the Oconee campus, I have gained some valuable perspective on this problem due my diverse teaching assignments. Mixed in with the typical first-year composition and Area C literature courses, I have taught a fair share of Learning Support (LS) English and several Honors sections of American or World Literature. My colleagues would likely agree with me that there is no such thing as a “light” English course, but for me, English 0099 and Honors English courses have been particularly difficult to navigate. I make this distinction because academic expectations in those courses breed an anxiety of failure in both student and teacher.
Measuring up. For different reasons, both types of courses mark students in irrational but undeniable ways. LS courses are labeled “remedial,” Honors courses “advanced.” The former is a potential “college killer,” the latter a potential “GPA killer.” Either way, the pressure NOT to fail can overshadow the potential joy of success.
Learning to learn, learning to teach. At both levels of instruction, the specific content of the course is primarily a vehicle for cultivating an appreciation for learning and a greater ability to learn. I can think of no teaching assignment that is easier to fail. To succeed, I have to convince my students that “messing up” will be rewarded. Understandably, they resist at every turn.
No support, no access. I would like to unpin the terms “access” and “support”–they have long been associated with LS programs because they play off our assumption that the students who need the most help are the ones least prepared for college work. Teaching Honors English the same semester as LS English quickly dispels that notion. Both provide access, and both call for just the right mixture of encouragement and accountability.
By the end of these courses, I am typically running through all the ways in which my design fell short of my vision. In LS English, the regret has a depth measured in students who leave without notice or who fail to exit because of work left undone. In Honors English, the regret deepens with every student who leaves the course feeling unworthy or disappointed by a grade.
I take no consolation in the suggestion that I cannot reach every student; in LS and Honors, the student matters more than the class as a whole. At the same time, I trust, as I expect my students to do, that messing up has had its benefits on my teaching. There are reassuring moments:
- when an LS student writes that first unified paragraph and finally sees that her previous attempts, each one marked up with feedback meant to push her further than she’s ever been pushed, were steps toward real achievement
- when an Honors student stands up to give her first presentation at a conference, nervous and embarrassed, and finds that, yes, after all, she can do this thing that, days and weeks earlier, seemed way out of reach
- when a former LS student joins the Honors program
- when an Honors student questions the value an assigned reading, engaging the class in a discussion of ethical responsibility and emotional welfare
- when an LS student volunteers to have her outline displayed to the class as part of a workshop on essay organization
- when a former Honors student visits to discuss using her research project as a writing sample for a study abroad scholarship
- when an entire class of LS students is engaged in peer review of each other’s work
- when an entire class of Honors students has taken over the discussion, pausing now and then to get my opinion
These scenarios have at least three important implications. First, the LS Program and Honors program at UNG create space for deserving students to thrive. Second, UNG can and should maintain its emphasis on “broad access,” especially those students on either end of that admissions spectrum. Last, involvement in LS or Honors can give instructors an opportunity to reflect on their own growth as teachers. I recommend teaching one of these sections–my experience over the last few years has shown me, in sharp relief, where I can most improve in my methods, my evaluation style, my engagement with students. The most successful students in Learning Support and Honors share qualities that have exposed my strengths and weaknesses, like “the sun falling around a helpless thing”:
They know the stakes: They believe that higher education is a way out and up and that academic achievement forms character. In the classroom, they see through “grades” to a higher promise. They treat professors as mentors or colleagues, not as obstacles on their path to a better place.
They learn how to learn: They adjust to a course and follow the professor’s lead. Especially in those cases of one-on-one engagement, their work will demonstrate the effect of the instruction. Like immediate feedback, struggle and achievement among these students creates a testing environment for new approaches.
They respond to support: They seek help where they see it offered because they quickly discover the benefit of support. I suspect that both LS students and Honors students know the feeling of being left alone in their academic development prior to college. The classroom becomes a veritable boot camp in student welfare issues.
Recently, I have enjoyed working with my fellow LS Liaisons to redesign our Learning Support program. Last week, we attended the GADE conference, where we presented some of the classroom methods we had developed. My experimental method was “Guided Writing Using Google Drive.” I had for some time wanted to shake up my English 0099 course, to focus on modeling as way to build writing skills. Why hadn’t I before? A big part of the answer is that my classroom time was overly consumed by “grammar as grammar” practice and assessment. As a program, we decided to dismantle that scaffolding, to try an untested approach. Is it working? Will it have lasting effects on student achievement? I hope, at least, in the short run, it will relieve some of the fear that typically hinders composition training. And that fear is one shared by students and teachers.