Clearly there’s a pattern of behavior here that is what we could call “learned behavior” and I have a lotof theories about how this happens in high school since I’ve been more fortunate than some of my othercollege teachers because I actually spent a year teaching high school and I saw some things that I thinkthis student might have experienced in her previous educational experience that just doesn’t jive withcollege expectations. One problem is that high school teachers are simply overworked—the usual highschool class size is around 30 students—the usual load for a high school teacher is 7 classes—so that
By William Buchhorn
Maybe I’ve read too much Carol Dweck, but I have this theory that our students here at Butler aren’t really college students—at least not yet! I think we are in the business here at BCC of turning students into college students. Many of the students we see simply have no idea how to be “college students.”They often need to learn very basic stuff, like how to turn in their work on time, like how to devote a portion of their life outside the classroom to homework . . . just general, basic stuff . . . but many of our students don’t know even this much about the “culture” of college.
In my role as department chair, I’m always telling other English teachers something that shocks them quite a bit: I tell them that I DO take late papers. Surprisingly, very few English teachers take late papers–ever. But to me, taking a late paper from time to time is a “social justice” issue. I don’t really think that I can hold the students I see to either having a 100%, never-late submission record in my class or they fail (honestly, if anyone gets a zero on an essay assignment in a composition class, they generally fail that class since each of these paper is generally worth about 10% of the grade in the class and when students don’t turn in a major assignment they have lost so many points that they will struggle to recover throughout the semester and the usual result is that the student doesn’t make it in the class).The reason I think of taking these late papers as “social justice” is because I think many of our students have been trained to exhibit behaviors that simply do not benefit them as college students but that worked just fine for them in high school.
Indeed, I do blame the high school system (but not the teachers themselves) for some of the behavior my students show in my classes. I have a student this semester who wrote me an interesting email this week. I receive one very much like it every single semester. Here’s a basic paraphrase:
Professor, I am worried about my grade in the class. I’ve always received straight A’s in my classes and I just love Language Arts. I don’t know why I’ve been having so much trouble in your class. I know that I have a few missing journals and I was wondering if I could still turn them in. I didn’t do very well on my quizzes over the readings. Is there any way I can make these up? I think I understand the readings a lot better now that we’ve discussed them in class. I see in the grade book on Canvas that I lost points for not bringing my rough draft to class both the times we’ve done rough drafts and I still need to submit my second paper and my grammar self analysis which I still haven’t done because I just got my first paper back from you since I submitted it late.
OK—did the student really get straight A’s in high school? I’m pretty sure that most college teachers have heard this same complaint from students and I think that maybe students like this are telling the truth—that maybe it’s possible that they did earn straight A’s in high school and when they get to college they have just been “trained” to behave in ways that simply aren’t helpful to them as college students.
means each teacher has around 200 students each semester. Sometimes, I think, teachers cut corners and just grading on submission and the personality of the student. In any class with 30 students, you generally have 5 students (minimum) who are causing all kinds of trouble all the time and the rest of the students are just sitting there quietly and keeping their heads down and not starting a fire in the back of the room. If a student is a “good student,” not causing any trouble, maybe even one with a happy affect, and if the student turns in anything, then that student might just move to the head of the class even though the student isn’t really doing regular work. At least the student is doing something. At least the student is somewhat engaged and trying from time to time—that might count as “A-level work” in an environment where doing no work at all is also acceptable for advancement. Those of us who teach gen-ed classes see plenty of students every semester who show up to our classes and don’t turn in anything at all and who expect to somehow still pass the class. Well, that too is “learned behavior.” The high schools really are just passing kids through based on age alone. When I was a high school teacher for that year, I saw plenty of students who truly were just “passed through.” In fact, one of the reasons I’m no longer a high school teacher is that even if I gave students failing grades for poor work, the administration at the school I taught at would change those grades to C’s because students were not allowed to fail (honestly—I had one student who never did anything, who when he was in class refused to even put his name on a worksheet if I handed him one, and when I recorded an F for this student at the end of the semester, that grade was turned into a C by those above me in the decision-making chain). Therefore, I think it really is possible that “straight A students” often end up in college with patterns of behavior that aren’t what their college teachers expect but which were just fine for high school.
Now, again, I don’t mean to blame the teachers. No one can logically be expected to handle all the variables a high school teacher has to face every day with the number of challenging students they are expected to handle every day—no one—there’s just no way . . . so it really is possible that students like mine were rewarded for showing up most of the time and turning in some work even if they didn’t turn in all of it and that students like this LEARNED how to be good students in an environment that TRAINED them to have a certain set of behaviors that worked well and got them the results they wanted. And now they are in college. If my student was in a college class with a “hard line” teacher, one who never bent, one who never took a late paper ever under any circumstances whatsoever (the usual English teacher rule), then she’d be doomed. And most of the time, students like my student don’t do very well in their early days of college and many of them get washed out.
My job, as I understand it, is not to be the teacher who is out to kill the student for not getting work in on time but to be the teacher who helps the student develop the skills needed to survive when they end up in that room with the teacher who has no tolerance, with that teacher who cannot bend. Like I said,it’s a “social justice issue” for me. I think that’s why I’m here, to help students learn to be students, to set real standards and expectations for them and to hold them to these expectations, but to also always keep in mind that my students are not yet very good at being college students and that my job is to train them in the skills they need at this level of their education and beyond. Instead of failing students for behaviors like the ones she has learned, I choose to help them learn new behaviors and allow them a bit of transition time while they are in my class. I think that part of my job is to help them learn new behaviors because when they move on to the next teacher they probably won’t be so lucky as they are when they are in my class. One day soon, the answer to the question of whether or not the teacher will take a late paper will surely become an automatic “no” and I hope my class helps them learn the skills they’ll need to survive when they get there.