Not the Centre of the Universe

June 3, 2010

Yesterday was my last SWSP7123 class, and for me, the end of this project. But it’s not the end of my learning. Certainly I will have further reflections as I work my way through the feedback on the course and my teaching. I have that lovely “just been run over by a truck feel”! Despite this it’s 2am and I’m awake and buzzing. Somehow if I’m to do this tomorrow with my second year students I need to get to sleep. Clearly some blogging debrief time is needed! So using my favourite process I’m going to reflect on how it all went.

  1. 1. So here’s what I did:
  • A warm-up connection activity
  • Peer assessment of blogs (alongside some surveys on my teaching and their use of technology)
  • A graffiti wall course evaluation exercise
  • An awards ceremony for the course
  1. 2. How I feel is much less clear:

Firstly, I feel enormously relieved: we got through a massive semester; no lives lost, no major catastrophes, no fatalities. I can now go back to working 5 instead of 6 days per week and can get some of my other work done. Hurrah.

Secondly, I am feeling awe-struck. As I went around the room and saw people’s work I was struck by the talent and hard work of students. And I am in awe of the issues they have tackled. They have aimed to much bigger than I had dreamed – and that’s rich learning for me. I know for some students this course was incredibly difficult – even naming a project took weeks. To see where they have ended up and the incredible bounds and leaps in their learning was so moving.

Thirdly I feel exhausted. I think one of my insights from this semester is how hard one has to work to hold processes together. It probably looks enormously chaotic and disorganised, and students would be amazed if they learnt how much preparation goes into the processes I run. I often wonder if this style of teaching looks like lazy teaching: so much occurs behind the scenes. On the day, the students do the work. However I’ve woken up with every muscle in my body absolutely aching. Without even realising it I must have spent the whole day wound tighter than a spring and clenching everything that was clenchable!

Fourthly I feel chuffed! My peer marking process and use of IT somehow worked. We managed to pull it off in a class room with a lack of powerpoints, and limited access to computers. Thanks to the generosity of students we made it work. Woo Hoo!

Fifthly, I am disappointed. I am disappointed in myself: I botched some of the processes and left things behind. I had put together the most detailed instruction sheets so students would be clear on every detail, and then somehow lost the box of handouts on the way to the classroom! I had the whole day choreographed and then had to holler at people all day. So more disappointment – I didn’t debrief the peer assessment process and I’m dying to know how people found it.

Sixthly, I am so very humbled. A group of us went for drinks afterwards and I had the privilege of hearing a little more about students’ personal lives. As they talked about family they had left behind, how much they were missing their lives back home and how much they valued this opportunity to learn (or even how much they were looking forward to meeting their newborn baby!) I just felt such admiration and humility. Too often in Australia we take our education system for granted. International students do it so tough and I am moved by their dedication and willingness to make every moment here count. It is very inspiring.

So as a response to this, I’m annoyed. I KNOW students had exams and assignments due and were under pressure, but it’s the whole grade obsession. I only have the students for six workshops. For them to decide the last class is less worthy because it’s not all about their grade saddens me immensely as it shows they haven’t really understood some of what we’re learning: that the ending is as important as the beginning, that debriefing experiences is where rich learning occurs, that just because something isn’t up on a PowerPoint doesn’t mean that it’s content free. I was still teaching. Experiential learning is as valuable as theoretical learning. I wanted the students to experience an interesting evaluation process. I’m also annoyed on behalf of those students who were present (in both body and mind). But it’s the reality of student life. This is one class of many, and a tiny fragment of people’s busy and demanding lives. Despite my best efforts to construct an alternative reality, this class is NOT the centre of the universe! However I’m human and being asked if people can leave class because they have an assignment due, or need to study for their evening exam, just makes me feel really cross! It’s not my best side I know. I believe that what we’re doing in this classroom is important and valuable and I want to honour the efforts people have made to be here. I think about a couple of students who drive incredible distances (from across the border, and down from the Sunshine Coast) just to be here, or international students who have left their family at home for their education and are here under enormous difficulty, and I get incredibly annoyed on their behalf. Like I said, it is not my most attractive side.

Emotion number 8 is fear. I know that there is lots of negative commentary on those feedback sheets and these are going to be barbs to my ego. I go through this every semester. The feedback is invaluable. But like the students, I have an ego that jumps up and wants to shout “but…but…but…”. I also know that often in the process of debriefing or venting students will write things in a more critical way than perhaps intended. Without the context and broader conversation it is easy to misinterpret and get defensive.  I tried hard not to look as people wrote: but I saw enough to make me flinch a few times: “Long-winded”- moi? But…But…But…”).

So emotion number 9 is courage, mixed with hope. I hope that I will be brave enough to recognise this feedback for what it really is. I need to actually take joy in the criticisms. Going back to my previous post, if the learning process requires us to master our own pain, then I should see the negative comments as part of this pain: to name it simply as sour grapes or venting would be doing students a grave disservice. Teaching isn’t about making people “happy” or “comfortable” or “entertained”. It’s about challenging, taking people out of their comfort zones, providing opportunities to engage with new material in new and interesting ways. If I have done this, then I have succeeded, but I should not expect people to be grateful for pain.

Finally, emotion 10 is a great deal of sadness. For thirteen weeks I get to be part of a community of students, hear their insights, share their ideas, and get a taste of their world. I live vicariously through their work, and rejoice in their humour, thoughtfulness, compassion, friendship, generosity and support of one another. In our “awards” ceremony I heard the very deep bonds students had forged and the love they had for one another and it was all I could do not to cry. This teaching business is such an extraordinary honour and privilege. But then the community dissipates. Like Melucci’s concept of the biodegradable organisation, it exists as a blip in time, serving a particular purpose, and then it goes back to ground. And I will miss that community. It will leave a hole in my life and will be a moment in time I will treasure.

3. So what have I learned?

That’s a question that I will be reflecting on for weeks. Watch this space: so much learning about learning, about teaching, about processes, about use of IT, about students, about group dynamics, about setting up student projects, about myself, about UQ, about life.

4. What would I do differently next time?

    Just thinking about today, I think it’s such a shame I couldn’t get my colleagues to join me. A critical conversation a la conversation café was what I really wanted to do. I know it would have yielded some pretty incredible information and may have been a more engaging process for students. I think my graffiti wall was a reasonable compromise. Obviously next time I would aim NOT to lose information sheets and surveys. But I don’t think I could have been better organised. It was just a lot of “stuff” to have to carry and cart. It would be nice if I could think of an easier way to manage the logistics. Finally I think I would aim to lower my expectations of myself and the students. We’re all human, struggling with competing demands and doing the best we can do. I aimed to create an exciting and engaging process. Maybe next time I need to aim for something more gentle and reflective.

    (And maybe next time I’ll take a sleeping tablet before bedtime! )

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