A workplace where people are kind – too much to ask for?

I’ve written about my bittersweet leaving of Longwood – but not about my new adventure in education.   Too busy working, I guess.  And the wound was raw last fall – in ways I didn’t realize until I landed in a new teaching job and found myself looking over my shoulder, reminiscent of a war vet with PTSD.  It was as if I was waiting for an IED to blow, for someone to knock my legs out from under me the way my Longwood colleagues did.

But secondary education is not higher education.   People are kinder to each other in secondary education.  I don’t know why, but I’ve worked for two universities and four high schools and it holds true throughout my work experience.

Maybe I do know why – in secondary education, teachers teach.  Almost all day, five days a week.  K-12 teachers log hours and hours with students, relentless, in-the-trenches.  It’s demanding work, work not well-respected or remunerated in our culture.  There are very few professors from American universities who could hang with the pace of preparation, face-time teaching, and feedback/assessment that effective high school teachers pull off.

University professors aren’t generally rewarded for being skilled teachers.  They are rewarded for doing other things well – but the effective teaching of undergraduates is not why they are hired or promoted.

I think this is the reason American higher education is destined to implode, probably in the near future unless this country deals with unsustainable student debt and undergraduates who wake up to find that their ordinary degrees don’t get them anywhere they want to be.

Kevin Carey overstates his case in The End of College, but some of his points make sense.  Especially that students have to plan for where they want to go.  It’s no longer good enough to simply get a degree and know that meaningful and relatively well-paid work is going to be waiting for you.  A college degree is not a ticket anywhere if you don’t use the time earning it well.

Which is what I told students at Longwood, and some of them disliked me for it.  But better to tell them the truth while they could still do something about it. I do think I helped a few prepare themselves for meaningful careers in communications.  One thing I know how to do is teach.

Unfortunately, universities aren’t especially interested in hiring effective teachers.  They want young scholars who will publish and make them look good.  I wasn’t young enough, and I wasn’t a man.  Despite what was said when they hired me, and no matter how hard I had worked for them and how effective I’d been teaching students, I wasn’t who they wanted around for the long haul.  Sucker punch.

But here’s the good news – and perhaps what the forces of the universe had in mind anyway.  I landed in Chesterfield County, teaching at their largest high school, and I feel valued there. I’m paid better, I have some job security and excellent benefits, my commute is less than half what it was to Longwood – really a better situation all around.  I like my students, I like what I’ve been asked to teach and the way they’ve asked me to teach it, and I like and respect most of the people I work with.

This year, they’ve asked me to take over the school’s journalism program and help students produce a digital-first student newspaper.  It’s going to be great – a digital-first web-based publication with a quarterly news magazine.  I’m excited by the possibilities.  Why not create one of the best high school journalism programs in the country?  Why not at Thomas Dale?

Sometimes people ask if I miss teaching college?  And sometimes I do.  But mostly I feel grateful to have found a teaching home.  A place where I can settle in and do my best without looking over my shoulder, a place to take some risks to see what works, pick myself up if I fail, a place where people are basically kind to one another.

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Magic of a Snow Day

Photos out of a window don’t begin to capture the magic of a snow day.

IMG_1619

The snow fell over night. 100 percent chance, the weather report said, so we knew it was coming. Three inches in Richmond shuts everything down. That is the magic of snow. Everything stops. Whatever we have here – food, books, each other – has to be enough. There is no place to go. We are cocooned in snow-muffled quiet. I like that.

I check the weather & closings, listen for the robocall that announces what I know looking out the window. School is out for the day. It’s a decree; no decisions to be made – the county has decided it’s unsafe to travel.

Time stolen from a daily routine of classes and bells stretches out like a cat. What a gift.

On disembarking the roller coaster

The end of this semester was bittersweet – my last at Longwood University in the Communication Studies Department.

Two years ago, I wrote about getting on the roller coaster – my anticipation of the wild ride that comes with teaching five courses a semester at a university, finishing a dissertation, and completing a grant-funded oral history project at the same time.

I was right about the ride, but  didn’t anticipate how completely consuming it would be to prep and teach five courses, commute over an hour to do it, try to complete any research or creative work, and to maintain my family and personal life.   This was one of those old wooden roller coasters that throws you around and whipsnaps your neck.  The kind that sends you to the doctor.

wooden roller coaster

Courtesy of “The Eggplant”, Flickr. Creative Commons License

To make it more interesting, my department colleagues created a tenure-track position that roughly matched what I was doing and told me to apply for it.  I did. They hired a young white man from another part of the country, and then eliminated the lectureship I’d held for two years.  This is a fairly typical story in academia – so I’m hurt, but not surprised.

 

The students responded with warmth and support when I told them.  And they were stunned.  I mean, why would a university let an effective, well-respected teacher go?

So, I’m disembarking the roller coaster.  I’ll miss my Longwood students, but I get my life back.  Someday I’ll thank them for making me leave the ride.

 

Snapshot Tuesday: hot spring in Yellowstone National Park

photo from Yellowstone National Park

Hot spring from Yellowstone National Park

National Park Service: Hot Springs and how they work

A few summers ago, we took a family vacation to Wyoming to visit Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, plus an afternoon and evening in Jackson Hole.  Lots of hot springs and geyser activity in Yellowstone, where we learned that we were touring above one of the world’s supervolcanoes, the Yellowstone caldera. What would happen if …..

There was a recent earthquake and some animal migrations that had the ‘Net buzzing with speculation that the supervolcano was going to blow … the USGS say that it’s business as usual at Yellowstone, that the accounts are exaggerated.

So I dug up a snapshot from that trip in honor of Snapshot Tuesday.  Enjoy!

They might walk again !! Really cool research I heard about in a podcast.

Listening to a Science Friday podcast in the car this morning to pass the time and WOW … this segment played:  “Reawakening Limbs After Years of Paralysis”  xray from science friday

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s what the Science Friday website says: Reporting in the journal Brain, researchers write of reawakening the legs of four men paralyzed from the waist down. They did so by implanting electronic devices in the men’s spines. The devices send out electrical stimulation that re-trains the nerves to listen more carefully for signals, allowing voluntary movements after years of paralysis. Study author Susan Harkema of the University of Louisville and Roderic Pettigrew, director of the National Institute of Bioimaging and Bioengineering, discuss the device and the path towards commercially available treatments.

Nice to hear some positive news, something that brings people hope.  The researchers talked about how the spinal cord might be more “intelligent” than they’ve believed … how the body might be able to recover the ability for movement with a combination of stimulation and specialized physical therapy.  Okay, I didn’t follow everything they said, but I did think – this is wonderful.

Would there be people in wheelchairs who would choose NOT to walk again?  If someone’s been paralyzed for years, if that’s become part of one’s accepted identity – would the change be too frightening?

Most people would probably leap at the chance (pun intended), but even positive change can be scary – so I can imagine that it’d be a complicated path.  Of course, according to the researchers, it takes lots of focused work over months too, so it’s not like they implant a device and people get up and walk a few miles.  Way slower than that … which would also make it easier to accept and embrace.

Friday Zen

close-up of a dragonfly from May 2013
A dragonfly – taken at last year’s RFM spring retreat, Memorial Day weekend at the Clearing in Amelia County, Virginia .

We spend a portion of each summer near my parents’ home on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. We’re next to a swamp … a freshwater seep that drains into the creek … one that provides water for frogs and dragonflies and birds. At dusk, we can sit on the back deck and watch hundreds of dragonflies feeding, aerial acrobats feasting on mosquitoes and gnats. A bit later, the frogs start to sing.

It’s a sweet spot, a small farmhouse in a soybean field just a short walk from my childhood home. How much longer will the frogs sing?  My heart breaks when I  think about climate change, about what we’ve done with fossil fuels, about a world without frogs.

But for now – isn’t this creature exquisite?

Revisiting my last post as another semester winds down

College is not wasted on the young.  The student who made me sad in the last post has turned out to have the instincts of a reporter.  He’s not my most disciplined writer – so he doesn’t pull the best grades – but he goes out and finds stories that could be published in any news outlet.  Because they’re newsworthy.

I’ve had so much fun teaching media writing this semester.  We have to be generalists at Longwood; some classes feel like more of a stretch than others.  Teaching Media Reporting and Writing feels like breathing – teaching it comes that naturally.

Oh yeah, it’s a lot of work.  Lots of reading articles and giving specific feedback.  Depending on your perspective, I have the luxury and/or the misfortune of teaching 29 people in two class sections how to newsgather and mediawrite.

Of course, it’s the 80 I teach in three other class sections that brings me to the semester I’ve had.  Media & Society – a range-y course in which we struggle with two questions: how does media affect society?  And how does society create and control media?  Like I said – a range-y survey course in which we cover too much.  My goal, however, is not the content as much as teaching critical thinking, particularly media criticism.  This can be a lot of fun, but it means moving beyond multiple-choice tests and into the realm of blogging and small group presentations and writing.

That’s right – more reading of student writing, more feedback on student writing. And that’s time intensive.   Messier than A B C D.

But that’s what these college students need.  They need practice writing and they need my feedback on how to do it better.  And, like the rest of us, they figure out what they want to say be writing it out.  Epiphanies abound.

And I guess that’s why I’m here, teaching at Longwood U, working so hard that I neglect both my personal life and the rest of my professional life … this blog, for example, and my Eastern Shore Stories Project.