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My Learning Autobiography
My development as a learner began when I first learned to read. I refused to let my mother teach me. I insisted that I could not learn how to read because I didn’t know how. My circular logic turned into my self-directed learning style because, when I was four, I taught myself to read because I wanted to read Batman comics. However, it wasn’t until I went into elementary school that my learning journey began in earnest.
In elementary school, the memories I have are from teachers who challenged me or those who misunderstood and embarrassed me. The ones who challenged me did it in different ways. One sat me with the “trouble-making” student and asked me to help him with his work and help keep him quiet. It made me feel like a valuable member of the class, plus it kept me busy since I tended to finish my work quickly. I enjoyed being a student helper, and it was almost a reward for me, even as it helped the teacher.
I also really enjoyed the teachers who gave me extra work (although strangely enough, as I grew older, I began to not be quite as fond of that!). They let me read ahead and do self-teaching “SRA” work. They also let me read and write my own stuff once I’d finished my work. Since I was fast at my work and got bored easily (nowadays, I’d probably be ADHD – back then, I was just “hyperactive”), it made me happy because the teachers had acknowledged that I wanted more, and it didn’t necessarily require their attention – it just had to be something for me to do.
What I didn’t like were the teachers who misunderstood and/or embarrassed me. There’s one particular incident that I’ll never forgive or forget. A boy – I still remember that his name was Rod – stole an elastic band out of my hair in music class. It was no great, amazing band, but it was a pretty little one with a bead or ribbon or something attractive on it, whatever was popular then. I, understandably, got upset when he took it. The teacher got mad at me, though, not him, for disrupting the class and handed me a huge, ugly rubber band that looked like it had once held a newspaper. I refused to take it, but she yelled at me and told me it was another rubber band, so what was the difference. The total lack of compassion and caring from her has stuck with me still.
In high school, I enjoyed the teachers who allowed me to have my own opinions, as long as I could support them. My good teachers may not have loved me, as I was definitely a troublemaker once I got back to public school, but they taught me how to defend things I found in fiction and history, as opposed to those who said I was wrong – “No, Hemingway is the best writer of all time, regardless of what you students think” – because those teachers, while they made it clear that they were credible (as per Brookfield’s definition), were definitely not authentic as they were not open to feedback and input, regardless of what they claimed. Anyone who disagreed was “wrong.”
I also had a teacher who straight-out refused to teach me. Yes, seriously, refused. I was rejected from her class. Now, first, let me say that on one hand, I respected and still respect her decision because it shows that she knew herself quite well, but, on the other hand, it still worries me that she couldn’t separate personal/private beliefs from her professional position. What happened was this: It was a history class. For the first day’s homework, we were supposed to read the chapter, pick a quote, and discuss it in context. The chapter dealt with the pilgrims, and one of the quotes was “Forced religion stinks in God’s nostrils.” Coming from Catholic school, I loved the quote. The day after I turned my assignment in, I got called to my counselor’s office and told that my history teacher didn’t feel comfortable with me in her class, so I was being transferred.
Funnily enough, the other teacher was a good experience for me (I’d had him for history before) because while he wasn’t altogether fun or interesting (but he was both credible and authentic), seeming to prefer to lecture while seated at his desk and give test straight out of the textbook, but he was passionate about his subject, and he was really invested in trying to teach a classroom full of bored and annoying high-schoolers.
I turned out to be a high school drop-out, however, which says nothing about the teachers I encountered. It was far more about the school system itself and arbitrarily enforced rules that, had I known then what I know now, could have been circumvented through rules and regulations that would have forced the system help me instead of reject me due to medical issues I suffered. Regardless, the end of my high school career left a bad taste in my mouth and made me settle for a GED, another story altogether.
I didn’t completely give up on education, however, even with my bad experience in high school. My undergraduate experiences occurred at three different schools: two community colleges and one on-line university. The first time I tried to go to college after dropping out of high school, I failed my English class. For anyone who knows me, that’s hard to believe. What happened was this: on the first night of class, the teacher stood up and announced that she enjoyed teaching at night because the students were older and therefore wiser (her words). She made fun of a past “young” student because the student didn’t understand a word that had been used in an essay, a sure sign of stupidity, in the teacher’s opinion. On that first night, there were only two of us “younger” students; the other one never came back. I came back, but then I missed a few classes. I tried to catch up, but the teacher told me not to bother. I had missed three classes, she told me, and so I failed. I had no options, according to her. It was very reminiscent of high school, and I thought I was done with school forever.
The second time I went to college, I had one teacher who was excellent, one teacher who was awful, and one teacher in between. (Okay, I really had more than one excellent teacher, but the excellent ones can be summarized as if they were a single teacher because they had the same things in common.)
The awful teacher was my chemistry teacher. The problem – and I realized this only after I had been in the class for a little while – was that he also taught where I worked: a graduate school of biomedical sciences. Because of this, he was used to teaching students working on their graduate degrees, and community college students were a disappointment to him. We knew because he told us. Regularly. It was normal protocol for him to go over something new, and when we asked questions, he would throw up his hands, declare us “stupid,” ask why we didn’t understand, and swear that he was going to stop teaching because we were all so awful. I finally called and complained to the department chair for sciences, and after that, the teacher’s behavior did change, but it was still a pretty horrific experience.
The excellent teacher(s) were challenging and enthusiastic. One was my English teacher, and the others were history teachers. In all the classes, the teachers gave a lot of work, but they lectured like they actually cared about what they were talking about, and they graded harshly but fairly. They asked questions on tests that meant that the students actually had to study, but if they studied, they could make an A. There were no surprises or unfair changes to the work at the last minute. It was well-planned and the expectations were made clear.
Finally, my in-between teacher was fair in some ways, but very confusing in others. She was fair because she gave us very clear expectations, but then she judged them unfairly (in the students’ opinions). She expected us to be able to function on the same level she did, both in writing and in objective tests. While I definitely learned a lot, I was not happy to get bad grades for things that I didn’t understand. There’s a difference between having a graduate degree in communication and being a freshman at a community college. She didn’t seem too aware of that. The other issue we encountered was that she said the topic for our speeches were open, and then said that no one could speak on abortion because her personal opinion would come into the grade because she knew she couldn’t separate her feelings from her intellect on that topic. Again, I was reminded of my high school history class and worried; if she was aware of her prejudices on that topic, then what else was there that she wasn’t aware of? Would students lose points for other topics if we disagreed with her opinions? It made me very unsure in that class, and I know that other students felt the same way. Most of us did not recommend that our friends take her classes because of those issues.
My experiences in graduate school have definitely affected my teaching style. I’ve foolishly (?) completed two Master’s degrees. The first was in Liberal Arts and was an on-campus program. The second was in English Lit and was on-line with a traditional brick and mortar school that had added an online program.
In my first degree, the teacher I was most influenced by actually taught most of my classes. He was one of those people who had no personal life – he sat around reading books, watching movies, and listening to music. He had no wife or children. His sister was his only connection to the “real world.” They were both in their 70s. He looked like an egg on legs. But he was absolutely brilliant, he taught me a lot, and he was completely thrilled to teach. His full-time position at the school was as their librarian, but he taught part-time in the MLA (Master of Liberal Arts) program. He taught classes on science fiction, Renaissance art and music, and poetry. If you could think of it, he probably knew something about it. He was an inspiration to me – I wanted to be like him. (Well, sort of like him.) He definitely embodied the concept of a Renaissance man. He could talk about opera, about modern rock, and about musical instruments of revolutionary America. All the students knew that he knew what he was talking about. But he never came off as better than us or more “intelligent” than us. He simply was better educated, and he shared that education with us in such a way as to make us want to learn more. He never insulted the students and never assumed that we “should have” known something.
The bad experience I had involved a teacher who gave grades that made sense to him only. He would return a project with a single mark – the grade. If you had the nerve to question him, he would simply say, “It *felt* like an A-.” If you asked how to improve the work, he would say it needed more work. He couldn’t tell anyone why they got the grades they did. He simply assumed that, as teacher, his word was gold, and we should all behave as if he was the only intelligent person in the room. Instead of teaching, he would sit at the front of the room and tell stories about how he and Newt Gingrinch were friends in college. (Sadly enough, I’m not kidding.)
In my second degree, I don’t know that I really had any truly good experiences. I did learn some great information, but I had a few instances that really made me not like the school or the teachers. The head of the program taught a majority of my classes. Unfortunately, he was not what I’d call a reliable teacher. The classes were online in WebCT, and there were times when he would disappear for up to a month. He wouldn’t respond to anything within the class, and most emails outside of class would also go without response. When he did respond to emails outside of class, the response was generally, “I’m sorry, I’ve been very busy lately. This/that/the other thing went wrong in my personal life. Don’t worry about the class – you’re doing fine, and I’ll be back in there shortly.” I actually wrote a letter to the head of distance learning to complain about it and dropped out for a semester before deciding that I wanted to finish my degree and wouldn’t let him stop me by his apathy.
The other issue I ran into was with a teacher who used a curve for grading discussion questions. If you were one of the first three people to post your responses for the week, you’d get an A. Everyone else could receive nothing higher than a B. This was hard for me because I was working full-time, taking care of my son, and going to school. I couldn’t always be the first one because some students were full-time students, they did their work *weeks* in advance, and they would post before the unit even began. I thought that her rule was extremely unfair – it didn’t matter how good or complete the answers were; they couldn’t get an A.
While I’ve never really reflected on these things and how they influenced my teaching, when I look back, I can definitely see the connections.
First – empathy. My students are adults, and so while no one is stealing a hair ribbon, they have plenty of other emotional turmoil in their lives. Even if I haven’t experienced what they may be going through, I try to put myself in their places and adjust my treatment of them accordingly. I try to be understanding and not just assume that they should “get over it.”
Second – respect. I try as hard as I can to respect my student’s opinions and point of views, even when I completely disagree. Now, there have been times when I’ve had to try to explain that they are wrong (for instance, I had a student who really wanted to write a persuasive paper on the fact that the whole economic crisis could be averted if we just printed more money because then no one would need any), but by and large, I let my students take their own viewpoints, explore them, and support them. Even if I completely disagree with something they say, if they say it well and have something to back it up, I let it ride and try to look at it objectively.
Third – excitement. I love English. All aspects of it. Even grammar is fun. I have been known to have entire dinner conversations about punctuation. And I let my students know that. If they know that I love my subject, I hope that they will try to see it through fresh eyes and not be as afraid of it. When my teachers have been “into” what they teach, I have tended to enjoy it more, so I hope that I can bring the same thing to my students
Fourth – communication. Communication is key! I believe that schools should have a policy of responding to students within 24 hours during the week and within 48 hours over the weekend, and I try to follow that religiously, regardless of whether it is an official policy or not. I also learned to respond to student posts as quickly as possible, especially if they had questions, and to answer questions about assignments.
Fifth – fairness and transparency in grading. Because of that, I don’t force my students to post earlier than the syllabus requires. I know a lot of teachers do in order to help stimulate the discussion, but because I know how hard it was for me, I can’t enforce a rule that I disagree with personally. Does it make my discussion boards suffer? Not really. I still get a lot of responses in those first few days, and with all the comments I make to my students, there is always something for them to say to get their participation credit. It also keeps the students who can only do their homework on weekends from suffering due to their schedules. I am also careful to provide a rubric and mark papers with enough comments so that students would understand where their problems (and successes) were, how they could improve, and why they had received the grade they received.
My experiences definitely informed the teaching style I use today, but they also informed my learning style. I have always been a self-directed learner who enjoyed having free reign on a topic. I enjoy being able to read and then respond to others’ thoughts and theories. Another thing I’ve learned is that I am happiest when what my teachers want from me is clearly stated. Having rubrics or clear expectations is very important. It’s also important to have deadlines for work, but those deadlines need to be realistic. While I understand (especially from a student standpoint) that school cannot always come first in life, I also understand the teacher’s viewpoint that deadlines should be firm. I believe that my dual experiences as a teacher and a student, both on campus and online, have informed the choices I’ve made and the theories I believe.
Brookfield, S. D. (1995). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Merriam, S.B., Caffarella, R.S., & Baumgartner, L.M. (2007). Leaning in adulthood: a comprehensive guide. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.