Monday, November 28, 2011

On complaining and losing faith

Throw a rock on the Interwebs and you're likely to find teachers complaining about their students (here, here, here). I've never wanted ISW to degenerate into a venue for such griping — and for the most part, I'm happy we keep the tone here constructive, even as we recognize how exasperating teaching can be.

Maryellen Weimer suggests that complaining about students is a self-fulfilling prophecy, a recipe for cynicism that undermines the faith we need to continue teaching energetically and effectively:

.. the many and repeated complaints frequently leveled against today’s college students ... are likely legitimate. College students today are not easy to teach and they are probably harder to teach today than when college was only for the best and the brightest. I also know that teachers occasionally need to vent. Students can do preposterous things. They can bring teachers to the points of frustration and exasperation.... Teaching is hard work and strength sapping.
But excessive complaining about students solves little and creates its own set of problems. It compromises our beliefs in students’ abilities to learn and our abilities to teach. If you end up thinking that the students in your classroom aren’t likely to succeed, don’t have the necessary amount of intellectual muscle or are beset with some other character flaw, then what’s the point of putting a lot of effort into the teaching? Losing faith in students’ ability to learn stands right beside losing faith in our ability to teach. I sometimes hear in those endless complaints about students a teacher’s thinly veiled cry for help.
I once observed that to teach requires believing, on pragmatic grounds, what we sometimes cannot believe on evidential grounds: "Each and every student I teach can, with reasonable effort, master what I aim to help them learn." When we become complainers, do we throw up a further obstacle to being able to endorse this belief, even pragmatically? And how do we — you — counteract this cynicism in our day-to-day activities as teachers?


  1. It might be useful now and then to have a little rant. When I hand my students' their papers back, I always tell them: get mad for a little while, get angry, vent, get upset...but then pick yourself back up, dust your self off and read my comments in a constructive light and figure out how we can work together to improve your work.

    The same should apply to me - every one in a while I ought to be able to have a little tantrum. But not for long and not very often. I mean - we have pretty spectacular lives here people: we get to do philosophy. We get to help other people do philosophy! Is there anything better?

    Our students are on average woefully prepared - so woefully prepared that they no longer know how to be students. Their schooling has left them motivationally bereft. But don't be mistaken: they know this. They don't like it. They want our help. They want to be motivated. They are confused about why after this much schooling, they are just educated enough to be aware of how inadequate their education has been. These folks have been cheated. It's a shame. When I start getting frustrated with them I remember that they didn't choose to be undereducated. That's on us - not them.

  2. I remember when I was about ten years old, our teacher - a very good teacher - was upset to learn of our ignorance of local history. I remember thinking "Why is he mad at us about this? If we don't know this stuff, it's because nobody has told us..." I try to hang on to that memory.

    I still have, in my files, papers and notes from my time as an undergraduate. Sometimes I look over them, and it is a humbling experience to realize the level that I was really at back then. I read stuff today and think "Surely, I would never have submitted rubbish like this." I probably did though.

  3. I think our previous discussions of fixed- and mastery-oriented mindsets about learning are relevant here. Just as we want our students to see themselves as capable of mastering tasks, even when they're not good at the tasks yet, we need to see our students in the same way. When teachers complain about students' woeful underpreparation, that's one thing. It leaves open the possibility that students could learn to do what we're asking of them. When teachers complain that students "just aren't smart enough" or whatever, that's different. That seems to reflect more of a "fixed mindset," which would easily lead us to believe that there's no point to most of our teaching.

  4. I think everyone here is right. David seems to suggest, correctly I think, that there's a difference between complaining that stems from cynicism and complaining that stems from frustration. At times, that line is blurry, I think, as when we bemoan the fact that cultural factors can act to create the kinds of fixed mindsets that make teaching extremely hard to do.

    Other than when teachers become overly cynical, I don't mind when they complain. Let's face it - education is the only product I know that people can "buy" and at the same time resist taking ownership of.

    Education is a very odd product, and we are in the odd position of giving people what they sometimes don't want but yet paid for.


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