Who Does Your Instructional Labor Serve?

One recurring theme to many K-12 and higher education institutions moving to remote instruction has been “uh-oh” moments concerning challenges not immediately anticipated. One example is that when my university’s professors have been reaching out to students, they have discovered many of their students left for spring break without their textbooks and notes.

Since the university has discouraged any students returning to campus, professors are now faced with revising courses for remote instruction realizing students may not have the necessary materials or the technology needed.

I want here to pull back from the specifics of teachers and students suddenly shifting mid-course into on-line/remote education in order to pose an essential question for teachers at all levels: Who does your instructional labor serve?

When I first started teaching high school English in 1984, my teaching position for the first 18 years of my career, I was laser-focused on being an effective teacher of writing. Much of those first five or six years were mired in my constantly changing what I was doing because I failed to see in student work (their writing) the growth or positive outcomes that justified my labor as a teacher and their labor as learners.

I was very fortunate, I think, to begin my career with that focus on teaching writing because that sort of instruction is necessarily very labor intensive. Responding to essays takes a great deal of time, and writing as well as rewriting essays is also time intensive for students.

Since I hate wasting time, and wasting other people’s time, I have worked for almost forty years to be extremely efficient—lowering labor while increasing positive outcomes.

Because of those patterns to my work as a teacher, when I was asked to switch to remote teaching of my two courses, I made the shift very easily by being very low-tech and simply revising my daily schedules slightly. Much of my instruction leans toward individualized teaching any way, and my courses are heavily text and writing intensive (and much of the reading students need to do is already provided online).

There remain some problems for my courses, but the only real loss we will experience is that my class sessions are mostly discussion based around how students respond in class. I don’t have lectures prepared, and I am not deeply committed to a fixed set of content that we must cover.

My classes are interactive and extemporaneous, demanding a great deal from me but these are topics I have studied and taught for decades.

Here, I want to emphasize that it is my attitude about teaching, learning, and content that makes this shift less stressful for me; I take a Thoreau attitude about my classes in that it is my obligation not to do everything, but to do something well.

Students who complete four years of college will have 16-17 years of formal education. This accumulated series of experiences likely will afford them a wealth of learning that cannot be narrowed to any single course, teacher, or class session.

While many teachers are making the transition from traditional classes to on-line/remote emergency teaching and learning, I suggest that we all reconsider our teaching labor and the teaching/learning efficiency of that labor.

For example, on a Facebook group about this shift, a teacher noted that they had a stack of essays they had hand-graded and needed to return, but would not see students again.

A key part of this problem, to me, is the teacher framed the need to justify grades with the responses on the essays.

I am a non-grader who does not put grades on any assignments but must record a grade for my classes (per university requirements). My stance has long been that my teaching labor must have some direct learning outcomes; therefore, when I spend time responding to student work, I expect students to do something with those responses—typically revise the assignment.

I, therefore, highly discourage marking student work to justify grades since that teaching labor is not serving the student or learning but bracing for an assumed concern not expressed by the students.

As someone noted, teachers can and should always offer to provide justifications for grades to students who request that (I do this through face-to-face conferences, but would adapt to email or video-conferencing under these unique circumstances).

Here, I would stress that a dialogue around grade justification is a more effective and efficient form of teaching labor than meticulously marking assignments, many if not most of which will never be seriously read or considered by students. (This traditional form of teacher labor is mere martyrdom.)

While this one example represents well navigating the relationship between teaching labor and learning outcomes, I think the entire—and urgent—reframing of classes mid-course is a great time to carry some of these revisions into our classes when (and if) we return to some sort of normal face-to-face teaching and learning.

I am a much better teacher than during my first five or six years, but I remain diligent about who my teaching labor serves and about respecting the learning labor of my students.

Setting aside traditional structures such as lectures and grading have allowed me to focus on my teaching, my students, and their learning in ways that better serve all of us. I think students respect that I am critically aware of what we are doing and why in terms of their learning and not simply serving some bureaucratic or traditional expectation.

As we teachers rush to serve our students as best as we can in the coming weeks and months, I hope we will include several sticky notes on the changes we make in desperate times that can become our new—and better—normal on the other side of COVID-19 in 2020.