Sunday, August 14, 2011

Open letter to the convenors of my course

Last week I was in a lecture in which the students were embarrassingly rude to the guest speakers, which prompted our tutor to give us (a subset of the rude audience) a lecture about common courtesy. I've been thinking a lot about this - about what I can take from it as a potential teacher, and about what the convenors of the BTeach course can learn from it.

I was neither the worst offender nor completely innocent in the lecture. I certainly shared my colleague's boredom. This was the second or third time we'd seen this content, and it wasn't too riveting the first time around - especially given we can't actually access most of the website we were (re-)learning about. I exchanged a few comments with the person sitting next to me, and mostly played Angry Birds (badly) until the last 5 minutes of the lecture when we got to hear something new and relevant.

Nevertheless, these people were guest speakers, and this was a room full of adults behaving like 12 year olds. No wonder we got told off. But our tutor didn't ask why. When I see such incongruous behaviour, my first question is "why?". I'm also reasonably confident I know some of the answer. In this BTeach course, we are routinely treated like children. Rolls are marked in lectures, a great deal of busy work is set and lecturers feel the need to mention such startling revelations as "When you are a teacher, you need to turn up to work on time." No? Really? The truly unfortunate thing about this lecture was that the convenor of this course is one of the few who don't treat us like children, and I felt that as a group we'd let her down.

So what does this tell me as a teacher? That if I want students to behave in a mature manner, I need to treat them as mature people. Further, that I can't do this on my own. If there is a critical mass of other people treating teenagers like primary school kids, I will really struggle to turn the tide alone. It also tells me that if I'm teaching something that's likely to have overlap with other subjects, I need to get myself over to those other subjects and find out what they're teaching, because dear lord doing the same material over and over will try the patience of the most dedicated learner. It tells me that I need to advocate for a school wide view of the curriculum and how it's taught. It tells me that I probably won't ever achieve any of this, because I'll probably never be involved in a school to that extent.

As for the convenors of this course - I know there are a lot of dedicated people putting courses together within this BTeach. I've been privileged to learn from some inspiring people. However, the overall tone of the course feels more like it is aimed at high school students than at people planning to teach them. Lectures are not recorded. Worse, attendance is compulsory. We are not free to engage with the material in a way that suits us. The assessment load is enormous, and only about 50% feels valuable from a learning perspective. And the repetition. Seriously, we have now covered classroom management in no less than four separate subjects (have I mentioned this is a 1 year course?). We've covered learning technologies in 4 or 5. We've covered issues of inclusivity and diversity in 3. It's really hard to maintain a mature, engaged approach to learning when it all feels so infantilising and pointless.

This program consists of 12 subjects as well as 2 blocks of prac teaching. The whole 12 are focussed on teaching. Small wonder that there's massive overlap. This semester I think a whole lot of people have hit their threshold of too much work and not enough learning. Some of the content is fascinating, but there's just not enough time to engage with it, because we're busy jumping through hoops and reading about Choice theory for the third time. Resentment is an inevitable consequence.

But to end on a positive note, I also want to acknowledge the people who have set sensible workloads, who engage with us as adults, who model good teaching and have truly provided me with inspiration and concrete ideas to take to the classroom. These are people I will genuinely miss next year, and I hope their influence eventually makes this course what it can be.


  1. Hi Ariane,
    Great post. The management of the course has been very hard to interpret. Look forward to seeing you in lectures (if not online or twitter). Cheers, Yvette (Posh)

  2. Good points, hope to see you at both the 8am prac briefing as well as the 7-9pm tutorial tomorrow.
    Oh yes - I am missing the 1 hour of scheduled activities today:)

  3. Last semester one student rocked up to a workshop thirty minutes late carrying a coffee then throughout the class they would interrupt the lecturer by talking. I would have sent them packing as they walked in with the coffee.

    The positive reinforcement by some lecturers tends to set the bar for repeated poor behaviour.

    It is not just one lecturer who perpetuates this poor brhaviour and it is not just a handful of students; I would say that it is at least half the class in a given workshop who consistently conduct their own conversations while the lecturer is talking.

    The irony is that with all the repetitious references to behaviour management, it is seldom modelled.

    I witnessed one of the most inspiring and informative male lecturers become so rocked by the behaviour in our workshop he became ineffective - and he allowed it to happen for the entire semester.

    I guarantee that if a lecturer threatened to fail a student for a given subject because of their behaviour it would change in an instant.

    BTW the attendance of lectures has never been compulsory for any subject, and workshops have always been 80% attendance to pass.
    They may expect you to attend lectures, but they have never enforced it as they do in workshops.

    Is it not better that those students who do not want to be there, just dont attend?

    I would personally like to watch a vodcast of the lecture at my own leisure and learning pace.

    May I ask if the students were reprimanded for their behaviour in front of the guest speaker?

    Would this have been an Indigenous lecture?

    I always miss all the good shit by not attending haha, but on the upside I miss all the crap too.

    (unedited reply) :)

  4. @Neil: I decided against knitting through yesterday's lecture too. And the 8am prac briefing was nothing short of farcical. I have to visit my school this morning, so that was never going to happen.

    @G: Some of our lectures are presented as compulsory - I don't know whether it's enforced, as I've gone to the ones that marked rolls. However, I've spent a good deal of my time in those playing games on my iPhone. I can't even begin to imagine what makes anyone think compulsory lectures make any sense. It's hardly any kind of assessment, I certainly attended plenty without listening to a word.

    Rude behaviour in non-compulsory lectures (as was the case in the one I'm referring to here) is even more obnoxious. I feel no guilt at all in knitting in lectures I am forced to attend. And no, this wasn't an Indigenous lecture, and I haven't discussed what it was, because it doesn't really matter. It was neither the convenor's nor the guest speakers' fault that we'd all seen this material before. The situation is caused by the overall course management, not this individual subject.

    And no, no-one said anything about the behaviour at the time, I think they quite reasonably expected that people would control themselves - especially given that this lecture wasn't compulsory. If you don't want to be there - leave!