Yesterday, in an offhand conversation, I was asked whether someone should pursue teaching in Lithuania. My immediate response was “not if they want to make a living.” Here, the powers that be are trying to “fix” the education system with all sorts of radical ideas, including combining all of the many and varied universities into three umbrella institutions among others. And yes, there are issues which should be addressed. One of the areas is pay for the faculty. It hasn’t gone up since 2001. In fact, over all, the baristas at the local coffee houses make more money than your average university lecturer.
Then I got an email from a former student. Now, I know, some teachers don’t want to be social media “friends” with their students but that’s never really been an issue for me. I don’t post anything I wouldn’t say in person and even that is fairly tame by today’s standards. So my students can follow along with whatever is happening with me, things which I think are fit for public consumption at least. Because part of what I believe my job entails is getting students ready for life outside the hallowed halls of academia. At the end of the day, our job is to give them a set of tools they can carry with them, not just teach them how to do the one thing a specific class requires of them to pass.
To this end, I often throw out little “life lessons” which I’ve acquired over my tenure on the planet, just basic, common sense stuff which seems to me to be important to learn (and if you have learned it, to be reminded of it from time to time).
Then I got this email. See, it’s that time of year when we’re all finished with school for the summer, when the big group who have been working for four years to achieve something finally do. Famous people always write wonderful missives to present to these graduating classes at this time year. Hell, I’ve written one myself.
This email, which reads in part (edited for relevance):
What I loved the most is that you were not only giving us information for the exams, but also speaking about life and the right ways how not to fuck it up. All in all, I want to thank you for being not only one of the most memorable professors I have ever met, but also, for being the only person, who offered to be the one to be called in the middle of the night if we needed to be bailed out of jail, even though you didn’t even know us while stating this. Anyway, I myself think, and also believe that most of the other guys who had your course would agree, that you are not only a professional in teaching, but also an amazing person who inspires others simply to be better and to behave better with others in our lives somehow.
Which got me thinking about what I do and why I do it. That line about bailing them out of jail is something I say in my opening lecture, about the rules and regulations of the class. It’s in reference to the fact that I post my actual phone number on the course description (we don’t have office phones) and I tell them they contact me if they have a question or need something “but only between the hours of 10-10… unless it’s 3am and you need to be bailed out of jail.”
Thing is, I mean it. If they needed me, and had no one else to call, I would get out of bed and go to help them. Even if the line is said as a joke, there’s a certain amount of sincerity there, and I guess that comes through. While my father and I may disagree on a lot of things, especially politics, there are also numerous lessons he’s taught me, which I hold on to and pass on as well I can. And one is when someone is in trouble, you help them first and ask questions later.
Which then leads to the question of what it is we’re doing as teachers. I know people who have teachers who will say, in no uncertain words, that the student is shit, shouldn’t be studying and is generally worthless. That accomplishes nothing. I know a student who, until this semester, absolutely loved studying. But this semester, having a teacher who treated students like crap, left my friend feeling like getting through the program was a chore and questioning the decision to even pursue the degree itself. And while we absolutely shouldn’t coddle students (I see a fair bit of that, as well) we should be encouraging and… dare I say it: educating. If they get an answer wrong, it’s not our job to belittle them, but to make them understand how to get to the right answer – or at least be able to think through the problem itself. It’s not hard at all, and doesn’t cost you anything, to say “good effort, you can do better next time.”
See, ultimately, the reason for this little essay is that in the last few weeks, I’ve been lamenting my career choice. As I grade final exams, I see results from students who couldn’t give a damn about the class or about learning anything at all – they just want to get their paper (and half of them don’t even care about that, but their parents do) and move on. They do the barest minimum to pass, and when that fails they show up in my office or inbox, eyes streaming, with stories of woe and why the should be allowed to make up all the assignments they didn’t have time for during the semester. And with all this I would shake my head and say “That’s it, I’m done with teaching. I don’t want to do this anymore.”
Another lesson I learned from my father was having the courage to fail. That means if you try something, really give it your all, and it still doesn’t work, maybe you should move on to something else. And I really gave this my all. I like teaching. But when you realize half the students don’t care, it becomes disheartening.
Then you get an email. And you understand you do it for the ones who do care, who do show up, who write you emails to say thank you. Emails that end “By the way, if you ever need to be bailed out of jail, don’t hesitate to call me ”
Maybe I’m doing something right after all.