• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Wisdom on a Dog Walk

Pieces of flair, K-12 edition.

January 13, 2020

This weekend was weirdly warm in New Jersey; it was well into the 60s on both days. Among other things, that made for ideal dog-walking weather. I corralled The Girl into joining me on a long one.

As with long drives, dog walks make great occasions for listening. Kids will talk just to break the silence, and since you’re far enough from home that just going quiet doesn’t feel like an option, they go off-script. If you manage to control your responses, you can learn a lot. (As Yogi Berra put it, you can observe a lot just by watching.)

Eventually, and uncharacteristically, the conversation turned to her teachers. She doesn’t usually talk much about them, other than the ones for Latin and band, but there was time to kill.

The good news is that most of the reports were positive. She likes the one with the dry sense of humor, and the one who likes to make “Dad jokes” to make the students groan. (Apparently, sometimes he’ll dab when a student makes a good point. The entire class cringes. That’s exactly what he’s going for.) She reports that all of them are smart, and I noticed that the only time there’s a sub for more than a day or two is for a maternity leave. Stability helps.

But there’s one with whom she’s having tension, and I can’t blame her. I would, too. You may know the type: the one who tells you how to organize your notebook, then checks to see if you did it. The one who requires that you use several different colors of highlighter. The one who interrupts an in-class simulation at a crucial moment to complain that someone took notes back to front, instead of the “correct” way. (That actually happened.)

I don’t know if that kind of micromanagement is taught in ed schools, or if the profession simply attracts that personality type. But I have to agree with TG. If my method of note taking, or note organizing, or highlighting, or whatever, is working for me, then what’s the issue?

I taught high school students in college classes, but never in high schools, so I don’t know the rules under which they’re working. That said, it would never have occurred to me to check on their notes, or to mandate a rainbow of highlighters.

TG accepts that her relative indifference to color-coding her notes leaves her out of the running as one of that teacher’s favorites. She does well in the class anyway -- she’s smart and hardworking, and doesn’t go out of her way to antagonize -- but still grates at the perceived distrust.

I get it. I’d feel the same way.

High school has lessons both official and unofficial. Sometimes I suspect that part of the unofficial lesson is that adults can be disappointing. That’s a fact of life, and it’s probably best to learn it when the stakes are relatively low. I don’t deny that TG has seen some of that at home, too, as most kids do, but this is in a work context.

Without going too far into it, for fear of shutting her down, I let her know that I’ve been there, too. Control freaks are a part of the world, and learning to deal with them is a life skill. Arguing with them tends not to help -- they react to the threat of loss of control by clamping down harder, thereby making matters worse -- but appeasement doesn’t work, either. They take it as a sign that they aren’t nitpicking hard enough. With Hard Order Muppets, containment is often the best that can be done. The trick is not to let them get in your head. If your method of note taking works, your method works, whether the Hard Order Muppet gets it or not.

I’ve never understood that style of teaching, especially for older students. It’s not the first one like that that she’s had, and it probably won’t be the last. Offering “how-to” support for students who are lost is great, but penalizing the ones who know what they’re doing because they use highlighters differently than you do just seems petty. TG is savvy enough to know that.

The walk ended, as walks do. TG will be back in school on Monday, succeeding in her own style. I couldn’t be prouder.


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