Tag Archives: Higher Ed

Heading Home to Winthrop

This January, I’ll be headed back to my alma mater, Winthrop University to present at their annual Teaching & Learning Conference. My presentation is entitled “Creating a More Successful Maiden Voyage: Increasing First-Year Success for Under-resourced Students.”

Abstract:

The first-year of college is much like the maiden voyage of the Titanic. It’s exciting—new and different—a one-of-a-kind opportunity, full of promise. It’s also a little scary. And, sadly, for many students it can end in disaster. The odds of survival for first-time college students in many ways mirrors the experience of passengers on the Titanic:  62% of the first class passengers survived; 43% of 2nd class passengers made it; and only 25% of 3rd class passengers ever saw dry land again.[1] Much like the Titanic’s passengers, students from less advantaged backgrounds are at a greater risk of “sinking” in the sometimes rough waters they experience on their maiden voyage into post-secondary education. Today we see more and more underprepared and under-resourced students in our classrooms.  They lack not just the academic background to thrive but also the financial, personal, and support system resources that make all the difference in student success.  This session focuses on what we can do to help improve our under-resourced students’ odds of survival.

[1] http://www.icyousee.org/titanic.html

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Filed under Community College, Developmental Education, Higher Ed, My Life, Teaching & Learning

Teaching: It’s a Calling

Yesterday, I received an e-mail from a former student of mine—a beautiful caring, smart young woman who I taught as a freshman. She went on to transfer to a 4-year school, get her Bachelor’s Degree, and become a teacher. And she’s a great teacher. But like so many great teachers, she wonders if it’s worth it; and by it, I mean teaching—and the sacrifices one makes to continue fighting to do right, to make a difference, in spite of a system that actually discourages it.

At almost this exact time last year, I wrote a blog post called “Teaching: It’s More Than What I Do.” And I’m not sure if it’s the time of year or what, but I figure that sharing the exchange I had yesterday is a good reminder—not just to her but to me and to anyone else who teaches—of why we do what we do.

Her: How do you continue to want to be a teacher when so any things go wrong every day?

Me: I hold on to the very few things that go right. And try to remember them when things go wrong. It sounds like you’re having a rough day.

Her: I’m not sure. I decided two weeks ago that after this year I was not going to teach anymore. It wasn’t a day where something particularly wrong happened. I was just miserable and realized that is my normal. I’m just tired of being busy being miserable. It takes up my whole life, and I don’t know that it is worth it.

Me:

You are a teacher. Whether or not you do it in the context in which you currently work or not, you are a teacher. You always will be. Just today, after having read this message from you, I came across this line in a book (totally unrelated to work) I’m reading (Half Broke Horses by Jeanette Wells):

Teaching a calling

You have the calling, [name redacted]. It’s in you–it’s a part of who you are. I know this because it is a part of who I am too. And so whatever you ultimately decide to do to make a living–you will always be a teacher. You may, however, choose not to do it in the way you have been.

With that said, let me assure you of this: all the good teachers want to quit. All the good teachers get frustrated and tired and depressed and wonder whether or not it’s worth it. At LEAST once a year, I decide it’s my last year. Sometimes–it’s ten times a year that I make that declaration. And I really mean it. Because I also feel tired and miserable all of the time, and it is my normal. And then something happens–sometimes it’s the very smallest thing–and I realize I wouldn’t really be able to do anything else–not because I can’t or I’m not qualified or interested. I always end up being a teacher–even when I’m not a teacher. And then, I’m in for another year.

You asked me how I keep doing it. And I said I hold on to the few great moments and the hope & faith they give me that what I’m doing makes a difference–it counts. I have a giant bulletin board in my office with pictures and notes from students–a collection of ten years’ worth of students. I hold onto every little tiny glimmer and stick it to that board, so on the days when I really wonder if it’s worth it, I can look back on those words from actual students–and let them tell me whether or not it’s worth it. Usually, they convince me it is. Sometimes I have to look at it again. And again. And then again. And then I still want to quit.

This note from my giant bulletin board is actually from the student who e-mailed me yesterday--sent years ago.

This note from my giant bulletin board is actually from the student who e-mailed me yesterday–sent years ago.

But do you know why I want to quit? It almost never has to do with those students. It almost always has to do with all the other BS. The students? 9 times out of 10, even when the students are causing me grief–they’re not causing enough to make me want to walk out the door. And I don’t do what I do every day for anyone other than the students. And that makes it worthwhile for me. It’s worth it when their lives are changed–even in small ways–because of something I did, said, or created. It’s worth it if that ‘s only true of one out of every 500 students I see in a year. And so ultimately, I keep teaching because of them–for them–and because that’s who I am–a person who wants to make that difference–even when it’s small and even when it’s only one out of 500+ times.

And it’s who you are, too. You want to make that difference. And so you will keep teaching. Maybe it won’t be high school English. Maybe it won’t be public school. Because if you are truly miserable day-in and day-out and think you would be happy doing something else, somewhere else, then you owe it to yourself–and the world who needs you–to try something new. But you, [name redacted], will always be a teacher. And you will always change lives–and make the world a better place. You can’t not. You care too much. The downside of caring so much is that you also feel every failure as if it’s yours. You care so much that you give your all when maybe you should try to give a little less–but you couldn’t if you tried. You are also, like me, a perfectionist, and you don’t want to do anything less than the absolute best–which means you’ll always be busy, always doing more, always be forgetting to take time to relax and enjoy something other than your job, career, calling. But you should focus on doing those things. Because even if you move into another career–you will face the same problem. You will always give more. You will always give too much.

One of the best decisions I made was to make some rules to limit myself. I no longer answer student e-mails on weekends. I leave my laptop at work. I accept that not everything I need to do can be done in the 40-hour work week. And if it can’t all be done, then something will just not get done. I prioritize so that the thing that doesn’t get done isn’t going to be something that is actually detrimental to my students. Usually, it’s some administrative BS that I hate anyway.

Probably none of what I’ve written here is very useful other than this: I understand. It’s hard. And you have to do what’s best for you. But even if you leave the k-12 system, you will always be who you are: [name redacted], Teacher. And you will teach and mentor and change lives. One way or another. And however you choose to do it will be great.

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The Plight of the Adjuncts (Part 2): Maligned by the Media?

Hey, there! Before you go further, have you read my disclaimer? Just checking.

This is not what I had planned as Part 2 of my adjunct series, but this morning Anne Kress, President of Monroe Community College, tweeted about a recent NY Times Op-Ed piece:

anne kress tweet

Color me interested. So I looked up the piece she referenced. And she’s right: Ugh.

We do have a problem with adjunct faculty in colleges.  I think I already made that clear. But this is not the problem:

“The colleges expect little of these teachers. Not surprisingly, they often act accordingly. They spend significantly less time than full-time teachers preparing for class, advising students or giving written or oral feedback. And they are far less likely to participate in instructional activities — like tutoring, academic goal setting or developing community-based projects — that can benefit students.”

First of all, I don’t know which colleges the authors of this piece are referring to in that first line, but it’s not any college with which I am personally familiar. But in my ten years of experience in the community college system, I have found that adjuncts are expected to do a great deal.  I would go so far as to say that they are basically expected to everything their full-time counterparts do–and then some–with fewer resources, less time, and virtually no compensation.  With so many of our courses being taught by adjunct faculty, the responsibility for student success, persistence, retention, graduation rates (or whatever the popular metric du jour is), rests squarely on their overburdened, under- compensated shoulders.

Second, most of the adjuncts I know accept that responsibility willingly–not because they are compensated for anything beyond the time they spend in the classroom but because they actually care about our students and their learning.  To be perfectly blunt, the assertion that adjunct faculty spend less time “preparing for class, advising students or giving written or oral feedback” is a crock. I have to wonder, again, what adjuncts these writers have worked with, spoken to, or observed (oh, right, I don’t think they have; I think they just skimmed the new CCSSE report.).  I have only my own experience to draw on, but in that experience, I have found that adjunct faculty spend just as much time as–if not more time than–full-time faculty on these activities. We have adjunct faculty actively engaged in advising students every day.  We have adjunct faculty who collaborate to create service-learning projects for students.  We have adjunct faculty who are on campus from 8:00 AM to 10:00 PM–and that time isn’t all spent in class.  We have adjunct faculty who are tutoring students in the hallway because they have no office space.  We have adjunct faculty meeting students in the library in their free time to give them a little extra help. We have adjunct faculty developing and designing entire curriculums.  And we have adjunct faculty who attend every possible professional development opportunity offered them.

The NY Times Editorial Board ought to be ashamed of themselves. Yes, there’s a problem, and yes it needs to be fixed.  But instead of maligning adjunct faculty in a call for “more money for higher salaries and professional development,” let’s try pointing to to good, selfless work they do every day–let’s recognize their efforts, and let’s make a call to reward those efforts appropriately. Because this call to action is where they have it right: we have to do better by our adjunct faculty.  The way we treat them does not encourage excellence–but they give it to us in spite of that–which the NY Times piece ignores. So for our part we need to stop marginalizing them and start embracing, encouraging, respecting, and rewarding them for their efforts–efforts that do make all the difference to our students.

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Filed under Community College, Higher Ed, Teaching & Learning

The Plight of the Adjuncts: Office Space (Part 1)

Stop! Have you read my Disclaimer?

Nationwide, contingent faculty (aka adjuncts)  teach 58 percent of community college courses, according to a new report from the Center for Community College Student Engagement. Part-time faculty teach more than half (53 percent) of students at two-year institutions. 75% of developmental education students (those most likely to struggle academically) are taught by adjunct faculty. In one division of our college nearly 70% of classes are taught by adjunct faculty.  In some areas, adjunct faculty are actually serving as program coordinators–bearing nearly all the responsibility for running their respective programs–something for which they are not compensated any more than other adjunct faculty.

Although they teach the majority of our classes and the majority of our students depend on their instruction, adjunct faculty are often treated as second-class (if not third-class) citizens in the institutions of higher education in which they toil away every day.

In the way they now employ (rely on) adjunct instructors at low wages with no benefits in part-time, temporary positions with no job security, higher education institutions are much like Wal-Mart.  Noam Chomsky makes this comparison, explaining, “It’s a part of a corporate business model designed to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility.” In short, it’s just one more part of the “corporatization” of the community college (and, no doubt, even our 4-year sister institutions).

I’m not really “business-minded,” so you’ll have to forgive me here: I think that if the majority of our students are being taught by adjunct faculty–faculty who are, in some cases, teaching more classes and even teaching better than full-time faculty–we ought to be providing them with the respect, the compensation, and the support to help them help our students succeed. (As it turns out, deep down somewhere, I still have a little idealism that bubbles up from some unknown place.)

If only.

In reality, although we (collective–not a specific we) know that supporting our adjunct faculty would only increase student success, we continually ignore them in favor of other endeavors to increase student success, retention, persistence (or whatever the word of the day is).

This post is, I hope, one in a series that will become a part of the ongoing dialogue about the role (and the plight) of adjunct faculty in institutions of higher education.  As a Department Head, I rely heavily on adjunct faculty. I also have some of the best adjunct faculty ever. I have dedicated instructors who give their all even when we give them next-to-nothing. I do the best I can by them, but there is only so much I can do.

One thing I can do is lend my voice to their cause–help shed light on the world in which they live–the obstacles they face–the good, hard work they do every day and the impact it has on our students.

So this is part 1: Office Space.

One of the ways in which adjuncts are relegated to second or third-class citizenship is through office space–or, more accurately, the lack thereof.

In preparation for this post, I asked adjuncts via Twitter to send me photos of their “offices” to help illustrate my point.  One adjunct responded, “ I have a pic, but it’s not of an office, because I don’t have an office.” Instead he sent me this picture, which really captures the experience of a large number of adjunct faculty, who work “on the go:”

One adjunct’s “office” picture

This is an example of an adjunct “office” on my own campus. It’s a cart with wheels, filled with student work, files, and even supplies like a stapler, index cards, scissors, and writing utensils. The adjunct rolls it (up a giant hill, over steps) up to the building from his/her car and into the building…and across campus…and from classroom to classroom; then, back to the car and home:

 

wpid-IMG_20140408_091353_493.jpg

 

Even when adjuncts are afforded physical office space on campus, it’s seriously inadequate. They don’t have doors that lock, which means they cannot leave anything of consequence when they leave for the day. All books, tests, essays, gradebooks must travel with them. They squeeze into spaces the size of closets; they share that space with 5, 10, 20 of their colleagues. Meeting privately with students to discuss grades, provide one-on-one tutoring, or advising is a joke. They may get one computer to share. Yet, we stress to them how important using technology today is. They better just have their own personal devices to use to do it. They may get some filing cabinets to store things–as long as those things are not confidential–because nothing confidential can be left unlocked–and adjuncts don’t usually get keys–to doors or cabinets.

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And because these physical space limitations exists, many adjuncts work from their homes, their cars, or on the go:

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Recently, I read this article in which an adjunct faculty member explains how she is both employed by a university and simultaneously homeless.

My Twitter request for pictures yielded this picture:

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 9.58.55 PM

Tweeting back to this adjunct yielded this response: “I was sleeping on kind friends’ air mattresses/sofas/spare mattresses/beanbags the night before – good times.”

Glamorous, no? What you think when you think “professor?” Right. But this is the reality for the professors who teach well over half of our classes–well over half of our students.

So think about this: we know that engaging one-on-one with faculty is one of the keys to success. But for over half of our students, engaging one-on-one with faculty (adjuncts) can be next to impossible; after all, they’ve got nowhere to engage with them.

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Florida’s new law & student success

Florida’s new legislation lets students self-select in or out of developmental-level classes.  At Miami-Dade, 60% of students who placed into developmental-level courses elected to enroll in college-level classes.

This creates a predicament for instructors.  As one notes, “A lot of discussion among English faculty is how to keep standards high…Students ask me what a paragraph is now. What’s next? Maybe, what’s a sentence?” Writing paragraphs is not college-level work, but what happens if students aren’t required to take needed developmental coursework while we are simultaneously being pushed to increase completion rates?

It’s a little hard to see how standards could remain the same…

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Ch-ch-ch-changes…a helpful reminder

As higher education professionals, we change lives. That may sound arrogant or even impossible, but make no mistake—it’s our business.   Sometimes the changes are small, sometimes they’re big. Often, they’re unrecognized—by us, by administrators, by the State or the US Dept. of Education, or even by the students themselves.

Not long ago, I had a student in my Freshman Seminar class who had missed several meetings in a row.  I didn’t have much hope that she’d be returning, and I was actually surprised to see her when she finally did show up.  Our lesson on that day was on the connection between Self-Awareness and Self-Management.  After class, I pulled her aside to speak to her one-on-one about her absences. She said, “This. Today. This is what I needed to hear. I was really having second thoughts about college, about whether or not I could do it. I was having a lot of self-doubt. This is exactly what I needed. I’m glad I came back. I won’t be missing like that again.” She didn’t. It’s not like I planned that—I couldn’t have.  Sometimes we set the stage for success, and the students just aren’t yet ready.  And sometimes they are. Sometimes, the timing is just right.

Often, we don’t appreciate the impact we’re having on students’ lives. We don’t see immediate results from a lot of our endeavors.  We never hear back from that student who failed 3 classes 6 ½ years ago. We often don’t see the difference we make. But that doesn’t mean we don’t make a difference.

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Setting the Stage for Success

Today was the start of the third week of school. A student withdrew from my class last night. So there’s the first blemish on my student success record this year. Bleh.

I’ve talked before about student success and the College Completion Agenda <insert eye roll here>.  And one of the things I’ve said time and again is that learning–real learning–is not measured by completion or graduation. It may not truly be measurable at all. And yet, increasingly in Higher Ed completion and graduation are the means by which we are being judged. More graduates = more success. Right?

Wrong. Of course, there’s not much we can do about that.  When the government ties Financial Aid to numbers, we have to give them numbers.  And the numbers they want are completion, graduation, and now, more ever than before, employability.

A former student came to visit me today.  Six and a  half years after I first taught him. We talked and laughed–particularly over the part where he failed one of my classes.  Correction: 2 of my…no…3 of my classes. He failed 3 of my classes. And today he invited me to his graduation at the 4-year university down the street.  He’s been accepted to law school. And he wanted me to know that–despite failing multiple classes and, admittedly hating me for a time, he had come to appreciate what I’d tried to do for him when he was in my classes.  He hated me because I pushed him and made him work. And he didn’t want to do that then. Clearly, he was capable. But he wasn’t ready.

I tell my Freshman Seminar students that the most important thing they will have to learn to embrace in order to succeed in college and life is personal responsibility. It is until that happens–until they accept that they are in control of their learning, their education, their lives–that they will ever get anything out of the college experience.  That maturation in thinking is what college is all about.

And you can’t measure it. And it takes time.

That student who withdrew form my class last night? It might just not be her time. Maybe she’s not ready.  But that doesn’t mean that I failed. It doesn’t mean we failed as an institution. It just means she wasn’t ready. But like the student who came back to see me today, she may be ready a little further down the road.

There’s a lot we can do to help set the stage for students to succeed. But ultimately, they’re the actors in their own plays, and if they’re not ready to take the stage and give it their all, well…they’re just not yet ready. That’s all.

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Class of the Living Dead?

Last I blogged, I was trying to decide which horror film to play for my Reel Success class today in honor of Halloween.  So…after careful consideration, I decided to go with Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. None of them had seen it, and they got really excited about it. They also all stayed awake, and there was no texting (a few gasps and chuckles, though)–either because they were entertained enough by it or because I hopped them up on candy–or both. But luckily, they were not a class of the living dead this Halloween. So that’s a win.

Of course, I pointed out to them that the film is notable for having introduced the concept of the modern zombie, and I gave them some other relevant background. I also gave them some questions ahead of time to think about as they watched the film.  We’ll be discussing these questions next class:

  1. Consider this movie in historical context. What was going on in the world in this time period that might have influenced the film?
  2. This movie was made almost 10 years after the last film we watched (12 Angry Men). Do you notice any similarities? Differences?
  3. It was possible to create color films in 1968, but Romero chose to go with the grainy black & white 35mm instead. One reason was cost.  But why else do you think the director may have made this choice?
  4. Many people think the film serves as a metaphor. What do you think it might represent? Remember that, prior to this film, zombies did not exist as we know them today. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead zombies are the first. What might they symbolize?
  5. Consider the 8 choices of successful students. Do you see the characters embracing any of these choices? What about the opposite—the choices of struggling students? Who in the film exhibits which characteristics? Be able to give examples.
  6. What Creator choices do characters make in the movie? Explain. What Victim choices do they make? Explain.
  7. What life lesson(s) might you take away from this movie?

Hopefully, in addition to being entertaining, the movie will spark some critical thinking and analysis and some good discussion related to student success.

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Why I Want to Cry for the Millenials

Don’t get me wrong–sometimes I want to wring their necks.

We talk a lot about millenials in my profession because they’re a big chunk of our constituency. Now, I’m aware and sensitive to the fact that not everyone born between 1982 and 2004 (SN: What’s the generation after 2004 called?) embodies ALL of the characteristics ascribed to the millenial generation. We are, after all, all unique individuals. And, of course, there’s some wiggle room on the start and end years. As a Gen-Xer, I share some characteristics of the millenial generation (i.e. obsessed with social media). And my husband is technically a millenial by birth year, but he probably resembles those kids less than I do (of course, he may or may not also believe he was meant to born 10 years earlier). You need only spend some time in our classrooms, though, to realize that many of them do share some of the traits associated with their generation by the experts. And many of them are not complimentary…and are the kinds of things that make me want to wring their necks. However, sometimes I just want to cry for them. Here’s 5 reasons why:

1. They are so stressed out! And I say this as a person who suffers from an anxiety disorder. Even when we think they’re exhibiting a “devil-may-care” attitude about their studies, a lot of these kids are straight freaking out on the inside. Because of the nature of the courses I teach and my particular teaching style, students often open up to me about more personal things–like their anxiety. This is an example of what I heard or read from students this week:

  • What if I choose the wrong career? What if I’m not good enough?
  • I’m pretty sure I’m going to fail this class just because I can’t get organized! I’m trying not to let anyone down. But I’m letting everyone down!
  • I’m not going to early advising because I won’t be back in the Spring. I already failed at college. And life. [note: it’s only MIDTERM of the first semester]

Wow. Breathe, kids, breathe. It’s college. You’re not supposed to have it all figured out, yet. You’re supposed to have time to mess up a little. It’s how you learn! This is the period in which you find yourself, figure out who you are as an adult. I can’t imagine what this stress is doing to them or how it will affect them long-term. But I do not envy them this level of constant anxiety, this constant fear of failure.

2. The American Dream is (maybe) dead. I’m not talking about the in-debt-up-to-my-eyeballs with a fancy car and McMansion dream (because some of them still seem to be “achieving that,” temporary though it may be). I’m talking about the real American Dream: to be able to move up in social class, to work hard and earn money and own a home and save for retirement. I’m talking about striving and succeeding at achieving a life better than that of your parents. I don’t think that these kids will achieve upward social mobility through hard work. I think they will work hard and scrape by. They will be no better off than their parents. They, in fact, may be worse off than their parents (with whom so many of them are back to living). Maybe there’s still hope. I don’t know. But I do know that they don’t feel that hope today…not in the way we did. Maybe that’s why they’re so stressed–they keep being told to work hard, that if they do, it’ll pay off. And all around them, they see evidence to the contrary. Maybe that makes them feel like they aren’t good enough. I don’t know, but I do know it’s sad.

3. They do not know a world in which they’re not constantly “plugged in.” They’re constantly connected. And again, I say this as a person with a social media management system on her phone, Android tablet, and iPad (auto schedule is the best thing ever). But think about this: they live in a world in which work is never just 8 hours a day. It’s 24 hours a day. 7 days a week. And it always has been. It always will be. It’s expected of them at this point. That makes me want to cry because it stresses me out for them.

4. They have never lived in a world in which a war was not on TV–in real-time. Seriously. Think back. And then think about our 24/7 news cycle. It’s just sad. And I have to wonder how that desensitizes them to violence.

5. Speaking of which, school shootings (and other mass murders by automatic weaponry)! Have always been a thing. Remember when school was a safe place? Where getting mowed down by an AR-15 after math class was not something that would EVER cross your mind? Yeah, my students don’t. And that? Makes me want to cry.

They get a lot of flak. And they seriously drive me bananas sometimes (and by “drive me bananas,” I mean “make me want to shake them until common sense settles in”). But I also feel for them in a lot of ways. I try to imagine what it would be like to have grown up like they did. To be in college now. To be job-hunting for the first time now. It’s easy to judge them for their sense of entitlement, for thinking they’re special & the rules don’t apply to them, for having been so sheltered they now seem incapable of functioning in the real world.

We want them to be like us. We want them to do it our way. But doing it our way isn’t going to get them anywhere. They’re going to have to find a way to do it their way.

 

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Teaching: It’s More Than What You Do

Once upon a time, many years ago, I was at a gathering of educators and was involved in a group discussion with several veteran instructors. We were discussing all manner of education-y things when one senior instructor said to us, “you need to stop letting this be SO important to you. This is your job. It’s a job. It’s not who you are.”

I disagreed then. And I disagree now. Because, I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, teaching is not just a job. It is, in fact, who I am. Or at least a very big part of who I am.

I’ve often thought about doing other things for a living. I’ve thought of leaving public service for the private sector. I’ve thought of making more money. I’ve thought about going to work for 40 hours a week, no more, no less. I’ve thought of giving up the late-night grading sessions, the constant e-mail checking, the daily insults to my intelligence and dignity.

But I can’t. And I don’t really want to. Because even though there are days when I hate my job, I love it. And it is me. I can’t do anything else. My students try my patience and shred my last nerve…but they also challenge me. They make me want to slam my head against the wall, but they also inspire me to try harder and be better. They make me try harder and be better (because if I slack off even a bit, they will eat me for lunch).

I spend most of my time trying to figure out how to get them to figure out whatever it is I’m teaching that week. Sometimes I come up with a new idea the day or hour or five minutes before class. And when it works, the payoff is amazing.

And knowing that, understanding it, and being willing to work towards that (as opposed to a nice Christmas bonus) is not just what I do for a paycheck. It is who I am.

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