What I Did Right and Wrong in My First Experience with a Helicopter Parent

I did okay in my first experience with a helicopter parent, but wish I had done better

Many years ago, I taught my first-ever university course. It resulted in my first contact with what is now widely termed a helicopter parent (yes, we had a few even back then, though nothing like today). I am writing now to reflect publicly on what I think I did right and wrong in dealing with this parent and hope other teachers will respond by sharing their own handling strategies.

I had been given good advice in my teacher prep training, and I put it into practice the very first day of the course by making the following announcement:

I recognize that students sometimes experience crises that make it hard for them to do well in their schoolwork. If you are facing a problem in your life that is impairing your performance in this class, I promise you I will do everything I can to accommodate your needs if you tell me at the time. On the other hand, once the course is over and I have turned in the grades to the administration, I will not makes changes based on you telling me then about some problem you had during the course that you think affected your performance. To put it more simply: If you are responsible, I will be responsive, but not otherwise.

After that first lecture, a young woman asked to talk to me privately, so we met in my office. With her lip trembling, she told me the horrible news that her parents had recently been murdered. She said “Sometimes I burst into tears and can’t stop sobbing, so if I have to run out of class suddenly when you are lecturing, that’s why”. I knew of the details of the murders from the media, but that couldn’t give me or anyone else more than a surface understanding of what she was going through. Of course I told her to do what she needed to do to take care of herself, expressed my sympathy for her loss and offered to arrange mental health counselling for her if she wanted it. I also said she could come to me anytime she needed extra help with the classwork or just wanted to talk.

Remarkably given the enormous loss she has sustained, she was an excellent, composed student. She never needed extra help and achieved a nearly perfect grade (on the merits – tests were blind-coded so I wasn’t being particularly easy on her out of sympathy).

Other than a young man who was in a car accident a month later and missed some classes as a result, no other students came to me with any challenges that I had to accommodate as an instructor. However, after the course was over and the grades had been turned in, I found a note in my mailbox from a student in the course. He wrote that he remembered that I had specifically asked people not to come to me after the course with problems that had affected them during the term. Nonetheless, he wanted me to know that his dad had been very ill during the course. Although “he didn’t want to guilt trip me” (yeah, right), he asked me to raise his grade because he would have done better if not for the family health crisis.

I was irritated at his irresponsibility and also his continuing passivity (i.e., leaving a manipulative note in my mailbox instead of talking to me). I telephoned him at the number in his note and repeated what I had told him and everyone else the first day of the course. I said that I was sorry about his dad, but that I was not going to raise his grade post hoc. End of discussion, I naively thought.

A few days later I answered my home phone on the weekend. Continue reading “What I Did Right and Wrong in My First Experience with a Helicopter Parent”

Quality Assurance Program for Teaching

What would a quality assurance program for teaching at the higher-education level look like? We don’t have one now, nor even much to build on, but perhaps there are analogous programs we could adapt or copy. I think there are, and I will suggest an approach below. Continue reading “Quality Assurance Program for Teaching”

“Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed”

As the semester begins and teaching resumes, the pleasantly self-directed pace of the summer rapidly accelerates to the breakneck speed of classwork. In the change from one to the other, it’s worthwhile to recall Bertrand Russell’s ten rules for the Liberal Outlook. While they are intended for everyone, no matter their profession, they are particularly apposite for those reflecting on how to command a classroom. I’m especially fond of the third rule.

  1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
  2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
  3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
  4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
  5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
  6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
  7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
  8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
  9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
  10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

(h/t Maria Popova)

Happy teaching, and happy learning, RBC.

More advice for Janet Napolitano

Mark’s gracious rejoinder to my letter to Janet Napolitano as she takes the reins of the University of California reminds me of an old joke:

A rabbi of Chelm is assailed by two neighbors demanding he settle a dispute.  The first presents  a devastating indictment of the second’s housekeeping, garden management, child-rearing, and more.  He listens and says, impressed, “You’re right!” The second woman denies all these assertions, and then accuses the first of setting a terrible moral example for the neighborhood, entertaining strange men at all hours, dressing inappropriately, and the like.

The rabbi says, “that’s terrible, you’re absolutely right!”

His daughter says, “but Daddy, they can’t both be right!”

After reflection, he says, “you’re right, too!”

Yes, we can.  Mark is right that the president of ten campuses, each with a chancellor, isn’t in the same position as the president of a one-campus institution. Much of what I said to Napolitano is, as Mark suggests, more directly relevant to the chancellors, though they are always academics and not new to the business. It’s also true that if Napolitano doesn’t take on Mark’s charge to get the funding tap reopened, she’s not doing her job. But doing that is not, in my view, just a matter of reciting the facts about UC’s importance to the state and society, and glad-handing important pols. The citizens of California have withdrawn their traditional support for us, admittedly through very noisy and flawed political machinery, because they do not see us as creating net value for money. Without rebuilding that support, neither smooth lobbying craft skills nor “radical political action”, whatever Mark means by that, will work. Continue reading “More advice for Janet Napolitano”

The heroism of a teacher: At once unfathomable and the most sensible thing in the world

Why would a teacher lay down her life for her students? At one level, such bravery is unfathomable. At another, it’s the most sensible thing in the world.

Liviu Librescu was a prominent engineering researcher who also happened to be a Holocaust survivor. He was shot to death in the Virginia Tech massacre. At age 76, Librescu was able to hold off the gunman long enough at his classroom door for all but one of his students to escape. It was a horrible death, but also such a heroic and meaningful one. Such heroism was sadly repeated by Victoria Soto and by several others in Connecticut protecting little children three days ago.

At one level, I cannot fathom the sacrificial heroism these men and women displayed. I hope I would display one tiny speck of such bravery, were I myself to confront such a horrifying moment. At another level, though–as a fellow teacher–I have some inkling of what may have motivated people to risk their lives. Scripture tells us: There is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for a friend. Many of us don’t actually think about it all too often, but we do love our students.

Of course they aren’t our children. But there are analogies. Most of us–particularly those of us who don’t make the annual buzz for Nobel prizes—will make our greatest impact through our students. However we personally age, every year we see our students’ young beautiful faces enter our classrooms, a new crop of people who will inherit our skills and carry on where we leave off. Whether we like it or not–whether we earn it or not—many will look to us for leadership, knowledge, for our personal example. We will live on, professionally, through them. In different ways, this is true at every level from your local pre-school to the most prestigious Harvard doctoral degree. It’s a huge responsibility, and a huge privilege, too.

I was thinking about this today at my daughter’s annual holiday choral concert at Homewood-Flossmoor high school. It has a great tradition. At the end of the concert, performers from previous years are invited to join in the Hallelujah chorus. Dozens of alumni ascend the stage. It’s an amazing sight and a wonderful performance.

I captured the moment and the transcendent music from my seat in the audience with my fancy new camera. My lack of a tripod or any semblance of videographic skill produced pretty much what you would expect: crummy, vertigo-inducing production values. But you get the point.

The choral conductor has been doing this for awhile now. Everyone on that stage, from the freshman choir to the paunchy middle-aged guy, has been touched in some way by this work. Watching that performance, scanning the sea of singing faces, one catches a glimpse of a good life’s work teaching young people the value of music, while providing many occasions of joy for a larger community.

As Handel’s music reaches its peak, the idea that you might be willing to put your life on the line for your students didn’t seem so strange. It seemed, in fact, for that moment, the most logical thing in the world.

On classroom authority, with special reference to instruction in policy analysis

What authority may I legitimately claim, standing at the head of a classroom with a piece of chalk in my hand, when I teach a course on the methods of policy analysis? One possible answer: the authority to say what counts as a valid argument within that specific discipline of thought.

Mike O’Hare’s essay on the different versions of “authority” created by legitimately held power on the one hand and by knowledge on the other quotes Mark Moore’s undying question to teachers, “By what right do you hold the chalk?” Perhaps that question should be addressed explicitly in the classroom more often than it is, with the instructor making it clear what authority is claimed, and on what basis.

When I teach methods of policy analysis, I start out by quoting the great definition of the term “course” from the Harvard catalogue: “A course is a group of people studying a subject with someone who has studied it before.”  Note, I say, not with “someone who is the world’s ultimate authority on that subject,” or “someone with infallible knowledge of the subject”, but merely “someone who has studied it before.” I then explain that I studied it so much my teachers finally gave me a doctorate to make me stop.  Then comes the hard part.

Policy analysis is about determining which course of action better serves the public interest in some set of circumstances. But of course that is also the subject-matter of actual political contestation, and policy analysts cannot legitimately claim that their opinions – inevitably conditioned by their prejudices, their interests, and the limitations of their knowledge and experience as well as by their analytic skill – ought to become the rule of action in a democracy. That would be true even if – per impossibile – the policy-analytic tradition embraced all of the possibly valid forms of argument about what should be done. It follows that I would be going beyond my rights if I required students to agree, or pretend to agree, with my actual opinions about inequality or pollution control or even crime control.

But – I say to the class – policy analysis is a discipline of thought, the product of a tradition. As the person in the room who has studied that discipline before, I claim the authority to say what, within that tradition, constitutes or does not constitute a valid argument.  Two policy analysts discussing crime may not come to the same conclusion about the optimal level of incarceration, but they will discuss the question in the same way – using, for example, terms such as “optimal” – and that way will be different from the way in which two criminologists or two cultural critics would discuss it. My job, standing there with a piece of chalk in my hand, is to show the students what it would mean to contribute to that policy-analytic conversation.




One laptop per child, progress report

Nicholas Negroponte nears his objective of the $100 educational laptop. What does it mean?

Nicholas Negroponte is about to meet the goal he set in 2005 in Tunis of an under-$100 laptop computer designed to give the world’s children access to the information society.

His One Laptop per Child Foundation revealed prototypes of its third generation design, the XO-3, in January. It hopes to find manufacturers who will allow the design to be available in quantity by the end of the year at around the $100 bar. (There’s a delay; the symbolic price point is perhaps more sacred than the deadline.)

OLPC xo-3 prototype

More photos here.

Mission accomplished! Or is it? Continue reading “One laptop per child, progress report”

Politics and physics

When I was in the eighth grade I had Mr. Nadrowski for science, and one day he called Stephen Chilcote up to the front of the class and told him to push against the cinder-block wall until it fell over.  As Chiclet obediently pushed and the rest of us watched, Mr. Nadrowski kept up a descriptive patter: “So there he is, beads of sweat are popping out on his forehead, his muscles all straining; but you know what?  He’s not doing any work!”  His point was that from a physics standpoint no work occurs unless the object responds to the force; if the wall didn’t move, Stephen’s efforts didn’t count.

This seems to be the definition of “work” Republicans are using to complain that President Obama isn’t doing enough to fix the economy.  They build a cinder-block wall of legislative refusal and then criticize him for failing to push it over.

And when he does manage to move objects despite the cinder-block—by the Executive Order modifying immigration or the administrative maneuvers necessary to maintain contraception as a component of basic health-care—his opponents hyperventilate about Obama’s terrifying expansion of Presidential power.  From the people who created the Constitutionally bogus “signing statement,” that’s chutzpah enough to topple the canonical instance: the boy who, having murdered his parents, asks for leniency because he’s an orphan.

So let’s do some real work of our own.  If you’re interested in actually moving objects—Obama canvassers from Illinois to Iowa, and Iowa Democratic voters from their homes to the polls—please join my Wednesday evening phone bank, beginning this week (July 11) and continuing through the election.  Contact me off-line for details, but bear in mind that Iowa votes early, beginning on September 27: if we’re going to knock over the wall, we’ve got to do it over the summer.

Teacher appreciation week

My “Art and Despair” seminar came up on our last unit, on resignation and acceptance, last week with Brahms’ Requiem, and we got into a discussion of immortality as a comfort in the face of death.  I provoked them a little with Minsky’s question “Does the soul learn?” from The Society of Mind, and the vacuity of speculating on an eternity from which no-one has ever come back to report.  But whatever one wants to think about individual immortality in the conventional sense,  we agreed that we had been “meeting” and engaging with Brahms and lots of other dead artists all semester; something a lot like their souls were around and about, diffused through their disciples and audiences, and would be indefinitely. Even the guy who painted the bison on the walls at Lascaux is still with us, and not trivially.

Not just artists; teachers live forever through their students.  We get a lot of naches just doing the job, but I love hearing from former students after years (or decades) about what they are up to, and though it took me too long to realize I should be doing the same, I finally sent some thank you’s to former teachers and I’m glad I did.  So should you.  Do it now (your K-12 teachers are aging fast); at this time of year they will be happy to have an excuse to stop grading papers.  Whatever you’re doing, you couldn’t have done it without them. Let them know.