What kind of teacher should I be?

For most of this week I’ll be tied up with professional development training at my job. To tide over my high school classes during the interim (and to help prevent a nervous breakdown on the part of the substitute teacher), I came up with an assignment that should take awhile for my students to complete. Hell, it took me a couple of hours just to type up the description for them, which printed out at nine single-spaced pages. So I know it should take them awhile to read it, let alone respond to it.

And that is, in fact, the nature of the assignment. They’re supposed to read a loooong letter from me, and then respond to it in writing. For this week’s Teeming Brain post, I thought I could do no better than to share this letter. Maybe it’ll provide a window into what life is like in my classroom.

Or maybe it’ll just prove how ill-suited I am for this job.

Either way, I hope you find something interesting in it.

* * * * *

TO: All students in my high school classes

FROM: Matt Cardin

DATE: May 7, 2007

RE: You and me

Dear everybody,

As I told you last week, I’m going to be involved in some required professional development training this Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, so I thought I’d leave you something to do while I’m away. I mentioned this assignment to you last week as well.

To get the grading part out of the way right up front: the assignment is worth 100 points. These are test points. You will get all of them simply for doing what I ask you to do. That will necessarily involving your reading this letter from me to you. I’m talking about every last word of it. If you stop reading it before you’ve finished it and start asking someone else, “What are we supposed to be doing?” then you’re just proving a point that I make later in the letter. Please don’t do that.

As many of you, or most of you, or maybe all of you, already know, I’ve been fairly frustrated with some of my classes this year. Maybe you’re a student in one of those classes, or maybe you’re not. In any case, you know that I’ve been variously annoyed and frustrated and angered and depressed at the way much of this school year has gone. A couple of my classes have been more difficult and unruly in their behavior than anything I’ve previously encountered as a teacher. You’ve seen how I’ve handled it. I’ve complained a bit, withdrawn a bit, shut down a bit, shrugged my shoulders, overlooked various things I probably shouldn’t have, and in general have just rolled with the punches. We’ve still had fun together. That’s simply the way I do things. Ask anybody who’s had me as a teacher in the past, and they’ll confirm it.

I’m happy that we’ve all reached a point where we’re now getting along personally here at the imminent end of the school year. I honestly like every one of you on a personal level. I hope you like me in return. Somehow I achieved the status of being a “cool” teacher back when I first started working here in 2001, and I sense that this reputation has survived the current school term. I guess this is good. I’m certainly not complaining.

But I do fear that I haven’t exactly done many of you a service by being so compliant and unassertive these past many months. I don’t think you’ve gained as much as you otherwise might have from your time in my class if I had forced the issue by becoming more authoritarian, clamping down on immature and rude behavior, and generally running things with greater strictness. Maybe I’m too hung up on the idea that getting along with you personally is more important than accomplishing the academic work that could be accomplished under conditions of stricter discipline. The thing is, I know there’s a wide variety of opinions and inclinations among you when it comes to English class. Some of you like to read and write. Others of you don’t. Some of you are naturally good at it and drawn to it. Others of you aren’t. Personally, I think the current American high school system is unrealistic and unfortunate in the way it forces teens to take classes they don’t want in subjects they don’t like. So I have a hard time convincing myself to force the issue when some of you express a complete disinterest in my class.

On the other hand, maybe I should force the issue. After all, it’s hardly the case that you should never be expected or required to do things you don’t want to do. It’s just part of life to do some things simply because you have to do them. In the issue at hand, maybe you really would benefit from a more authoritarian approach on my part. I just don’t know.

The controversy itself leads into a wider question that I’ve been preoccupied with lately, namely, the question of who and what I should be as a teacher. And my mentioning this begins to lead into the part of this letter where you’ll find out what task I’m wanting you to complete in order to earn your 100 points. But first, you’ll have to read some more.

As we near the end of this school year, I feel very much the way a college professor named Mark Edmundson described in an essay he wrote entitled “On the uses of a liberal education: as lite entertainment for bored college students.” It was published in 1997 in a hugely influential magazine that you’ve probably never heard of called Harper’s, and it raised a firestorm of controversy across America because of what Edmundson said about the students and the administrators on America’s college campuses. In a nutshell, he said the students are eaten up with an attitude called “consumerism,” that is, the idea that the whole point of life is for people to buy and use up things they enjoy. He said America’s college students have absorbed this attitude from the social environment around them, which has been defined from their earliest childhood by television, video games, advertising, shopping, and so on. And he said this attitude has infected their view of education, so that they graduate from high school thinking that a college education is just something else to buy, and since they are paying for it, it’s the job of the colleges to give them what they want. As for the administrators at these colleges, Edmundson said they have given in far too quickly to this insane demand that the modern generation of students is making, mostly unconsciously, on America’s higher education system, and that as a result our colleges and universities are in awful shape, since they’re awarding more and more degrees to people who are not truly educated, people whose college classes have been watered down and reshaped to make them less difficult and more entertaining.

The part that I identify with the most is the part where Edmundson describes his feelings about the way his students view him. In most colleges it’s standard for students to fill out an anonymous evaluation form at the end of every class they take. This form represents their chance to rate the jobs their teachers have done. In his article Edmundson describes his feelings upon reading the comments his students left at the end of a semester course he taught about the writings of Sigmund Freud. As usual, the comments were extremely positive. His students loved him because of his humor, his tolerance, his references to movies and other pop culture items, and more. In all of these things, he reminds me of me. As you know, I joke all the time in class with you. We horse around a lot. I like many of the same movies and a lot of the same music that you like, and I talk about these with you. I’m casual and tolerant about pretty much everything. And for the most part I feel like we get along well because of it.

But Edmundson, instead of feeling good about his students’ nice words, said he was conflicted over their collective response to his class. He said he felt like the only thing they had gotten from him was the jokes, the casualness, and the easy attitude he brought to the subject he taught, when in fact what he had wanted was for them to be deeply affected by what he was teaching. So he hated the image of himself that emerged from his students’ comments on those evaluation forms.

I’ll let him speak for himself, since he does it better than I can. I ask that you read the whole quoted passage below very carefully. FYI, for those of you who don’t know it, the indented paragraphs contain Edmundson’s words. This type of indentation is a standard format to indicate extended quotations from somebody else’s writing. When it goes away and the left margin returns to normal, that’ll mean Edmundson’s words are over and it’s me talking to you again.

Here’s what Edmundson said:

I have to admit that I do not much like the image of myself that emerges from these forms, the image of knowledgeable, humorous detachment and bland tolerance. I do not like the forms themselves, with their number ratings, reminiscent of the sheets circulated after the TV pilot has just played to its sample audience in Burbank. Most of all I dislike the attitude of calm consumer expertise that pervades the responses. I’m disturbed by the serene belief that my function—and, more important, Freud’s, or Shakespeare’s, or Blake’s—is to divert, entertain, and interest. Observes one respondent, not at all unrepresentative: “Edmundson has done a fantastic job of presenting this difficult, important & controversial material in an enjoyable and approachable way.”

Thanks but no thanks. I don’t teach to amuse, to divert, or even, for that matter, to be merely interesting. When someone says she “enjoyed” the course—and that word crops up again and again in my evaluations—somewhere at the edge of my immediate complacency I feel encroaching self-dislike. That is not at all what I had in mind. The off-the-wall questions and the sidebar jokes are meant as lead-ins to stronger stuff—in the case of the Freud course, to a complexly tragic view of life. But the affability and the one-liners often seem to be all that land with the students; their journals and evaluations leave me little doubt.

I want some of them to say that they’ve been changed by the course. I want them to measure themselves against what they’ve read. Why are my students describing Freud’s dangerous and disturbing ideas as being interesting and enjoyable to contemplate? And why am I coming across as an urbane, mildly ironic, endlessly affable guide to this intellectual territory, operating without intensity, generous, funny, and loose?

Because that’s what works. On evaluation day, I reap the rewards of my partial compliance with the culture of my students and, too, with the culture of the university as it now operates.

Okay, this is me, Cardin, speaking to you again. If you read and understood what Edmundson was saying, then you’ll understand a significant part of how I feel about my performance as a teacher this year. And every year.

So what is all this leading up to? What’s the 100-point thing you’re supposed to do for me?

In answer, I give you—(drum roll)—something else to read! It’s on the next page. You just may recognize the author. The piece is an editorial that was published in the Springfield newspaper, the News-Leader, a little over two months ago. It talks about me and it talks about you. And I don’t just mean that metaphorically; I mean it really talks about me and you. Turn the page and you’ll understand. And after that, I’ll tell you what I want you to do to earn your 100 points.

[Note to Teeming Brain readers: At this point in my letter, I provided a photocopy of the editorial I wrote back in February for inclusion in The News-Leader, the large daily paper based in Springfield, Missouri. The title the editor gave it is “Media obsession with trivial hurts our nation.” I’ve mentioned it previously here at my blog.]

Okay, so now you know a little bit about what I think of my job, and my students, and the entertainment culture that virtually saturates the very air we breathe. I hope you understood as you read the editorial that I wasn’t attacking any of my students here at this school, but was instead attacking the culture you’re growing up in. I view you mainly as a symptom of that culture, not a cause. And I myself suffer from the very same disease that I diagnose in you.

Again, what does this all mean? What are you supposed to do to earn your 100 points? It’s simply this: You’re supposed to write me a letter in which you respond to that editorial, and also to everything I’ve said in this letter to you, and tell me what you think and how you feel about it all. Tell me whether you agree or disagree with the point I made in my editorial. Tell me whether you agree or disagree that you and your fellow teens today are being zombified by television, movies, video games, popular music, and an all-pervasive attitude of consumerism. Tell me whether you agree or disagree with Mark Edmundson about the attitude and outlook that he thinks young people have today. Tell me whether you think I’ve done you a disservice by running your class so casually this year. Have I short-changed you? If you say no, then it must mean you think you’ve learned some valuable things in here. Tell me what they are. Or if you say yes, then please explain to me what you wanted to learn in here that you didn’t.

While you’re at it, if you want to talk about anything else that comes to mind as you think about these matters and write your letter, please write it down, because I’ll be more than happy to read it. I’ve gotten really personal with you in these pages by sharing some of my private thoughts. I ask you to do the same with me, in your letter, to whatever degree you feel comfortable doing so. Nobody will read what you write except for me. And I’ll give you a hundred points for your efforts. I want you to start your letter with either “Dear Mr. Cardin” or “Dear MC” (I’d really prefer the second one) and end it by signing your name. I’d prefer the whole thing to be typewritten. That’s why the substitute teacher is taking you to the computer lab. But you can handwrite it if you really want to, as long as your writing is legible.

Be advised that a mere few sentences, or even a mere few paragraphs, simply won’t do. I’m talking about a substantial letter that clearly shows evidence of your careful thought and honest emotion. Write it as well as you can, in terms of both what it says and how eloquently it says it. If you wonder just how long it should be or how in-depth it should go, take my own letter here as an example.

In the interest of fostering further personal-ness between us, I thought I’d finish this letter by reprinting something from my blog, The Teeming Brain. I started the blog last year in June, and it’s become quite popular in the months since then. Many of you know that I’m a published writer. There’s a crowd of people who are interested in me and my creative works. This can be seen in the fact that the blog is currently averaging about 3100 hits per month. My first post last year was a kind of “About Me” entry that was intended to give readers an indication of who I am. It’s reprinted for you below. Maybe reading it will give you a better idea of what’s really important to me, and why I struggle so much with this teaching gig.

And hey, that gives me another idea for the letter you’re supposed to write me: At the end of it, after your signature, please include a section titled “About [your name.]” Mine, for instance, would be titled “About Matt Cardin.” I want you to write up a miniature statement of who you are. You can say whatever you want in it, as long as it’s honest. Consider the “About me” section that’s found on MySpace pages as a good example of what I’m looking for. I’d really love for you to use this part of your letter to tell me about your view of life in general, as in, what type of things you think are important and valuable, what you think about the purpose or “meaning” of life, how you’ve come to believe these things, and so on. You’ll see that I’ve said a little about this kind of thing in my own self-description below. But whether or not you talk about such matters in your own “About Me” description is entirely up to you.

So, to repeat, you need to write two things:

1) A letter to me in which you respond to my letter and editorial

2) An “About Me” section at the end of the letter, after your signature

The assignment is worth 100 points. It needs to be full of depth and detail. It’s not extra credit. You’ll get a zero if you don’t do it. It’s all-or-nothing—100 points or 0 points. You’ll get all of them as long as you do what I’m telling you to do. The assignment will be due at the end of the hour on Wednesday, May 9th, so plan and pace yourself accordingly.

Okay, that’s it. Get to work.

[Signed]Matt Cardin

[I finished by pasting in the text of my inaugural post to this blog from last June 13, 2006 titled “Welcome to The Teeming Brain.”]

About Matt Cardin


Posted on May 7, 2007, in Education and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Just wanted to say that, as an outsider, I find these insights of the American educational system fascinating.

    I really hope you trigger some serious thinking on the part of your students. Thinking is a habit; the more you do it, the more prone you are to carry on doing it. So much cultural pressure is put on people these days NOT to think – merely to react (and, indeed, to consume, as you rightly highlight here) that it’s good to see someone tryign to buck that trend and remind people that human beings have a brain, and it’s a terrible waste not to use it.

  2. Grumpy Teacher

    If you have time after school is out, I would like to ask you some questions about this training.

  3. Mr. Cardin,
    I am the mother of one of your students, and your name has been mentioned often with great admiration and respect. Rest assured, you are making a difference.
    At my son’s request, I read his final homework assignment, which then led me to read some of your additional posts. I agree wholeheartedly, the drivel that passes for news and entertainment is pathetic.
    Now for the downside. My personal opinion is that you came off sounding condescending, self-pitying and self-congratulatory, all in the same message. The kids will pick up on this; as a matter of fact my child stated that it made him mildly angry at first, although he could not exactly state a reason why. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, sometimes anger is a great motivator to original thinking. I truly appreciate your idealism and your wish to pass this on to your students, but the fact is, they are high school kids, many times the classes they are required to take are just hoops they have to jump through to receive their reward, and you will not be able to make them all care.
    Take comfort in the ones you do reach, but by all means do not ‘dumb down’ your classes to be their friends! I had a terrible mental block towards math. When it came time to take my required algebra, I got the toughest teacher in school. Assignments every night! Her expectations insisted I could learn and master the material. Did she care if she was my friend? No. She cared that I learned algebra. Did she end up being a friend? I can’t say she did, but to this day she has my respect and warm feelings; and I can still muddle my way through some algebraic equations.
    High school teaching has to be a tough job, and you have my total respect for choosing to do it. Hartville is fortunate to have you. Please do not be offended by my opinions. The fact that you do care makes you a great teacher. Don’t let the indifference of the majority spoil you to the receptiveness of a few.

  4. Brian — Glad you find this stuff interesting. I, too, hope my letter will stimulate some thought. I’m fully expecting that it will, since the young people I’m around all day can be truly thoughtful and reflective (an observation that doesn’t conflict fundamentally with my wider criticisms of cultural and educational institutions and conditions).

    Grumpy — Certainly. Let’s talk. When you refer to the time “after school is out,” do you mean after the end of the school year? In any case, let’s do talk sooner or later.

    Nancy — Thanks so much for taking the time to stop by here and leave a comment. It’s nice to know I’ve received good word of mouth.

    I am sorry, though, if I offended or angered either you or your son with my letter. “Condescending, self-pitying and self-congratulatory” certainly sounds like an unholy trinity of qualities. It also describes exactly how I feared my letter might be taken. I understand how it might seem as if I framed myself in the text as a poor, besieged champion of the humanities who finds himself confronted by unwashed masses of intractable teenagers — that is, as condescending, self-pitying and self-congratulatory. That’s not at all what I intended. My intention was in fact positive. I was deliberately trying to stimulate thought and discussion by being completely honest, by sidestepping the teacher-student barrier and saying exactly what was on my mind, in the hope that this would prove motivating to young people who as a generation tend to view artificial teacher-student distinctions as arbitrary and somewhat absurd. But having said that, I hasten to add that I don’t discount the possibility that the negative overall impression you describe is indeed what I inadvertently evoked.

    I devoted considerable time and attention to writing the letter, and then deliberated long and hard before deciding to go ahead and hand it out. Then I reread it twice afterward, focusing each time on different aspects and trying to decide whether my decision had been wise. I’m withholding judgment until I’ve read the responses from my students and gauged their reactions by asking them verbally about the matter.

    One thing: I didn’t mean to imply that I’ve dumbed down my classes. It’s more an issue of some undisciplined behavior in my classroom that I let pass instead of clamping down hard on it. This did of course result in an inability in some classes, on some days, for us to go as deeply into some subject matter as we might otherwise have done. But it’s not the same as my intentionally dumbing anything down, and I apologize if I was unclear about that in what I wrote.

    I’ll be very interested to reenter my classroom and find out whether anybody else reacted the way your son did. I’m also hoping we’ll all be able to have a productive discussion about the issues raised in our respective letters.

    Thanks again for writing. Trust me when I say I’m taking your words to heart.

  5. Mr. Cardin,
    No need to apologize at all, I was not angered by your assignment, I found it all very interesting. Hopefully it will initiate the same need for your students to respond as it did me. As for my son saying it made him angry, I don’t think anger is exactly the sentiment he was trying to express, it was more a reaction to a startling and unexpected challenge. I appreciate that you are trying to get the kids to ‘think outside the box’ rather than just regurgitate on command some homogenized facts in order to receive a passing grade for a final exam.

  6. No, I don’t have ADHD although you’ll probably think that as this post has nothing to do with your student assignment or blog – well, maybe tangentially and is highly un-focused.

    I’ve been married 24 years so I can say this. You must be adorable if students and parents show up and post at “The Teaming Brain.”

    And I wish I had a creative teacher that made me think more in high school. I had a couple, but not many. I like to think my brother is one of those teachers for high students. My mother was a second grade school teacher before she completed her master’s in SLBP and Teaching English as a Foreign Language. She would take a child over an adult any day of the week.

  7. Mr. Cardin,

    I would be interested in hearing about the final results of this letter you sent out to your students. I’m not asking that you go into specific detail (whew, THAT would be exhaustive) but merely give us some ideas as to where the majority of opinion swayed, if anywhere. Also, I would ask that you confirm the e-mail address that you have given me to send you the book I have been creating (I lost the slip of paper I had placed it on; it has likely gone through the washer and dryer by now).

    Thank you and enjoy the summer!

  8. Nancy — Thanks for the response and clarification. These three weeks after I assigned it, I’m pleased to report that the “letter to me” assignment indeed generated a lot of original thought and effort. The overall result was to elicit the most interesting batch of student writing that I’ve yet encountered in my brief teaching career.

    Diane — I’m not sure how adorable I am, but thank you for the sentiment. 🙂

    As for your mother and her preference for children over adults, I’m the odd case of somebody who came to the teaching profession with no strong liking for the company of young ones In fact, if anything I was turned slightly in the opposite direction. My decision to seek employment as a teacher was based on alternative factors. After a couple of years at it, though, I began to realize that I had developed a surprising and unexpected measure of affection for the teens who populate my days.

    Aaron — Reading the results of my letter assignment was quite a bracing experience. Uncomfortable, humbling, reassuring, painful, amusing — these and all sorts of additional adjectives come to mind.

    I received right around 65 responses and read all of them closely, most of them more than once. Only two or three students chose not to do the assignment. I don’t have the letters on hand right now, so the following comes from memory.

    The majority of the letters, maybe 50 or 55 of them, expressed a partly to completely positive attitude about me and my class. Maybe 15 of these were wholly positive, telling me how great I am and how wonderful my classes are, and urging me to change nothing. The remaining 35 to 40, while expressing positive opinions overall, urged me to be more assertive in the face of rude behavior and other disciplinary problems. Two people told me — in the course of offering very positive overall views of their experiences in my classroom — that I’m a pushover and need to clamp down firmly when necessary.

    Among these mostly positive letters, maybe 30 or 35 told me how much I inspire them, and/or how much they like me, and/or how much they’ve learned from me, and/or how much I’ve expanded their minds/outlooks/horizons.

    Around eight or 10 people apologized either for their own behavior this year in class or for that of other people. One person, apparently having heard a handful of other students from my classes saying they were really going to blast me with horribly negatively comments in their letters, urged me to “ignore those assholes” and expressed the opinion that these people were entirely responsible for their own bad experiences in my classroom.

    Of the 10 or 15 people who offered partly or mostly negative comments, most were mild in their criticisms. For example, one person said she felt like I talked “over her head” all year, and said it seemed like anytime she asked a question about an assignment I shut her down by acting as if she should already know the answer. But she assured me that she liked me as a person and didn’t want to hurt my feelings. Another person said I acted for most of the year as if it were a waste of my time to try and teach the students in my classes. But he also said he “enjoyed hanging out” with me all year.

    Three or four of the negative letters were very strongly so. One person said she was “pretty sure your class was one of the worst I’ve ever had,” and said if I’m so concerned that young people these days know progressively less and less about more and more (as I said in my newspaper editorial), then I should just teach these things to them instead of complaining about it. She said she thought my class was a waste of her time.

    Another said she felt I had done her a personal disservice by not cracking down on some disruptive classroom behavior that got in the way of serious learning.

    Another said she absolutely hated my class with a passion and thought my occasional claim that I’m not really a teacher but am just posing as one “is stupid. That’s gay, you should stop saying that.”

    Another told me I came off as pompous, self-pitying, and condescending in my letter, and that while he liked me, he really didn’t like the attitude he picked up from what I wrote.

    Beyond all this, there was a handful of letters, maybe three or four, in which the students explained to me that they didn’t understand the assignment and were just turning in a letter because they hoped to get the points for it.

    As for the part where I asked people to respond to my views on the brainwashing/zombifying/robotizing of most young people nowadays by the mass media, the majority of students who chose to respond — and probably a full 50 or 55 did so — agreed with me for the most part and explained why in varying degrees of detail. A few said they considered themselves to be among the zombies, while a few others said the exact opposite. Interestingly, two students explicitly disagreed with me and took pains to argue that the very things I deplore, such as the increasing societal prevalence and influence of video games, mass/pop music, etc., are actually wonderful.

    As I said, reading these letters made for a bracing experience. It took me several days to recover from it, or perhaps just to come to grips with it.

    As for my email address, here it is, although you’ll need to change it to the appropriate form since I’ve disguised it to hide it from evil bots that want to send me junk mail: em-gee-cardin-at-hughes-dot-net.

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