The Thinker

Back to School

After more than a year off from teaching it’s back to the classroom tomorrow morning. It appears that (ever so slowly) information technology (IT) is becoming hip again. The collapse of the dot com world followed by the outsourcing of IT jobs made students leery about investing time and money in IT. So lots of proposed classes ended up canceled and I took up other interests, like blogging. But the economy must be slowly improving. And apparently not every IT job can be outsourced. So community college students are trickling back into web technology courses again.

The course I am teaching is a basic HTML course, with a dash of cascading style sheets and Javascript thrown in. I’ve taught it at least three times before. At this point it has become a low maintenance course. The slides are tweaked from semester to semester to keep them current. But the lesson plans, projects and even the exams are pretty static. This is good because I already have a lot on my plate already. I agreed to teach the class with some misgivings.

Those misgivings include my parents, now 30 miles away instead of 600 miles away, and my 84-year-old mother who spent two late nights at the emergency room over the last week alone. I opted for the Saturday class since it fits my schedule and allowed me to travel as business needs dictate. I just didn’t hear from my boss at the college that I had actually been assigned the course I requested. By that time we had tickets to see shows in Canada. So I missed my first class. Fortunately the college found a substitute. I offered to let someone else teach the course, but my boss declined. I guess she knows I teach a quality course.

One of the saddest things about teaching at a community college is to see how many students are student wannabees. As an introductory course my course is often their first real college experience. And while you can get a fine education at a community college at a bargain rate it is still incumbent on the student to actually perform at the college level. So many of them arrive with the high school mentality and figure they can skate by in a community college too.

The community college offers guidance, counseling and numerous other programs to help students. Yet it appears that many of my students don’t know about them or won’t take the time to attend. In a typical semester about half the class drops out or mysteriously fade away.

Of course I warn my students orally and I put it in the syllabus: the average student needs 4-8 hours a week plus time for projects. They need to read the material in advance, not hear me restate it. If they find themselves lost or confused by the material then they need to call me or see me after class. Yet so many of my students find that when the rubber meets the road they have other priorities. Often it is a job: the boss wants them to work late. Often they are working two or more jobs. Sometimes a child gets sick and they have no backup, or figure it doesn’t matter if they skip a class or two or four.

Still I feel something of a failure when this happens. It will probably happen again this semester. But this time I am determined to try harder to stem the attrition rate. I truly want every student to succeed. I have to get better at coaching my students. They need more encouragement from me. I certainly have tried to be encouraging in the past but I need to try harder.

So today I was at the Northern Virginia Community College campus in Sterling acting as much like a student as a professor. I waited in line at the campus police office for my parking sticker just like everyone else. It was good to be there on a Friday because teaching a Saturday class gives you a false perspective. I get lots of working adults when I teach on Saturdays. On a Friday the campus is full of young adults. There were times when I felt youthful being among them. In my own 47-year-old way I still feel youthful. Seeing so many fair faced young ladies in shorts or short skirts, many with ample bosoms on display almost made me feel like I could start flirting with them. I had to forcefully remind myself I was not 18 anymore. As an instructor and a married man I was allowed to look, but not to flirt and certainly not to touch. And anyhow, ick! If I were 18 I’d want nothing to do with some 47 year old!

I find that despite the heartaches of teaching at a community college it is still rewarding. When I see a student succeed I feel like I have accomplished something important. I particularly like the students who pick up my enthusiasm about information technology. The best students will see me as not someone they need to accommodate in order to get a good grade, but as a man with a lot of valuable knowledge and perspective that can lead them into an exciting career.

I learned recently that I am less than eight years from retirement. That still boggles my mind but as a civil servant I am allowed to retire at age 55. But I don’t think I will stop working. Teaching is often hard work but I seem to have the bug. It would make an excellent next career. Perhaps after I retire I will be looking for full time openings at NVCC. I know I’ll never get rich on their salaries but my pension will pay the bills. It may be that my current job is yet another springboard for my last and most important career: teaching.


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