Count to ten.
Think before replying.
That old chestnut is actually fairly hard to apply in a classroom environment–where everyone’s eyes look expectantly at the teacher, where the teacher is supposed to be the font of information, where the energy is alive, where the teacher needs to carry the momentum with snappy decision-making. Particularly with today’s students, whose internal rhythms are accustomed to quick edits, it’s important to keep things moving.
Put simply, it’s a challenge to stop and count to ten when 30 Red-Bull-infused bodies are anxious to zip their backpacks and get out the door so they can check their phones and quell their jonesing for the next data hit.
While this thrumming feeling exists in the traditional classroom, it factors into online classrooms, too. To keep students from peeling off the sides of the pack and wandering off into the proverbial desert, the teacher needs to push ahead with an agenda of “Here’s what we need to do. Here’s how we’re going to achieve it. Any questions? Okay, then: let’s get on it!”
It might help to translate this feeling of “gitterdun already” into something more familiar. Consider this: have you ever visited a blog, taken a look at the length of the current post, and thought, “Too long.” When you see all those words asking you to slow down, take your time, put the brakes on your clicking around, you either skim or abandon. For most online readers, the feeling is “I’m here to say hi, maybe pop a quick note, and then I’m cruising to the next thing. Mostly, I was just hoping to see some pretty pictures of flowers and then tear the hell out of here.”
If you feel this way as a blog reader, imagine how an eighteen-year-old feels about his college class when he’s already running late for his shift at Target. The swirl of age, school, work, and a faulty transmission keeps him in a mental mode of Movin’ On.
As a teacher to students who are always Movin’ On, blipping in and out of their classes, their attention fractured by the demands of jobs, X-box, children, romance…
it behooves me to grab their energy and channel it. Thus, my general attitude as a teacher is:
1) the work is important, so do it well and right;
2) the work has a deadline, which you must meet;
3) as soon as one assignment is done, the next begins immediately;
4) let me know when you need to scream;
4) let’s join hands and gitterdun, my frantic chums. We can do this thing and come out the better for it.
Because the best way to get 150 or 175 students from Day One all the way through to Final Exam is constant motivation–pushing through to the next assignment (promise: reflection still happens!)–
and because grading and handling questions from that many students require that the teacher not take overlong in replying, I am Quick Reply McGraw when it comes to responding to their messages. Question? Excuse? Meandering tale of fear on an elevator? Photograph of a new bike? Clarification needed? Emotional breakdown?
I read it, view it, digest it–all in the space of a few seconds–and then I hit reply.
Of course, while many of my replies simply need to say “Look at the example on p. 214 in your textbook” or “You should have thought of that last week” or “Try closing your eyes and breathing deeply” or “Those tires look like they can plow right through the Spring mud” or “I’m sorry I wasn’t clear; I was trying to say that your introduction needs a better hook–perhaps a story from your own life” or “We have free personal counselors available on campus; would you like me to help you connect with one of them?”,
other times I do need to slow down
the first thing
The response to some questions shouldn’t be efficient. The response to some questions should be typed only after I
Count to ten.
Think before replying.
This is the spot where an example might be helpful, yes?
Last night, I got a very sweet email from an online student in an eight-week class (we do sixteen weeks’ work in eight weeks, so the deadlines hit at double pace, and there is very little wiggle room). As is the case with a surprising number of online students, she is pregnant. As is the case with a surprising number of online students, she has been intending to give birth during the semester and not miss a beat. By and large, these amazing new mothers manage to handle both chapped nipples and revising their thesis statements.
In case I haven’t typed it lately: ALL POWER TO HELLA AWESOME WOMEN WHO MANAGE TO STAY UPRIGHT IN SITUATIONS WHERE I CURLED UP INTO A LITTLE BALL!
This student began her message apologetically, saying she had been debating even contacting me, but ultimately, she decided I should know her C-section scheduled for next week had suddenly, due to pregnancy difficulties, been switched to today.
As in: she was emailing me a few hours before she would head to the hospital for major surgery that would forever after change her life. As in: as I type this, she’s probably coming out of the recovery room. As in: I’m very glad she let me know
so I can send a bouquet of 75 rattle-shaped balloons to her room at the hospital! The point of her email was this: she had started the rough draft of her research paper but hadn’t gotten very far yet. She had to go in for this early C-section on Wednesday. She knew the rough draft was due by noon on Thursday. She wanted to assure me that she was still certain she could get her paper done on Wednesday, after the surgery, and even if her draft truly was rough, rough, rough, she would get something posted by noon on Thursday.
After reading her message, I quickly hit reply and started typing.
As the first words flowed out of my fingertips, I stopped. Started typing again. Stopped. Made myself really stop. Count to ten.
What my Quick Reply McGraw hands had been typing was a joking, “Oh, honey, there’s no way you’re writing the rough draft of a research paper on the day you had a C-section. NO WAY. Not only are you going to be in pain and a fair bit overwhelmed by this unrelenting new world you’ve just entered, you’re going to have a bunch of visitors, and you’re going to be on a morphine drip, and you’re going to have to clasp a pillow over your stomach at the merest hint of a sneeze. Oh, and then there’s that little thing called Your New Baby, and I don’t know if you’re planning on breastfee…”
Just STOP, McGraw.
What we had here, in this student’s message, was not only a lovely, almost-plaintive moment of “I’m a little scared, but you can count on me” from this young woman, a moment of sharing, a moment when she harnessed her voice and announced that she had big things coming,
we also had a teachable moment for the teacher.
This message didn’t need a quick, all-knowing reply. This message deserved a more measured response, one that acknowledged her excellent intentions rather than rolling out an overbearing “Well, I’ve been there, sweetheart, and let me tell you…” tone.
Turns out, ten seconds of silence is just long enough to tame a blowhard.
I took my hands off the keyboard, thought about what kinds of words might serve her best. Simple. Positive. Affirming her plan. Leaving the door open for commiseration. Not trying to own or direct her experience. Tossing in a dash of the cheerleader to counter her nerves.
And then, only after actually thinking about her as a person on the precipice of Hugeness,
did I type.
“Wow. Not only am I sending all good thoughts your way, I’m stunned that you’re determined to turn in the paper by noon on Thursday. I mean it: WOW. I’ve had a C-section, and I was good for nothing for quite some time after (long, complicated story, though–and yours will be quick and easy, I’m sure).
Of course, to be deeply honest, I have to admit I can’t see her getting that rough draft written (what, she’s going to access the library databases and find peer-reviewed journal articles in between pushing the button on her morphine drip and attempting to put her feet onto the cold tile floor and stand up for the first time?).
However. I can tell you this. If she does post a draft by noon on Thursday,
no matter how crappy it is,
I will have nothing but respect for its every unfocused paragraph and uncited statistic. I will slow down, note the missing apostrophes, wish for a proper header,
and write careful feedback worthy of her effort.