Outside of volunteering to teach reading and the GED in homeless shelters, my most fulfilling teaching experience was SAT-preparation at a private center in an affluent Chicago suburb. My students were all children of professional parents who had worked hard enough to be able to afford expensive, private tutoring for their children. And, these parents and students were all so intent on attending academically-rigorous colleges and universities I was often unable to keep up with the lines of inquiry they demanded of me. I did not have to prepare lesson plans or bring grading home. I made a lot of money, and the material I taught was so challenging and on par with what I myself was interested in that I did not feel exhausted when I left the job. I was, instead, uplifted.
The heartbreak of this experience is all my students were either immigrants or of foreign parentage: primarily Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Indian and European. They deliberately sought a native American English speaker and elite university standout to whip them into shape enough to walk into a top American institution, compete at the top of that and succeed in America. Meanwhile, in keeping with my personal commitment to share my blessings, for nearly free I tutored students who would qualify for Pell grants on Chicago’s primarily Black-American South Side; they cancelled our sessions often for odd reasons, complained I was too “hard” and almost never completed their work.
Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal reported the number of “college” students who need a remedial (or high school repeat) course funded by the U.S. government had risen a staggering 160% in the last 12 years. This means that students are now arriving on campuses in America so poorly prepared and scarcely educated they must redo a version of pre-school in order to prepare for professions. That explained it. My scarce college teaching experiences remain traumas when I found myself at the helms of classes where the others in the room would not have been capable of doing the work I did in a middle school honors English course—and these were both remedial and “advanced” students. They often reminded me if I did not pass them, they would lose some of their financial aid.
Furthermore, the billion-dollar Pell grant industry is the primary subsidy for these remedial courses. Advanced studies and expensive research are necessary to announce to the world what I perceived as a teenager: many who did not like school or pay attention in high school were eager to register college credits to get a Pell grant—which they used for books, bills and fun. These could have been students I drove my little car around deteriorated neighborhoods to instruct on ACT and SAT tests. My lectures to them on not allowing the smallest little thing (hair appointments, family drama, etc…) to stop their studies went unheard. The American culture they grow up in tells them “Education can wait.”
Even worse, students can take out federal loans intended for college students in order to pay for these remedial preparation courses which do not give them college credit—and many do so, some just to register for enough classes to qualify for a Pell grant before they are really in college. It is senseless. It is not high school. It is not college. It is a like a pothole on a road to nowhere: a pit of future payments for a version of extra tutoring unsought back in high school when it should have been had. I was surprised to know these numbers. However, I am unsure why this confirmation of what I know to be true took me so by surprise.
The first time I taught a college-level course was in my birthplace of Kankakee, Illinois, at Kankakee Community College (KCC). The campus lie at fringes of cornfield prairie land as well as the edge of the county fairgrounds. A tenured professor there is a friend I had met through the debut of my first novel, and she needed to take an extended leave out-of-state; I jumped at the chance to teach her humanities courses, drive back home a few days a week and earn a little bit of extra money while being able to stop by my parents’ for dinner or an overnight stay. I substituted several classes for her as an adjunct faculty.
Other than the snowstorms I drove through it was a splendid, trauma-free experience. I shopped at the local Walmart, shared an office with a cool professor and made friends with the cafeteria ladies. Now, it lingers as the only place I would ever venture to teach college outside of special invitation to teach fiction or writing short-term. My small-town America education and upbringing really spoiled me as to the true realities.
In the two private colleges I taught for in the Chicago area, the priority of administration was to get my attendance sheet or record immediately in order to keep student class size numbers up enough to please funding sources. The students’ priority was to do just enough not to fail the course, get the credit and get their loan or grant refunds to the bank. Some even wanted a degree. Now granted, I taught English and writing and humanities (non-essential irritants for most people). However I heard from other professors and instructors who taught specialty courses in the students’ majors that they, too, had to pull teeth to get students to come or work. My upbeat and happy attitude did not help. Everyone else was dour, so I stood out. Prior to these experiences, I had imagined every college campus like KCC or “A Different World.”
I went to the University of Chicago twice and spent a quarter on the campus of Northwestern University in graduate studies during one of those U of C stints. My New School experience included a group of both mid-twentysomething full-time graduate students, as well as older working professionals. We convened at night until 10:30 on campus to allow for full-time work in the day. We did not miss classes. Why would we? Our professors were rock star authors and we all wanted to be writers, desperately. We wanted the work.
What put me on the proper paths was my very early quarantine into folds of academically-serious children then young adults. School was our job. We were there to work, obey, please our teachers, make our families proud and “be somebody.” We knew we could easily get a job—the point of the majority of higher education programs in the country today. We were breaking our necks studying for so much more than that, though. We wanted to be learned, schooled, knowledgeable, smart and inventive in our societies.
If someone had told me I was doing all that work and accumulating all that education just so I would be dropped into the types of classrooms concerned teachers pulled me out of, I would have dropped out of school. I am so happy for The Wall Street Journal and others for finally sounding the alarm here in America: we should be ashamed of ourselves for the attitude to education we cultivate, we are intellectually behind almost all of the modern and advanced countries like ours, and we have been blaming the teachers in high schools and colleges for far too long for this government’s allowance (and, indeed, funding) of these poor standards teachers can not help or cure as problems that began long before they meet the students. In my academic worlds, such low performance and disrespect was so intolerable I did not even know how to respond to it. It was the norm. With performance unlinked to financial aid and Pell grants having long lost their status as the saving grace for the poorest of people, we have lost control.
I know some who have found happy mediums: they work and teach in more affluent, suburban environments. Many teach in community colleges and smaller colleges on the fringes of academic heavyweights such as the University of Illinois, Cornell, Stanford, Harvard and M.I.T. Their classrooms are generally filled with the children of professors, the employees of these institutions and other similar populations who have grown up around or acclimated to academic success as a desirable norm. Of course, there is worry and conversation about being elitist monsters. But the peace of mind and increased occasions to actually talk about their true interests usually wipes out that concern.
By handing out these Pell grants like candy (the only qualification measure is financial need, not academic subject area or prior academic performance), the government aided in the creation of generations who view higher education as the wrong type of financial payoff—one they are owed for before they do the work, get the degrees and hunt a job.
The challenge of dismantling this system and sad cycle is how to do so without injuring the college prospects of people who really do need this type of funding, really do want to learn and really do excel in the types of environments where poor performance is okay.
The challenge of overhauling this system is how to differentiate between people who really have had their minds and educations impacted by extenuating, unfortunate circumstances and those who have goofed off, wasted time and disrespected education.
The challenge of wiping out this national embarrassment (our tax dollars and global credit lines have paid for millions of citizens’ pre-school several times over) is how to make higher education affordable so all can take part—not just an upper class few.
The challenge of wanting to teach again in new societally calamitous schools is setting aside mental images of the Little Rock Nine and 4 Little Girls and others doing the right thing, begging to be educated and useful, but told “No” or “We will kill you for it…”
I am a woman with a lot of education, but I don’t have one answer here…
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