Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date:Tue 8/19/2003 4:17 AM
Random Thought: I Want To Talk About Some Colleagues

They say that the first six weeks of the first semester of the first year is generally a make it or break it time. It is the most critical period for both students and an institution. It's the window of found or lost opportunity when the students decide to choose you or loose you. You want to retain students? Care. Don't just say it, live it. Live it not in some bunch of quickie meetings, but be there every day in every place. Yet, we're so careless about our supposed caring. Our welcome can be so unwelcoming.

Most of the first year students are in a state of rapid transformation. They're in a constant state of continuous adaptation. They're being fired at from all directions. They're nervous, unsure, frightened, emotional. Most of their mooring lines are being cut. Like the molting process nearly every aspect of their outer lives is changing in unexpected way and going in unprepared for directions. But, they're still the same teenage high schoolers and home bodies they were a few weeks earlier. Their DNA codes haven't mutated. They expect new experiences, but they're not really ready for the impact of everything they encounter all at once. As their dreams get hit with reality, they feel tied up by the very ropes they're supposed to learn and hold on to for safety. So, what do so many of us do? We're electric eels. We take these "kids," and they are kids, who are struggling with the cultural shock of often massive and unexpected sudden newness and shock them still more into almost total numbness and paralysis. We throw them into such impersonal, unsupportive, and uncaring situations. In barrages of incessant meetings and reams of paper, they're peppered, showered, inundated with all kinds of information, warnings, advice, regulations, procedures, policies, so much of which runs off like water on the proverbial duck's back. We so often throw them into the largest and most faceless, uncaring, unwelcoming, and nameless "herd" classes. The first year classes, those core courses to which we give Liberal Arts lip service, appear to be the ones far too many academics and administrations care the least about.

On the other hand, there are people on many campuses who are involved in it probably are more aware of first year student needs, more sensitive to their individuality, and more attuned to their confusion. The First Year Experience Programs are committed to the belief that a new student's growth and academic experience are enhanced when on-going special attention and support are provided, when they are mentored in the process of assimilating into the institution's culture. And yet, I have to question the sincerity of most institutional support because on far too many of our campuses these critical programs seem more tolerated than respected, thrown off to the periphery rather than placed at the core, and seen more as the solution of a temporary retention problem than as the fostering of a committed, core educational value.

I bring this up for a couple of reasons. The first reason is some comments made during an internet conversation I been having over the past few weeks with a some faculty from institutions all over the country. I had mentioned in passing that several years ago I had decided to forego teaching senior and graduate course and teach only the first year history classes. I had mentioned that I thought those first year classes were the most important classes on our campus and yet treated so matter-of-factly. And, I had mentioned that this semester all four of my classes are linked to our First Year Experience Oasis program. Boy, did I get it. "Why would a senior professor of your caliber 'lower' himself to teach only freshmen surveys?" one disbelieving professor asked me. One sneering comment followed another: "Those programs are such a waste of limited academic resources." "They don't teach a real subject." "They're just remedial curriculum by another name." "They don't belong on a university campus." "They coddle students, hold their hand, and wipe their noses." "They're an example of how we're dumbing down requirements and letting anyone in." "Our administration ought to get real instead of patronizing a fad." I smiled at the comment that "those in our First Year Experience program are only teachers, not professors." But, the ones I love the best fell into the category of "In my day......." God, you'd think to get to classes some of them had walked unaided up steep hills barefoot in deep snow--both ways!

I argue vigorously that our first year teachers deal more with the reality of our campus than do most academics in the ivory towers of their classroom. I answered all these snickerers by saying that these servant teachers (most didn't like that description) teach the most important and most demanding of subjects: students. I told them that not only do they belong on our campus, they belong at the heart of our campus. They do the truly important task that far too many of their colleagues feel is of no importance. In fact, I went so far out on the limb to say that in my personal and profession vantage point, they do some of the most important work on campus, especially if you're interested in retention.

The second reason was a planning lunch I had last week and will again in the coming weeks with a bunch of neat people in and involved with our first year program with whom I'm working. These people aren't just neat people. They're care givers. They're outstanding teachers. They're underrated and at times I've heard them too often berated. To me, they are, however, top rate. Too many faculty think what they do is at best non-professional. For me, their professionalism is far beyond question. These classy people certainly aren't second class.

They are the too often hidden, sometimes dismissed, sometimes neglected, generally ignored "second son," often treated "second class", "cellophane" teachers in the First Year Experience program. They run what we call our "Oasis" program. In many respects, they are an oasis, a nourishing water hole, for most first students in the program. They are the right kind of people. They are the right knowing people. They are always aware people. They are heavy investors. They know that they have to know and understand each student; they don't wear blinders and are acutely aware of others besides themselves; they are willing to invest as much of their time and energy as it takes to help a student achieve; they look beyond themselves; they look beyond their own needs and desires.

You know, only two of the eleven of these professionals have a Ph.D. I guess that explains by they're just not smart enough to know that struggling to help each and every student is impossible. I guess that explains why they rely more on their common sense rather than follow common academic thinking. I guess that explains why they doubt the doubts of the doubters and are not discouraged by the discouragers. I know they're told they have to be out of their minds to be stirred by such unattainable dreams. They're smart enough, however, that they listen to and accept such naysaying advice. They have gone out of their minds! They've gone deep into their hearts and souls, and they wind up being where all the naysayers and doubters and discouragers never have been.

Talking with the likes of Pat, Sherry, Diana, Wonny, John, Jim, Calvin, I think I know what makes and what does not make an outstanding teacher. Know-what does not solely make for an outstanding teacher, although that is important. Know-how does not solely make for an outstanding teacher, although that, too, is important. Know-why does. Outstanding teachers have a purpose; they have a "WHY" branded on their soul; they have an absolute sense of mission. They know what an education is all about. For them, it's purpose is to spread arete. It is their compass, their true north, for whatever direction they take. Arete, their "why," their purpose, is the blueprint for the application of their know-what and know-how. They are what I'll call "areters" (I've got a Ph.D. and I can "jargonize" with the best of them). If "arete" is the word the Greek philosophers had for the process of self-actualization and striving to reach your highest potential, if it is the highest of values, these people struggle to get students into the spirit of arete, to help them thinkarete and feelarete and doareete. And if, as Aristotle argued, arete is the way to achieve true happiness, publishing that book doesn't rule their happiness; getting that research grant doesn't rule their happiness; even getting that degree doesn't rule their happiness; touching that student does.

We're told somewhere in Proverbs, "as he thinks in his heart, so he is." They think in their hearts what I once called those four little big words: belief, faith, hope, love. That's all the see and, as Deepak Chopra reminds us, that unswerving perception of each student makes them who they are. They are go-the-extra-milers, for they know that the magic and the miracle are in the extra mile. They leave the comfort zone behind for the breakthrough. They render more and better service than is expected of them without complaint of "workload." These teachers are nurturers. They are mentors. They're safety nets. They're always there for a student in need. For them, everyone has potential. Everyone belongs in their classes. No one is a loser. No one is worthless. No one goes nameless. No one is left behind in the shadows. Their classes are cluttered with creativity, vision, and imagination. Their classes are loving and nurturing worlds of adventure, worlds of adaptation, worlds of growth, worlds of transformation, and worlds of discovery. Boredom and routine are not their companions. They are a classroom dose of NoDoze, not of Nytol. They get up excited each morning and can't wait to get into the classroom. For them teaching is a calling.

They come closer to each and every student than most faculty, treat each students with respect as individuals, and talk about them as human beings. They add to the stature of the student as a thinking, feeling, contemplating person. They embark students on unending voyage of discovering new interests and powers within themselves. They belt them down during the up and down and jolting roller coaster ride of that first year. They understand that education is not just a preparation for a career, but preparation for a meaningful life as well.

You know, there's a lot of smarts out there in academia, but outstanding teachers such as the ones with whom I have lunch have something that is regrettably too often in short supply and is not automatically provided by a Ph.D.: the courage to do things differently, the courage not to fit in, the courage to stand up and stand out, the courage to lead rather than follow. It's their courage that make difficulties lessen or disappear and obstacles weaken or vanish. They are not afraid to look like fools because they know they're not doing anything foolish. This is not to say they don't have fears; this is to say their fears don't have them. This is not to say they don't have pain when things don't go right; this is to say they don't imposed suffering on themselves. This is not to say they don't worry; this is to say they worry about students, not about their worries, their fears, their pains. This is not to say they wouldn't like to be sincerely appreciated as more than a solution to a temporary retention problem; this is to say that in the interest of the students they are willing to brave patronizing, disinterest, and disapproval. They themselves are the makers of themselves.

Damn, I'm proud to call them colleagues. I'm prouder still if they'd call me one of their colleagues. Of all the faculty on this campus, they have the most right to have what I call a "healthy pride." They have a pride that's rooted in the knowledge and feeling that they're doing and accomplishing something good for someone else. Their form of daily, numberless acts of courage is rarer than that found in the heat of battle. And yet, it is only that kind of vital character that is essential to change in an academic culture that yields so slowly and painfully to change.

I wish my Dean, Vice-President for Academic Affairs, and President would give these noble, dedicated, committed, courageous, persevering, hard-working academics much more public acclaim, acknowledgement, and recognition than the little they have received. They truly deserve it. Their work is that important, and everyone should stand up and take notice. They are the ones who make the most lasting impression and the most lasting difference in both students' lives and the life of the institution. We ought to recognize these unsung teachers who impact lives in the trenches with everyday caring. They are our silent heroes more than most on campus. And, for what it's worth. I appreciate and salute them. Surely, we can learn, at least, to see them as equals, to stop merely tolerating them and to start respecting them.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
                                 /     \__/         \/  /  /\ /~\/         \
                          /\/\-/ /^\_____\____________/__/_______/^\
                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

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