On Friday mornings this semester, you can find me deep into explanations of the semi-colon with a class full of young men deep into wondering why they should care.
Once a week, I gear down to explore communication basics with career-tech students. I start with English grammar and move quickly to the real focus of the class: handling customer complaints. The curriculum demands they complete a research project, and that topic is one I think might come in handy in their futures as car mechanics.
One of my biggest challenges is making sure the power differential in the room doesn’t derail the learning I want to occur.
The imbalance in a college classroom is always great, but perhaps nowhere greater than when career-tech meets Ph. D. If the relevant positions on the education continuum weren’t enough, every facet of the classroom reinforces the paradigm.
I stand at the front of the room, where I can see everyone. They sit where they can see me.
I wear clean slacks and usually sport a neat manicure. They come on their way to or from work, sometimes already covered in grease. To add to the contrast, I am the only woman in the room, old enough to be their mother.
I spend the first class of the course trying to void the complicated cultural script that drives how we communicate. I model the behaviors that diffuse tension and anxiety, leaving the front of the room and stepping from behind the podium to demonstrate accessibility. Usually, by class No. 3, they open up.
With a natural affinity for work with their hands and an aversion to “book work,” career-tech students are at my mercy like no others.
I could easily walk into class each week, open my mouth, and expound on all things grammatical, throw out a writing assignment, and sit down to grade. The students wouldn’t know there was anything better, and I would get paid the same.
But because my day starts with a mirror I look into and ends with a pillow I hope to sleep on, I strive to be my best in every classroom.
Besides, what would it profit me to keep them at an academic arm’s length? What would it profit them? Honestly, I don’t know how much they learn in my class. But I know what I’ve learned about them.
As I say in the first class every time I teach this course, if every English teacher in America died today, people would go to a lot of funerals. But if every auto mechanic in America died today, before long many of us couldn’t drive to work