Teaching Teenagers and Graduate Students

I offer my experience in teaching high schoolers and graduate students as an honest, perhaps naive, way of self-consciously reflecting on how I taught both during the same day for an entire semester. While the teaching that I describe occurred many years ago, I believe that those experiences apply to both teachers and professors now. Readers will have to decide whether my hunch lights a bulb for them.

I taught a high school economics class in the afternoon while teaching two graduate courses in education at Stanford University in the mornings. I kept a journal of what occurred in each and wrote of the similarities and differences I noticed across both settings. Based upon those experiences and analyses of my journals, here is what I found.

First, the differences. They are obvious insofar as student maturity and motivation, one is compulsory and the other is elective, the subject matter, and working conditions. The similarities, however, did surprise me as I taught 28 seniors Economics every day for 18 weeks and two graduate classes of 57 students in The History of School reform and 17 in Social Studies Curriculum and Instruction twice weekly.

  1. I faced identical teaching dilemmas in both high school and graduate courses. By dilemma I mean two conflicting values that I prized and wanted to see enacted in my classes but because of time constraints and other obligations had to strike a compromise that left me dissatisfied in order to complete the lesson. When I chose to straddle both values, I was left with a sour taste in my mouth and lashed myself momentarily at the end of the lesson.

The most common dilemma I faced was trying to cover subject matter while at the same time strengthening students’ conceptual understanding and deepening their reasoning skills. I placed a high value on in-depth study of facts and concepts as being necessary for students to use as an anchor to grasp other bodies of knowledge.

This value conflicted with another one I prized. Cultivating students’ grasp of reasoning skills to use the factual knowledge they acquired to solve problems and make decisions that will help them now and in later years. Both values are essential, I believe, but time constraints and the inevitable uncertainties of student-teacher interactions forced me to forge compromises in the teaching moment. This teaching dilemma came into play constantly in my high school and graduate courses.

An economics lesson on supply and demand curves that I taught to high school seniors, for example, involved their making graphs in their notebooks, my explaining some common errors in thinking about the concept of supply-and-demand, and their applying what they learned to rising and falling gas prices and the cost of Air Jordan sneakers.

I had planned what I thought was enough content for a 50-minute class yet here I was with 10 minutes to go in the period and I could see some students’ glazed eyes and others with heads on desk signaling that about half of the class was lost in grasping supply-and-demand. Yet I had barely gotten through explaining a few of the key points and had not even introduced examples with which they were familiar. I had to make a decision: should I plow through the content or split the class to work with those who appeared lost and let the other half who seemed to have understood the concept move on to the examples that were on the worksheet I had prepared.

I decided to compromise. I split the class and worked until bell rang. Not the first nor last time I had to make such a choice.

The same thing occurred for one of the graduate classes I had taught earlier in the day. In a large group discussion, we had worked our way through an article written by historian of education David Tyack on compulsory attendance laws in the late-19th century as viewed from different disciplinary lens used by economists, sociologists, political scientists, and organizational theorists. Because these “ways of seeing” is a central concept in this course on the history of school reform that both David and I taught, I had to make sure that the students understood what a “way of seeing,” was, how Tyack applied it to compulsory attendance laws, and which perspectives students preferred. Also, all of this discussion had to be completed now since the next two-hour session two days later moved onto another subject.

So I was a clock-watcher as the discussion unfolded. I asked questions on the Tyack article. Students asked questions. Examples were given. Different ideas were explored. But time was running out. Fifteen minutes were left in the class and I was uncertain as to whether half or two-thirds of the class understood “ways of seeing” and could apply it.

I had to make a choice. Should I plow through and repeat the main points as students took notes? Should I give an example of a current reform such as national curriculum standards and ask the graduate students to apply one of the “ways of seeing” to the reform? Or should I just let the discussion go on until the end of class?

So I decided in a split-second what to do. I assigned three students who had contributed to the discussion to summarize what the main points of this article and discussion were at the beginning of the next class. And I then asked everyone in class to write for a few minutes on a clean sheet of paper–without their names–what they learned from the article and discussion about “ways of seeing.” I asked them to include what they do not yet understand and questions they have. I collected their unsigned papers.

Using their responses, at the next class I would have a better sense of what they got, what was missing, and what I had to re-teach about “ways of seeing.”

The coverage vs. understanding dilemma continues to pinch me whenever I taught youth and adults.

2. Diversity of students at both levels require constant calibration in teaching practices. I had expected the high school class to be more diverse in academic achievement, motivation, socioeconomic status, race, and ethnicity than my graduate classes. After all, everyone who wanted to graduate high school had to take economics. And the graduate courses were elective.

So I adapted my teaching to make sure that I had something in every lesson that appealed to one-third of the high school students, mostly–but not all–white students from middle- and upper-middle class families who took Advanced Placement courses and the other two-thirds, mostly–but not all–minority from middle and low-income Latino and Black families who ranged from barely being able to read text and write an essay to those who handled both tasks very well. Nearly all of these low-income and minority students planned to go to college. Because of this mix, I just didn’t know for sure how the lesson I planned would unfold.

Every day as I began the sixth period high school class–yes, after lunch, with a hearty “good afternoon” and my lesson plan engraved on my brow, it was up for grabs as to which way the class would go. Sure I had a lesson but I had learned that I had to improvise, improvise, improvise as the clock hand moved from 1:24 to 2:14, keeping in mind constantly to whom I would address tough, moderate, and easy questions. Shifting activities to keep some academically sharp students from putting their heads on their desks and again, and starting different ones to sustain the interest of those left out of the discussion because it was too abstract or removed from their immediate interests. This juggling of content, questions, and activities went on for fifty minutes.

What I hadn’t expected or even thought about until I taught at both levels, however, was that the range of academic skills, experiences, ethnicities, motivation, and age among my graduate students varied as much. Some students told me privately during office hours that they had no experience as teachers and were intimidated in the large group discussions about speaking up because they lacked the classroom stories that classmates told. Other students came to me after the two hour class and asked me why I didn’t focus more on different kinds of research studies on school reform since they were doctoral students and wanted to see how a range of scholars engaged in inquiry. Then even other students came to my office hours to explain again concepts we had covered in class or ask about lines of research they wanted to explore in the history of reform.

So here I was for two hours, twice a week with over 50 graduate students, some seeking a master’s degree and others a doctorate, drawn from programs preparing researchers and practitioners, again with a lesson plan embedded in frontal cortex, managing questions and activities not unlike what I did in the afternoon with my high school seniors. I hadn’t seen such graduate classroom diversity in a sharp light until I traveled the four miles between campus and the high school.

Why the Similarities?

On reflection, these similarities (and there are others) should come as no surprise since the fundamental teaching roles in both settings are the same: A subject matter specialist communicating knowledge, judging students’ responses and the quality of what they learned, and acting as a model of how students might inquire, think, and act as adults and professionals.

Moreover the act of teaching within organizations erects expectations that cross institutional boundaries even two that seem so unlikely as high schools and universities. Yet these similarities startled me for the settings and the social status attached to each are so different than I had imagined.

Are these ties that I found binding together professors and high school teachers as unlikely colleagues? Perhaps. After all, I could be criticized for making too much out of one experience. It is, as academics would say, an N of 1. At best an anecdote. Little data. How much can one generalize?

Readers will have to judge the worth of what I extracted from one experience of self-experimentation in teaching across institutional boundaries.



Filed under dilemmas of teaching, higher education, how teachers teach

10 responses to “Teaching Teenagers and Graduate Students

  1. And this was, for me, the most disturbing…
    “ Sure I had a lesson but I had learned that I had to improvise, improvise, improvise as the clock hand moved from 1:24 to 2:14, keeping in mind constantly to whom I would address tough, moderate, and easy questions.”

    When does it begin… when do we decide… and what happens when some are no longer asked the tough questions.

    And how do we ensure that this doesn’t happen?

  2. wjshan

    1. I agree with all the points you made. Your keeping teaching in high school periodically is admired. I feel ashamed that I only taught for about 13 months in a junior high school right after I got my teacher license. It was back to 1973. Then, I, as an army officer, taught in a recruit training center for some 16 months. I met about 140 recruits with very diverse academic background every evening. I am still teaching in a teacher education program in a comprehensive university located in suburban Taipei, Taiwan. I will retire one and half year later.
    2. It is why both teachers and professors need to equip themselves with both “content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge” (Shulman, 1986) to get in the classroom to face the dilemma you mention. But it is just the beginning. Experiences play a very important role for him or her to be a good teacher/professor.
    3. I am glad that I finally take part in the business of learning to teach by reading “Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice” since you created this blog some eleven years ago(You mentioned “I began writing my blog in 2009” in note 2 on page 197 in your 2018 book “…butterfly or…bullet?”).

  3. I have taught the same course (PreCalc) at the university level and at the high school level. I hated teaching it at the college level, it is a blast at the high school level. Cramming everything in one college semester as opposed to a year for high school.

  4. Geoff. Wood

    Well, this brought back memories of the turbulence of teaching pre-service courses at university, commuting to the local high school in-between the university classes to teach what was then called microcomputers course, and then teaching the same course with adults an evening each week for the local community college. It was a glorious time being with such a range of learners, however on reflection it was about survival beyond the schedule and the mistakes made. Lessons learned!! Thank you for sharing.

  5. EB

    Unless you mean something different by “ways of seeing” than I do, it’s kind of upsetting that grad students had a hard time grasping that concept. Can you say more about what your definition of “ways of seeing” is? To me, it’s a way of characterizing different academic disciplines, as in economics “sees” things through the lens of resources, sociology through the lens of societal relationships, psychology through the lens of the development of the individual in her/his own context, etc.

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