I love that old novelty song “One Piece at a Time” by Johnny Cash in which he describes the process of stealing a Cadillac from the GM factory in bits over the course of years. The folks at the factory didn’t even notice it happening because it was being snuck out in lunch boxes and the like. When he sat down to put it all together, however, the pieces didn’t fit. The design had changed over the years, so there had to be some modification.
The classes we give our students are sometimes in a similar situation. Even the traditional students come to us from many different high schools. Their teachers have received their educations from different universities at different times. The non-traditional students have often received their education piecemeal before coming here.
There is a problem with a lack of uniformity to be sure, but even if all of our students took all of the same courses with all of the same teachers, they would have different levels of preparation because, well, people are different.
This presents a challenge for us as teachers. We would love to have uniformly prepared students from well-funded schools. It would also be nice if they were all straight-A students with 30s on their ACTs.
The reality is far more interesting. Our students are unevenly prepared and many are the first generation from their families to go to college and are having to figure out the process without help from family.
What I say next I have to say carefully because learning is always the responsibility of the student, but we as teachers have an important job in helping our students to bridge the gap. This shouldn’t be interpreted as lowering standards; a diploma from PSU should mean something. It is much more difficult than lowering standards would be. We have to maintain standards while helping the students to find their ways toward them.
This may be by establishing relationships with your students. It might be by providing them structure. Over the years I’ve been impressed with a large number of our faculty each doing a great job in his/her own unique way. There is such a diversity of excellence that I can’t pick out a single one of them to say, “There! Do it that way!”
The commonality is in caring. I can only follow their examples by caring the way they care. We care about our students so we care about our teaching and this leads us to work on our teaching. We can help them put the pieces of their education to get a Cadillac at the end.