Save yourself: Some community college students fail at more than English

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I want to talk about education for a moment.

I can’t comment about the state of education in this country, or profess to know what’s wrong with our schools. What I can comment on is what I know: Many students being pushed into community colleges fail before they walk into their first classroom.

I’ve been teaching English and communications in the Maine Community College system for four years. I’ve taught between one and eight classes a semester at three different schools. I’ve had hundreds of students, read thousands of essays and handed out more than a few failing grades.

In fact, I fail more than 50 percent of my English 101 students every semester.

Am I tough on them? You bet.

That’s my job. Because the world won’t be easy on them if they misspell there, their and they’re or, worse yet, are unable to convey their thoughts using the written word in this highly text-driven digital world.

I don’t teach at community colleges because it pays well. In fact, the pay is almost insulting (less than $2,000 per class per semester – and you have to have a master’s degree to get that).

I teach because I genuinely love teaching and because I believe in education like some people believe in religion.

I believe education can save you in this life, though, not the next one.

Almost as soon as I figured out how to read, I began doing research. I was obsessed with amphibians when I was a little girl and practically memorized the entries in our family encyclopedia on every amphibian I could find. I remember discovering mud puppies, an animal I would never have come across on in my own life, and practicing pronouncing the Latin scientific name for them every day.

As a middle schooler, I had a map of Belize on my wall and memorized all the cities, towns, mountains and rivers.

I read my parents’ nursing textbooks. I read fiction. Non-fiction.

Even in college, I spent hours in the library researching dead classical composers and writing 20-page papers comparing Picasso’s art with Stravinsky’s music, when the assignment was to write a five pager about a 20th century composer.

Obviously, a desire to know more about everything led me to become a reporter. A love of knowledge is a love of education and in my classes I try to convey that to every semester’s batch of fresh faces.

But so many of them come to me disillusioned. Some of them hate school in a way I simply can’t imagine. Some of them are terrified of writing. Some proudly proclaim they graduated high school without reading a single book.

What scares me more than anything, though, is how many of them don’t want it.

They know they’re ignorant, that they don’t know what they should, and they laugh about it.

Just two weeks ago, a student told me, straight-faced, that his essay was “perfect,” and needed no revision.

Another student copied and pasted his essay from a website.

And a significant number of students didn’t turn in essays at all.

All of them failed.

It was not just a failing grade they earned, though, but also vindication that they were right: Education, and therefore knowledge, is not for them.

And they’ll drop out.

Getting an education is not easy. I absolutely loved class, learning new things, spending hours in the library, doing research, and it was incredibly hard for me. I can’t even fathom how difficult it would have been if I’d hated every second of it.

I don’t think I’m any different than my students. I’m not smarter or more driven. Some of them have done incredible things in their young lives, like learning intricate skateboarding jumps or mastering complex video game problems. They have intellect and drive. They have great ideas and occasionally, even some of the most disenchanted, turn in incredible essays that blow my mind.

Yet, the second many of them walk into a classroom, they shut down. They slouch, they talk or text through my lectures, they self-deprecate and glaze over. They stare at the clock.

I won’t profess to know why. All I can say is that many of my students have told me over the years that mine was the first English class they actually enjoyed. Others have said they’ve never had a write an essay on their own and that it was more fun than they thought. I even had one student, whose essay I use as an example of great writing, tell me he hated writing until he realized he could do it. His local newspaper later published his essay in its opinion pages.

But I don’t turn them all around. In fact, I fail more than I save. And it practically kills me every semester. I teach because I believe in education and I hope one or two students hear the sermon and learn to believe as well.

I can’t do it alone.

Know a kid who’s struggling in school? Help him find that thing, that one thing, that wakes him up at night, even if that thing isn’t a “traditional” educational pursuit.

Know a kid who hates going to class? Show her that class is what you make it, that her education is up to her, by respecting AND challenging her opinions.

Know that every kid counts, even if he doesn’t think so. Because passion is contagious and that disillusioned kid, pushed down by yet another expected failure, doesn’t even know what she’s missing.