Saturday, September 10, 2005

Fine! Ignore me!

In an online forum, a teacher complained that some of his students were bringing laptops to his classes and surfing the web. He claimed this was distracting other students who were trying to pay attention.

I have been a professional teacher for almost 20 years. I have taught children, college-aged people and older adults. I currently teach computer classes (Photoshop, etc.), but I've taught plenty of loftier subjects (dramatic literature, writing, etc.).

When I teach, I offer a SERVICE. People PAY for that service and they are free to do whatever they want with the service they've paid for. If they want to come to one of my Photoshop classes and then spend the whole time surfing the web, they have the right to do so. I am not paying THEM. THEY are paying ME. If I were paying them, I could demand that they perform the service of hanging-on-my-every-word. But I'm not paying them.

I also don't judge them. I don't think, "Hey, that guy's an asshole because he's more interested in surfing the web than he is in listening to me talk about layer masks." Maybe the web IS more interesting than I am. And maybe he IS listening to me. Maybe his learning style involves multitasking.

Mine does. If I have to sit an listen to a lecture without any distractions, I zone out. I have tried for DECADES not to do this, and if there's a way, I haven't discovered it. But if I can do something else with my hands and eyes -- doodle, surf the web, etc. -- I CAN pay attention. In high school (pre web), I doodled. Some of my teachers didn't care. I did well in those classes. Some of my teachers stopped me from doodling. My grades suffered.

One might suggest that I should have learned to pay attention without doodling. Maybe. But those teachers who stopped me from doodling didn't help me do that. They just made me stop doodling. And I couldn't pay attention. As a teacher, I don't want to do that to my students. I want them to be HAPPY in my classes. I want them to be interested in SOMETHING -- even if it's not me. If their mind is active and interested, there is a better chance they will learn than if they are bored and disgruntled.

I DO agree that one student shouldn't disrupt other students. But one needs to strike a balance of fairness here. Should female students be forbidden to wear miniskirts to class because some of the men might be distracted by them? Should students be forbidden to bring garishly-colored notebooks to class?

I, for one, am REALLY easily distracted, almost to a pathological level. If a person next to me is abscent-mindedly swinging their foot around, I have trouble paying attention. If someone next to me is chewing gum, I have trouble paying attention. Once, I couldn't pay attention because the person next to me was wearing a bright yellow jacket.

This is regrettable, but it's MY problem. If someone is playing a loud videogame in class, that's THEIR problem. If someone is quietly reading something on their screen and it distracts me, that's MY problem.

Most teachers that I've talked to who get offended by this sort of thing don't really care about the students. They care about their own egos. They are offended that someone would rather play tetris than listen to them talk about Milton.

We say "teaching is the noblest profession," and that may be true. I am very proud to be a teacher. I would also be proud if I was a doctor. Doctors also provide a service. But if a doctor tells me that I need a triple-bypass, I am free to decline. The SERVICE he provided (which I paid him for) was to offer an expert opinion. I may be foolish to disregard his opinion, but I am not rude to do so.

Teachers should try to be as noble as their profession.

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