Ben Franklin coined a saying that “nothing is certain in life but death and taxes.” In higher education, a variation of Franklin’s wisdom might be that nothing is certain but death and assessment.
Assessment – quantitative, measurable outcomes of student learning – is an important part of any educational endeavor. College professors have been doing it for centuries through exams and course grades. Current assessment trends, however, require professors to use measures other than grades to gauge student learning.
For example, a professor might require her science students to write essays on an ethical dilemma and how they would resolve it. A government professor might ask his students to explain why the Constitution is important. In both cases the exercises require a quantitative score using a standardized rubric. A lot of us feel like we’ve been turned into behavioral scientists and the students into lab rats.
My struggle with assessment is that it overlooks the most important aspect of a college education – one that is entirely unquantifiable.
Having been in higher education now for 20 years, I’ve taught several thousand students across a variety of classes. Many of the students whose names I once knew, I have forgotten. These were the ones who came to class, took the exams, and moved on. Then there are the students who remain indelibly marked in my memory.
Sometimes these memories are quite joyful, like the numerous graduation parties I’ve been invited to over the years. Our diverse student body looks much like the city of Houston. As a result, parties and celebrations take on an international flavor complete with food, songs and ceremonies from the students’ cultural home countries. I’ve been to parties that had Tango dancers and wine. I’ve been to parties that had belly dancers and wine. And I’ve been to parties where there was no dancing or wine allowed whatsoever.
I’ve also attended numerous weddings. I always marvel at how wonderful the young people look when they clean themselves up, whether they’re wearing a tuxedo, wedding dress or some traditional ceremonial clothing from a different country. I’ve been to weddings with little fanfare that took 30 minutes. I’ve been to weddings that started at sundown and lasted until the sun came up. I’ve been to weddings I didn’t understand, but that left me with the impression of having witnessed something spectacular.
I’ve been to baby christenings and baptisms. I’ve celebrated with students who got a first job. I’ve gone to house-warming parties. I’ve been to celebratory dinners for a big promotion. I’m always touched to be included in the merriment.
Then there are the other memories. The harder ones. The ones that break your heart. I remember a young woman coming to my office during my first or second year of teaching. She wanted my advice on how to tell her parents she was in trouble, and asked what she should do about college. Her hands shook the whole time.
I remember another young woman who was going to drop out due to lack of finances. I asked about her family, inquiring if maybe they could help her out a bit. She responded that she didn’t have a family. She spent the rest of the conversation staring at the floor. I had the fleeting and ridiculous thought of adopting her. After all, we already have two children. How much more difficult could it be to add a third?
I had lunch with a former student who went through a tough divorce and whose life wasn’t turning out the way he had envisioned. His eyes weren’t as bright as they used to be.
I attended the funeral of a student’s mother. Her mother had been murdered during a home-invasion in a quiet and affluent neighborhood. When the student saw me waiting in line to give my condolences, she burst into tears and apologized for not studying harder for my classes. It was an odd response. I did the only thing I could, which was to hug her tight and kiss the top of her head.
And I’ve been on a Monday to the funeral of a young man who was in class on the previous Friday. He was killed over the weekend in a car accident. I sat in the back of the church and couldn’t bring myself to approach the open casket. It was too hard. I wanted to remember him as he was in class – laughing, studious and always present in the top row, farthest chair on the left. A chair that remained empty for the rest of the semester.
Ultimately, teaching is really about love. Love for the material. Love of learning. Love of the school. Love of the student. Part of that love is sharing in students’ joys and sorrows, celebrating their victories, and helping them through their failures. And sometimes we rescue them when they have nowhere else to turn.
The ancient Greeks had multiple words for what we simply call love, sort of like the Eskimos have words for different types of snow. Agape is a type of love where one person is dedicated to the well-being of another. Aristotle referred to agape as “a love which wishes good to someone.” And this is really what it means to be a teacher – to want better for someone than they sometimes want for themselves. To see someone as they could be, rather than who they are, and to mold them into a better human being. This is what teachers do.
I remember teachers like Mrs. Flournoy, the most feared 6th grade math teacher in my middle school. She was ruthless and had zero tolerance for laziness or sloppiness. I learned years later that her daughter had severe Down Syndrome. Mrs. Flournoy didn’t want us to waste our opportunities. Teachers like my late mentor Ross Lence who, at the bedside of a student’s parent who was dying from cancer, held a week-long crash course on Greek philosophy. The deathbed sessions were just as much for the student as for the parent. The student never forgot Lence’s lesson in the true, the good and the beautiful. And teachers like my father, who rescued one of his high school students from a phone booth on a rainy Saturday night in our small town. She had been beaten by her adult boyfriend and didn’t have anyone else to call. She spent the night on our family sofa, under a borrowed blanket, beneath a roof that belonged to her teacher.
Assessment is a tricky thing. We want our students to learn the material. We want them to be educated men and women. We want them to lead productive lives and make a difference in the world. But we also want more for them. We want them to realize their own value, to have a sense of dignity, and a moral compass. Sometimes it takes time. Often it doesn’t happen until after they graduate.
I’ll continue with my assessment reports and finding creative ways to measure student learning in my classes. But for me, the greatest indicator of my success as a teacher is when a former student shows up unexpectedly at my door with their spouse and children in tow and says “Hey professor, remember me?”