The Chronicle of Higher Education: The Rise of the Helicopter Teacher

“A week before the first paper was due, a young woman in my class raised her hand and asked where the rubric was.”

Ah, as teachers we have heard this in many different forms across the profession.  As a middle school teacher I often to hear it in the form of, “Can’t you just tell me the answer?” or “You never told me what I was supposed to do?”  It is interesting that what I have witnessed for the entirety of my career has bled into higher education.  

I was doing some reading this evening and ran across an article from a college professor who has been stunned by how much students require to be taught these days.  He began the piece by talking about how a student requested a rubric and he had no plan to hand one out.  As teachers we run into this problem on a daily basis.  If we do not create detailed rubrics the describe the project in its entirety we are considered bad teachers and not doing our job, but we all see what happens when we do.  We end up with advanced students who ask us repeatedly what is the correct answer and when we don’t tell them they become visibly agitated.  The general education students look at us like aliens when we do not provide an outline for the assignment.  Don’t believe me?  Just try giving today’s average student a version of Sugata Mitra's SOLE Assignment. 

I agree back in the days when my teachers did not provide rubrics was frustrating, but the amount of creativity or varying products that were produced were superior to the carbon copies that are produced in today’s classrooms.  In fact, I was always motivated to work harder because I didn’t know what they were expecting to see.  I remember spending tons of time on a model of the Alamo because I wanted it to be as perfect as possible so my teacher would give me a good grade.  My Friends all took different routes because it was allowed. In some ways we celebrated the diversity of the thought process better in those days.  Today there is often only one right answer.  It seems that pedagogically things are drifting into the camp of creative thought, which is great but really what we have been doing really isn’t enough.  

I thought Conn’s assessment of the “Helicopter teacher” was probably spot on.  We are always encouraged to constantly hover over our students to make sure they learn when in fact there are probably times we should take a step back and let them explore.  I have had many students tell me that people will not leave them alone, which is just as unhealthy as me reading the newspaper in class while they do the work.  I do agree that some students need someone to get on their case, but do we have to also let them explore.  The things I remember from school are my projects that I labored over and when I was done was fairly satisfied with because I put the time and effort in.  

Conn also talked about how a syllabus has grown to over thirteen pages of information that includes a two page paper describing a thesis statement.  This is a problem.  When students get to college they should know how to write or have at least heard of a thesis statement.  Or even if they don’t all they need to do in today’s world is Google thesis statement.  They need the skills to find information for themselves.  We are not always going to be there for them.  
Plus, shouldn’t we be trying to help kids learn that learning and exploring is a rewarding experience?  Why is it that students are so burned out on the education system by the time they reach about 8th grade?  Is it really that bad?  Are we only seen to be the fingertips of The Man?  Some kids every year treat me like I am an enemy and I have to work so hard to convince them that I am not.  Where does this come from?  Could it be that we have turned this into a results oriented system so much that whole swaths of the school age population just don’t care any longer?  Shouldn’t we be emphasizing the process of learning more than the end result?  To use a coaching analogy: have we put the emphasis on winning and solely on winning instead of teaching kids to respect and gain pleasure from The Process?   I love to ask questions, but I have not figured out the answers and as a society I don’t think we have either.  But I do think that we should be trying to produce students who like asking questions like I do.  Instead expecting they give the right answer.      

My favorite sentence in Conn’s post summarizes the purpose of the existance of the teacher:  Teaching and parenting share this in common: In both relationships, the goal is to produce independent and self-sufficient human beings.”   I totally agree.  This is why we went into the profession in the first place.  Unfortunately, we all have different definitions of what that means and how to get there.

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