00 – My Reflections on Teaching

By Eric Bright

I have been teaching 15 courses in Supply Chain Management at a vocational college in Toronto, Ontario since 2018. I have learned many lessons during this time as an instructor. Although I have always considered myself a natural educator, someone with a natural aptitude toward teaching various subjects to others, these years taught me a lot of things still. This writing is the first, in a series of writings, documenting my observations and what I learned.

  1. Teaching is not easy. It is an art and a science. Going by the “wisdom of the crowd,” your own gut feelings, or rules of thumb can take you only so far.
  2. Some rules of thumb and common “knowledge” that a lot of educators might have thought as true, might actually be either questionable, unsupported, or even false (see [0])
  3. The resources on education and pedagogy, although vast, are neither conclusive nor practical in many cases. Although I cannot think of any example of a pedagogical resource or impractical advice off the top of my mind, that, in and of itself, is a sign of how useless the majority of them might be. I cannot remember changing my teaching methods as a result of reading any particular book, essay, or article, or watching a particular video or recorded course. That is not a good sign.
  4. I read a lot of materials on educational techniques, tools, and methods. I rarely come across anything that helped me out with anything I do in my classes. The majority of them are descriptive of some educational scenarios, which are unhelpful with what happens in my classes. Those are more like digging into the history of a phenomenon; very amusing, but impractical.
  5. The practical advice in some of the recorded courses, books on education methodologies, and teaching materials are either tightly related to particular scenarios, hence unrelated to what I often come across, or so generic that they sound more like common knowledge, obvious, or trivial. Again, such advice does not put forward any play book to do things relevant to most teaching settings I have been in (in-person or online).
  6. This whole endeavor feels more like a never-ending struggle to learn how to ride a bicycle. The glaring difference is that when you try to learn how to ride a bicycle, you will eventually succeed at it. At least, there will be a time at which you would be able to confidently say: ‘I learned how to ride a bicycle’. Whereas, I don’t think if there has ever been such a moment in my teaching career at which I proclaimed that I knew the hell I was doing.
  7. Coming up with a standard set of tools and methods to teach in various classes appears to me to be close to impossible. Although I have already collected enough of them so I would be resourceful under most circumstances and semester after semester, I have never felt that I ever had enough tools, techniques, knowledge, skills, or even equipment to address all my concerns.
  8. Although being in Canada and having access to the majority of the tools one might need has a way to spoil any soul, I have always tried to watch these tools closely so they wont spiral out of control and become unmanageably large and complex that would defeat the purpose.
  9. It is easy for me to get excited about teaching and pedagogy and try a new tool or technique. I have learned that the majority of them will eventually be abandoned or deprecated at the end. It might be the social forces behind how people study and how instructors teach that make it hard to get a lot of fancy tools to work. You might be able to implement this or that technique or tool just to learn that it won’t scale, it won’t fit, or it won’t be taken up by the prevailing culture of your class.
  10. Building and nourishing a strong culture of academic excellence is nearly impossible where I teach. As soon as you start to see the fruits of your hard labour, the semester is over and a brand-new set of students would enter your class and you will need to start everything over again.
  11. I care tremendously about academic integrity, honesty, quality of work, and truth. In my personal experience, the majority of my students do not give a bleep about any of those. I can see the Pareto principle at work here.
  12. Most of my students see academic integrity, or any mention or enforcement of it, as a hindrance to their progress, something to be circumvented at all cost. They go to great lengths to cheat, to lie about it, and to cheat again if they can get away with it the next time. This is in spite of the fact that I spend hours to explain such concepts to them, empower them, give them all the tools they need, and prepare them for the courses that will need such things soon. The impression I get is of a person talking to a concrete wall.
  13. In my classes, the majority of the students are there no for the education itself. They appear, at least in their deeds, entitled to their own opinions. They are merely there to get a diploma, hoping that it magically increases their revenue a week or two after their graduation. In spite of my sincerest efforts, there is hardly any meaningful spirit of education that I can feel in my classes. Although I have had many students with great enthusiasm and ambitions who got incredible results out of the program I teach, they are the exceptions. A few of them merely register in the program to get a student loan. They disappear as soon as their loans are dispenses in their bank accounts.
  14. The schools I have been teaching at since 1998 don’t seem to be able, or even be willing to, screen the applicants for their abilities, skills, or aptitude for the applied program. The later years seem to be significantly worse in that regard: seeing all students as cash cows (and the instructors as slaves).
  15. There are no interactive course material for the courses I teach. Each semester, I do my best to engage the students with various success rates. A course in Computer Science can be designed in a hands-on fashion. Most courses in Supply Chain Management cannot. Even if they can, I haven’t been able to make that happen yet.
  16. I found using a Wiki to post instructions, guidance, materials, tools, and roadmaps for each course to be the most productive way to organise my courses. The wiki made it possible to tweak, tune, add, or remove anything I need to/from any page in real time. Then, all students will have a canonical source of information for their courses to refer to; no more emails, attachments, and follow-up updates for the course materials.
  17. Finding a sweet-spot for most course instructions so that they are fully self-explanatory has been proven elusive to me. Students will always find yet another weird, twisted, or out-to-lunch way of misreading any instruction. It does not matter how much I tweak them, clarify, summarise, de-clutter, or otherwise add details to them, they seem to be no version of the instruction clear enough for the class.
  18. The reading comprehension of a large portion of the students in my classes are inadequate for any college course. Anywhere from 30% to 50% of the students in my classes would not graduate from high school with that level of reading and writing skills. This is a direct reflection of the broken admission system in my school. I sometimes get the impression that anyone can get in, no matter what (no high school diploma is needed to enter the program I teach where I teach. Can you believe that?). Although, this might be okay from the administrators’ perspective (i.e. ‘if it is legal, then why not’, they might say), the result is provably harmful to the school, and even more harmful to the students themselves who were allowed to sit in a class for which they are not ready.
  19. My courses are unjustifiably short and fast, with most of the nuts and bolts of the identical-sounding courses many times longer and slower. As a result, my students, who all know what they get themselves into before they register, find them incredibly hard to satisfy. Their challenges seem immense. The part that makes you wonder is that all those courses are accredited and approved by the Ministry of Advanced Education. How come? How and why, in the universe’s 11 dimensions, did the ministry approved such things in the first place? Did anyone really audit anything regarding the courses’ length and contents?
  20. My quizzes and exam questions are all fixed. I cannot change any of the questions, add, remove, nor correct any of them should I need to. They are all ‘approved’ by the school and the ministry. They cannot be changed unless the course goes through another audit, I am told. This insane approach ties my hands behind my back and blindfolds me as an educator. Not only I don’t feel empowered by the system, I feel I am rubbed of my basic rights as an educator.
  21. In addition to a basic reading/writing competency at a college level, all my students must posses a great deal of computer competence, which almost none of them do. All courses that I teach are administered online and in real time. Knowing how to operate a computer, how to write reports on a computer, how to use the online learning systems, collaborative tools, various software, and such are indispensable to all my courses. In most semesters, none of my students seem to know what they are doing, why, and how. They often cannot tell the difference between an internet browser and a file explorer. They have no idea what or where the address bar in their browser is, how to bookmark a web page, where the files they download go, or even what a file is versus a folder. And then, they are expected to do academic work.
  22. In most regards, it appears to me that my students are set for a painful failure, although most of them would eventually graduate. Getting a piece of paper called diploma is the easy part. Being educated is the opposite. This always leaves me with a deep sense of helplessness and fatalism that I have to work hard to shake off of my mind every single day and night, class after class, semester after semester. I feel I cannot help most of them even when I try hard to.
  23. As an educator, I cannot tell any of my students that many of them are wasting their money and time by taking these courses, and that they will go nowhere with this or that diploma. I cannot, because often I cannot know if they might suddenly flip and become stellar students. That is always a possibility, and I, perhaps naively, want to believe that it might happen at any time. If I knew, for sure, that they are wasting their money and time, I would have told them (it happened once or twice in the past 20 years). I am torn on this, because on the one hand I have an obligation towards the school to do what they hired me for to do, and on the other hand, as a mentor, an educator, and a philosopher, I am committed to always speak the truth regardless of the consequences. The problem is that my hunches are all based on circumstantial evidence. I have no proof and no proof can ever be made for/against those hunches. I know if I was right only after the fact, by which time the damage is already done. If, however, it is my responsibility to warn a student of the futility of their attempts regardless of having a concrete proof or not, then morally I won’t be able to diffuse my responsibility by hand-waving or pointing my finger at the school. This dilemma bothers me a lot.
  24. It has been hard for me to come to terms with the reality of the world: that most of these things that we all do are pointless and will never bear any fruit, at least not the ones we expected to do just that. Most of what I teach seem to be impractical. Those practical parts seem not to form a coherent network of knowledge or wisdom in my students’ minds.
  25. My students seem to struggle to apply what they learned (and got marks for) from one class to the next. Their minds seem fragmented, disconnected, disorganised, utterly disoriented, and full of holes. Even the best of them seem to leave the program not really knowing what just happened. This could be due to the relentlessly-fast pace of the program (400hrs academic works plus 400hrs of practicum). I have been doing all I can to reduce those negative effects via better teaching techniques, more engaging lectures, more resources, polished and current instructions, etc. And I am not happy with any of the results so far.
  26. It seems that all I have been doing is to marginally improve on an un-improvable curriculum, building a house of cards on a giant bubble. Every semester brings with it a new set of ways to see the failure of what I passionately am doing. It mirrors life to some extent, doesn’t it? A never-ending battle against the supreme ruler of the universe: Chaos!

[0] The Biggest Myth In Education, (Jul. 09, 2021). Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rhgwIhB58PA. [Accessed: Dec. 10, 2023]

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