Coming Into the Office

It’s more edifying to come into a place that’s partly your own than to a place only belonging to someone else. Stereotypes of school can leave students with the perception of coming onto the institution’s turf. Further, though good lectures are stimulating, many classes are not designed on a lecture model, nor should all classes be. Where the aim is for students to acquire skills, only an active role by the student can bring that about. This is more obviously true teaching tennis, chess, or guitar. In those, an instructor who mostly lectures and shows training videos will hardly see progress in the learners. To improve, the learners must practice and produce.  So for example, when an academic skill is writing, students need to think of it as a skill to practice and make progress in.

It can also be helpful to take a further step and refer to the classroom as an office. Moving from the analogy of sports to the tone and ownership in a workplace can improve the setting for practice and production. That might sound strangely industry oriented. However, a production model puts the emphasis on quality parts produced in a timely manner for shipment to the customer. In a writing course, a theme is a product, and quality standards are set in place so that the provider (the student) can receive payment in the form of grades, from the customer, namely the instructor. I often say that if I’m the one at Kroger writing the check for ten crates of lettuce, and the truck only delivers five crates, no matter whether the reason is valid or not for half a shipment, the check can only be for five crates.

Now that the skill mentality and production model are in place, the next emphasis is the pleasant one of introducing a student’s seat in the computer lab as that student’s “cubicle.” It’s the student’s work place. As such, when no formal instruction is going on, the worker is free to act just like any office worker would, which means working, chatting with others, taking breaks, and generally doing what people in offices do. The student gets to think of the classroom not so much as a classroom but as an office where the worker comes in to get things done. Naturally, as the office manager (as well as tutor, coach, mentor, customer), the instructor keeps the office running smoothly and helps with production concerns.

The goal is to replace the perception of school that looks at it as coming into a class, sitting in someone else’s venue, and passively taking in knowledge. Instead, the onus on the instructor is to establish a good setting for practice and production. It is true that the school belongs to an institution and that instructors are responsible to manage and lead in the classroom; but unless the student gets a feel for school that mirrors the workforce, classes heavy on learning skills can just seem like more of old stereotypes. The point isn’t to undermine authority but to include others in a mutually beneficial sense of how authority works best for everyone; and that can only happen as students gain a sense of being stakeholders.

Not everyone buys into it, but many do, and for those who don’t, they may later look back and reflect on how school and the workforce are alike really at core. As always too, it is helpful when the office manager communicates a sense of still improving his or her own practice skills and production. Some of my best mentors used to say, “You go to school to prepare for a lifetime of study, not to gain a fixed amount of knowledge and stop there.” That’s why I like the Latin phrase posted on speech teacher David Carter’s door—“ ancora imparo,” which means “I’m still learning.”

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