Sunday, April 9, 2017

Elective Surgery

In every school there are courses you have to take. Each degree, certificate, or diploma program has its own list, but they all have one and you'll take the stuff they tell you if want them to sign on the bottom line of the fancy parchment (see also: here). Whether a school requires two years of a language, four years of phys ed, three years of math, and so on is not standard across the industry, but in all of these cases someone somewhere is making decisions for you. PDE has its say, your school board its say, college admission standards have theirs, NCAA its, and your parents theirs. In the end you may actually get to pick something, and that's where the real fun begins.

People who teach required subjects have what's called Job Security. In fact, if you manage to get your subject on the standardized testing list, all the better (see also: here). The rest of us fight it out for any time and space left over. The name of the game is to have the courses we most like to teach filled with appropriate students--though, never over-filled. In other words, try to teach that course that everyone wants but only a limited number can get.

Even for those with Job Security, teachers will often enter the marketplace with elective editions of their regular fare. As a result, you'll see The History of Mathematics, and Elective Phys Ed, and The Physics of the Impossible--How to Make Science Fiction into Science Fact (okay, I made up the third one, but not the other two). It's too bad, because I think I'd take that physics course.

All of this has pitted teacher against teacher in an odd skirmish. It's something of a popularity contest, but it can be difficult to discern the necessary elements in this sort of popularity. In some cases, it involves convincing the constituency that your course is more rigorous and therefore more rewarding than all the others. In others, it's a matter of getting a reputation for egregious grade inflation. If you're looking for proof, note that Rate My Teachers ranks both "Easiness" and "Knowledge" (see also: here). We take from this the impression that students want teachers who know a whole lot, but don't really require their students to know that much. I guess. Rate My Professor also ranks "Hotness," but luckily in secondary education we don't need to keep up with our hairdresser appointments or gym memberships.

For teachers looking to market their elective courses properly, I offer the following:
  • Choose your target demographic: Want to teach gifted kids? Great, but beware the helicopter parents (see also: snowplow parents and tiger mothers). Slackers are not every teacher's first choice, but the smart but unmotivated student can be a rewarding challenge if you find something that finally catches their interest. It's possible to offer a course to students across all spectrum, but challenging the strongest students and not losing the weakest becomes a constant struggle.
  •  Play to your strengths: Think about what you actually want to be doing all day (see also: here). For example, I decided that I wanted to learn to play the guitar. My next step was to offer a guitar class. Someday I'll get interested in the bassoon, or the banjo, or the harp, and coincidentally we'll start offering that.
  • Naming is everything: “Sports Writing” has the word “writing” in there, which is bad, but it also has the word “sports” which is good--maybe (see: #1. above). If you're going to offer a course in watching movies, you should avoid words like "watch," "cinema," and for God's sake "movie." Try instead "history," "modern," or "seminar." Meanwhile, don't ignore the other extreme in students. Some are attracted to the most horrifying name you can devise. Forget “Elective Health” and think “Advanced Surgical and Non-surgical Exploration of Micro-biological and Macro-biological Organisms.” Someday someone will design an app to do this automatically, but you haven't adjusted your course name lately, use these real naming upgrades as a handy guide:
    • Basket Weaving --> Multicultural Applied Arts Survey
    • Co. Ed. Cooking --> Culinary Science
    • Shop --> Manufacturing Systems
    • Hanging Out in the Band Room --> Senior Music Seminar
  • Build a pipeline: The Car Talk guys figured out that one of the most powerful words in product instructions is “repeat”—with just one word, you’ve instantly doubled your sales. The same can be done by offering a “level 2” (“level 3,” and so on…) of your course. To play this game at the advanced level, apply the alternative naming strategy from above to your level 2 course--think: Advanced Application of Kinestilogical Science Regimen (aka Gym 2).
  •  Write engaging course descriptions: Stay away from ZANY!, cheeky, or otherwise unprofessional descriptions, but every word of a course descriptions is designed to turn on desirable students and turn off the rest. A handy guide is to explore Forbes Top 10 Paying Jobs list and just dot words from there liberally into your description. If you're not inclined to check out the link, just use: "STEM," "technology," "independent," and "media."Eventually we'll write an app for this too.
  • Offer career counseling: SPOILERS: Most career paths will undoubtedly begin with your class(es), but offering “objective” advice on every semester of a student’s time at your school up until graduation will make it clear how everything you offer will fit into a well-balanced academic life. If a student sees a need for math, writing, critical thinking, networking, presentation, or design skills, assure them that your Music Through the Guitar class offers all of that and so much more. You could even include bits of these skills in your course, I guess.
  • Tag "AP" on the front: Really, people love that stuff. Many people are dazzled by the just-like-college thing, plus Educational Testing has already done much of the marketing for you. There is a similarly sinister thing going around called "dual enrollment," by which some high school courses can simultaneously earn college credit just by charging students a fee and playing on teachers' belief that teaching from a college syllabus makes you pretty much a tenured professor. Keep in mind: If they'll let a fifteen-year-old with a 3.0 GPA take it, it's not college work. For more on this see: here, or the Slacker Guide version: here
  • Consider forming a cult: You may no longer find it necessary to apply the methods above if you play your cards right. Sometimes the easiest way to make sure that students schedule your course is to get the students you currently have to bring in fresh victims new faces. See also: here.

If you are a student reading this post and made it this far--even past the list (bye Kayla!)--you may be feeling a little sick about the manipulation I've described that is inherent in the system. You should be, but understanding the methodologies being applied to you can make you a more intelligent consumer of this stuff. Just knowing that there is a marketing battle being waged over your choices can be helpful. A sales pitch loses some of its mythical powers when you recognize that you're being sold something.

Ultimately, it is important to keep in mind that 93% of the learning you experience before perhaps graduate school is in the liberal arts. That is, the specific content you learn isn't nearly as important as the very act of learning for its own sake. A school counselor I work with reminds her students that most of high school is learning how to read, write, and think. I remind mine that my younger daughter's godmother works as an attending physician and administrator at CHOP, but majored in theater in college; a daughter of another friend working in the same profession has a bachelor's and master's in clarinet performance. All of this in way of saying, there isn't just one way to get there. Anyone who tells you different may be trying to sell you something.

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