Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Colorado: A University of Phoenix Experience

In the late 1990's, when I was in my late twenties and caring for two babies, I not-so-willingly had moved to Colorado Springs from my home state of Massachusetts where I had been adjunct teaching at my alma mater community college and public university.  The move was difficult, not just because of my family situation, but because of the culture change.  A struggling free-thinker dropped into mainstream greater Denver is destined for trouble, and I should have known that before I walked into the room filled with men in gray and brown suits, all applying to teach online courses for University of Phoenix. 

I was wearing a dress.  It was an okay dress, not dressy in that Sunday-wear-to-church way, but something I had worn to interviews before I started doing things like feeding a baby at 4 a.m. which is what I had done that morning.  Unlike the other twenty or so people sitting at the tables arranged in rectangle, I carried a tote bag as opposed to a briefcase.

I sat myself near the only other female in the room, a 30ish lady also dressed in a suit but who nodded at me while the men just stared or continued their important sounding conversations.  I didn't know what they were saying.  I just supposed men applying for academic positions and who dressed in suits must be discussing something smart and relevant. I was right. 

The first thing I overheard related to an interview packet they had all received prior to being called in.  I had not received one.  I had been given a brief telephone interview then told to be prepared to give a demonstration lesson.  I did not know I would be questioned by candidates outside of my discipline, that I would be the only person who had not worked strictly in a business related field or that I would be the only person who had not used Blackboard or some other online platform designed for absolute distance education.  From what I gathered, I would be one of the few who would have to depend on Phoenix's claim, "We train."

The ceremonies began probably about the time I realized I had a spit-up stain on my dress.  Upon formal introductions, I learned every man in the room was applying to teach some form of business or management.  I think there was at least one math-potential there, too.  The woman was applying to teach humanities.  I was the only one applying to teach writing, which I thought could be a good thing. I smiled brightly, talked a little about my background in classroom teaching, my experience using technology within the classroom and how I looked forward to learning more about the program. I think I would have recalled getting even one smile in return because it would have been an anomaly. 

After introductions, each man got up, distributed handouts, lectured, wrote on the whiteboard, asked questions of the group and wound up in a timely manner.  The humanities lady did something pretty similar, though she was less dry than those wearing ties, which was probably my perception because business didn't interest me as much as humanities and math was a clear bore. 

I was last to present.  And, might I say, I was brave because most people would have had the sense to leave by then.

Tote bag in hand, I made myself march to the front of the room where I unpacked my props--my babies' octagon with various cut-outs and the coordinating colorful, plastic blocks designed to fit through matching openings to teach young ones important concepts such as width, height and shape. I had also laid out several other things, some of which I had grabbed from the interview room: a dry erase marker, a pen, a paperclip, a piece of paper.

"I'm going to teach you to edit a paragraph in under five minutes," I told the group, ignoring some smirks.  But I was confident of my approach, since I had used it successfully several times in my community college classes.

"This," I said holding up the octagon, "is your paragraph with a main idea.  And these," I pointed to the shapes laid out on the table, "are your details.  Every detail must fit in this paragraph and match the main idea."

I wrote the topic on the board.  I then said a sentence that matched the topic.  "Does it fit with the topic sentence?" I asked.  They nodded.  "Good."  I brought a plastic shape over to a man and asked him to put it in the right slot of the octagon.

"How about this sentence...?" I said something that obviously didn't fit.  "It doesn't fit," said one man.  "Good."  I handed him the eraser.  "What do you do with it?"  He didn't seem to have a clue, so I took it out of his hand and tossed it across the room. 

"You throw it out," I said.

This went on for some time until the octagon was filled, the other items strewn across the floor and I called for questions.

The first question was how this exercise pertained to teaching writing to adults.  There were lots of nodding of heads.  I told the group I had taught this lesson to adults, many of whom understood it because they had children who had played with this exact toy.

The next question was how I would implement the exercise into an online class.  I said if there were a live component to the class, I would demonstrate that way.  If not, I could use computer graphics.

The rest of the questions came in a series of haughty tones, one candidate quoting Tom Wolf, another asking how I would implement such-and-such's business theory into the class.

By the end of the question/answer period, it was clear these men were trying to embarrass me, more evidenced by the woman who kindly whispered she thought I had done a good job.

In the one-on-one debriefing, I told the interviewer I felt I had been somewhat at a disadvantage, since I had not received the same orientation packet as the rest of the candidates.  I requested a packet and an opportunity to come back.  "We don't do that," he said.

Some people would have left utterly dejected, and I was, but not because I thought I was a bad teacher.  In the past, given guidance and creative leeway, I had been successful--not perfect, but successful.  What killed me was the obviousness that I did not fit in, nor was I welcome. 

From then on, I spent a goodly amount of time in Manitou Springs where mostly childless, pot smoking hippies, self proclaimed witches and performing Native Americans hung around town.  I didn't exactly fit in there, either, because I had babies and I've never done drugs.  One morning, I especially recognized my differences when I asked for a cup of "regula" coffee and the kid behind the counter couldn't understand my accent. But at least in Manitou, the hippies were too high or preoccupied to notice I was an eraser in a world full of common shapes that slipped smoothly into a bigger space.  I vowed I would never create a space that small.
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