All posts by Mary Anne Dugan

Note to Self

by Mary Anne Duggan

If I were to write a letter to myself as a beginning teacher some 36 years ago, what would I say? How could I light a path forward for the old me? How could I keep the letter from being 50-plus pages long? I have a lot of questions about this week’s Write 6X6 prompt. But one thing I have learned over the years is to just jump in – knowing all the answers is not required (and most often not even possible!)

Dear Mary Anne,
     I see you over there. You are at a high school football game in September where you are watching your new fiancé’s brother play football. But you’re not watching the game; you’re grading a stack of papers. On a Friday night. And, oh yeah, you teach fourth grade
. . .

Flash forward to you leaving your classroom at the end of another long day in January, towing a luggage cart carrying five or six textbooks and a blank lesson plan for Wednesday. It’s Tuesday. A veteran teacher passes by and quips, “Ah, working more and enjoying it less, right?”

Now it’s the last day of the school year in May, and you are furiously assembling books the students created to take home for the summer. You’re using the new-fangled book binding machine the school just purchased. It’s your lunch hour, and you are sweating like a — well — a teacher who waited until the last minute to provide a special experience for her students in a room with a swamp cooler.

Dear, dear Mary Anne, the school year is not a nine-month slog with respite only allowed in June. You can’t hurl yourself against the wall year after year trying to attain teaching perfection. No such thing exists, and your health will suffer in the process.

You have ambitious plans for providing a wonderful school experience for your students. You have all these grand ideas of what makes a “good” teacher. But a “good enough” teacher who lives a healthy and balanced life will surely be enough by anyone else’s standards. Let go, at least a bit, and you’ll see that the world keeps spinning and your students keep on learning. And you will have many years in this profession you love.

The older me,
Mary Anne

As I look back on this letter, I am left with further questions: Would I have listened to this advice way back when? Is it desirable to have all pitfalls flagged ahead of time? Or are some missteps just part of the process of growth as a teacher and, perhaps more importantly, as a person?


Why Online?

by Mary Anne Duggan

According to Maricopa Fast Facts, in fall 2022 69% of GCC students attended school part-time. In addition, ever since the onset of COVID, students are opting for online courses in greater numbers. The masks may be down and freedom to roam the school halls restored, but the online, part-time student population only seems to be growing in droves.

We are a community college because we serve the community. But, we also build community in our classrooms, student organizations, sports teams, and special events. Community building becomes decidedly more difficult when our students only have one toe dipped into school life.

I have been thinking a lot about why my online courses fill up much faster than my in-person courses. As part of an anonymous mid-term survey I gave to my statistics students this semester, I asked students to “Briefly explain why you decided to take PSY 230/231 fully online as opposed to in-person.”

Two major qualitative themes emerged to the question of why online: 1) scheduling/logistical and 2) preference for online learning. Scheduling/logistical reasons dominated (71% of all responses) and had the following sub-themes:

  • Convenience
  • Flexibility
  • Work demands
  • Avoid commute
  • Scheduling needs
  • Participation in sports
  • Parenting/homelife responsibilities

Preference for online learning had the following sub-themes:

  • Do well in online classes
  • Like online better
  • Anxiety/avoidance of being in-person
  • Ability to go at own pace
  • Perceive in-person courses as harder

What was interesting (but not at all surprising) is that, when broken down by age (18-21 vs. 22+ or “traditional” vs. “non-traditional” ages), scheduling/logistical was mentioned by the 22+ set more often (81% of their responses) than in the 18–21-year-olds (62% of their responses). Of course, this survey of my classroom students is not generalizable to all college students or even students at GCC. But, it helps me to know a little more about what motivated my students to choose an online class, especially a class that is typically perceived as highly rigorous.

The reasons my students gave for selecting online courses over those taught in-person indicate the strong pull of this learning platform that isn’t going away any time soon (or ever). The continuing challenge for educators is to find new ways to foster a sense of belonging for part-time and online students.

And yet, there is another “community” to which our students belong – their immediate and extended families. Yes, my student who is a father in his 30’s might not attend a basketball game on campus, but he shares his online work with his 10-year-old son who wants to know about “all those funny numbers on the screen.” Or there’s the mom of a two-year-old who laughs as her child climbs all over her while we video conference. There’s the dad who I just know is sitting off camera as his son participates in a Zoom class, poised to offer tutoring after sign-off. College simply looks different for some of our students, but the motivating factor of community can be present in many forms.


ChatGPT? Good Grief!

by Mary Anne Duggan

It’s hard to put into words how I feel about the sudden explosion of AI (and ChatGPT in particular). My son happens to work in AI, and our conversations usually leave me with a blank look on my face. I nod politely as not to let on how little I understand about this thing that will supposedly upend how we all live and work.

Sometimes I feel like technological roadkill. The advancements are rushing by at 100mph, and I’m left stunned by the side of the road. As I think about it more, the feeling I have might be one of grief.

So, I asked my new, best worst friend ChatGPT to tell me a little more about grief so I can figure out if this feeling fits. In less than 30 seconds, this is what my “friend” delivered:

“The stages of grief, as identified by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, are:

  • Denial: This stage involves disbelief or denial of the reality of the loss.
  • Anger: This stage involves feelings of anger, resentment, or frustration about the loss.
  • Bargaining: This stage involves a desire to make a deal or bargain with a higher power or with fate to change the outcome.
  • Depression: This stage involves feelings of sadness, loneliness, and despair about the loss.
  • Acceptance: This stage involves accepting the reality of the loss and moving forward with life.

It is important to note that not everyone experiences all of these stages, and they may not necessarily occur in a linear or predictable order. Grief is a highly individualized and personal experience, and people may experience a range of emotions and reactions that are unique to their situation.”

Hmm, this might be what I’m going through. But my new friend left out all the nuances of Kübler-Ross’s research on grief (which was actually conducted with critically-ill patients and not the grieving public in general). No mention is made of the problems of stage theories in general or the liberal application of Kübler-Ross’s stages to any kind of loss one might have. In short, ChatGPT is not ready to replace me as a professor just yet.

But, if my career is on life-support from the attack of AI, perhaps the stages of grief apply to me as the not-quite-dead-yet patient:

Denial – I teach statistics. Surely ChatGPT can’t solve the multi-step hypothesis testing items I assign to my students.

Anger – ChatGPT can solve the multi-step hypothesis testing items I assign to my students! Gaaahhh! It also can correctly answer multiple choice items pated from Canvas. *sound of punching pillows*

Bargaining – If I just demand that my online students come to the testing center four times a semester it will all be okay. If I just show my students why learning statistics is important it will be okay . . .  If I just . . . If I just . . . If I just . . .

Depression – Instead of finding solutions, I’ll rewatch season 2 of Ted Lasso for the third time (and “Believe!”)

Acceptance – ChatGPT isn’t going anywhere. Since I am not going anywhere either, acceptance is the only option.

Acceptance, however, doesn’t mean resignation. I can accept this new way of finding information and turn it to my, and my students’, advantage. Not quite sure how I’ll do that yet, maybe I’ll ask my new friend.


When the World Bursts Through the Classroom Door

by Mary Anne Duggan

Photo by Aidan Bartos on Unsplash

As a dutiful kindergarten teacher, I always wrote my lesson plans a week in advance. It just so happened on the schedule for September 11, 2001 was a class book the students would create entitled What a Wonderful World. The plan was to play a recording of Louis Armstrong’s song of the same name while the students each illustrated a sentence from the song.

I see trees of green
Red roses, too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world

This on a decidedly not-wonderful morning. Just a few hours prior I woke my husband from his post-night shift slumber to let him know he would be putting on his uniform again. I wrenched with whether I should drop off my daughter at middle school. Were we all in danger? Would school even be held? I dropped her off and brought my son to our school not knowing what would happen next.

In the faculty room before the first bell, we deliberated on how much to discuss with the students. In that moment, the kindergarten team decided to treat it like a normal day and gently answer any questions as they arise. (And cross fingers that they would not!)

Fast forward to Armstrong’s powerful voice playing in my classroom later that morning and me trying to stuff down the tears of the moment. Up to that point, no student had said a thing about the terrorist attack, except for Matthew who came running up to me at the start of the day. “Some planes flew into the Twin Towers!” he shared with me in his strong, 5-year old New York accent.

As the students each illustrated their page of the book, (a book I still have over 20 years later), pictures of blue skies and rainbows and people really saying I love you filled their pages. But Matthew made a different artistic choice. On his page was an airplane with two rising towers in its sights.

I learned then what I continue to believe now. Current events let themselves into our classrooms unbidden. And even if only some of my students are aware of them, as the teacher I, too, am affected. The question for me, then, is not if current events should be part of classroom dialogue, but how.

Acknowledging contagious ideas

On a brisk February day 18 years after 9/11, I again stood in front of a class – this time a college statistics class. I was trying to teach about z-scores that day, but the students were more interested in talking about this weird new virus that was going around. I remember one nursing student saying to the whole class, “Hold on, people – It’s coming!”

If I taught social psychology, we could have discussed the phenomenon of conspiracy theories or the sway of confirmation bias. If I was a nursing instructor, we could have focused on hand-washing and other ways to prevent germ spread. I could have espoused theories about how a pandemic should be handled, but I don’t teach public health. I could have gone all sorts of political, but I resisted.

Since I teach statistics, however, there was plenty to tie in. We talked about probabilities associated with the virus and base-rate errors people are inclined to make. We learned how to calculate rates of contagion and R-naught ratios. We talked about how COVID deaths were operationally defined from a statistical perspective– a sad discussion but one the students really wanted to have. In short, we kept to the content of statistics, and that gave us plenty to chew over. And, I believe in neutrally approaching this topic and sticking to the science, students gained some knowledge that may have helped them find their footing when it seemed the floor was dropping out from under them.

Current events run in the news on a loop and some students walk into our classrooms replaying that loop in their minds. Current events can either serve as a massive distraction for students or as a vehicle for powerful learning. I choose to minimize the former by capitalizing on the latter.


What’s on Your Bookshelf?

by Mary Anne Duggan

I’ve loved books (and donuts) for a long time!

A long-distance lover might whisper over the phone line, “What are you wearing?” But I find the question, “What are you reading?” so much more intriguing. Thus, this week’s Write 6X6 prompt about our current literary delights really “lit” me up.

Someone once said, “I like to carry a book with me at all times in case nothing happens.” I feel the same way, and that is why I always have a book (or several) well within reach.

Lately I have three types of books going at any one time: 1) An audiobook for long car rides to GCC, 2) A non-fiction book to read in stolen moments throughout the day, and 3) A good, juicy novel. Here is what I’m reading now in each category:

Audiobook – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

When I visit my daughter who lives on the Upper West Side in New York City, I always stop by the Strand independent bookstore on Columbus Avenue. It was there that I stumbled upon Sapiens last month, and I thought it might enrich my learning of evolutionary psychology. It turns out what I don’t know about the history of our species is a lot, and I am so grateful to have found this book.

(Speaking of New York bookstores, I highly recommend the documentary The Booksellers available on Amazon Prime.)

Nonfiction – When Memory Comes by Saul Friedländer

Very soon I will be embarking on an educational delegation to Poland and Israel to study the history of the Holocaust and prospects for global peace in the future. A dear colleague loaned me several books to help me prepare for the trip, and When Memory Comes is one of them. Friedländer’s memoir that spans from being hid as a child from the Nazis in World War II to living in the newly-created state of Israel as an adult is gripping throughout.

Fiction – The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

I always have one glorious novel on my bedside. When I spoke with my doctor just this week about having difficulty sleeping, he said that old saw, “Mary, the bed is only for two things.” Well, if I have to choose only two things for the bed . . .

Seriously, I’m not giving up reading in bed (or the other two things). The book I am reading now is a “Shannon Pick.” My niece Shannon has impeccable taste in books, TV, and movies, so when she makes a recommendation, I take note. The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a fiction book based on interviews with a real Holocaust survivor. I don’t count it as a full-on historical record, but it is a well-written and enlightening story. It is at once dreamy and heartbreakingly tragic.

I’m off now to snuggle up with a good book (and not sleep)!


The Long and Winding Road

by Mary Anne Duggan

When the first prompt of this season’s Write 6X6 challenge was announced, my brain buzzed with potential songs that represent my career in education. The first thing I did was to search for chart-toppers from my first year in teaching – 1986. A quick trip down musical memory lane promptly reminded me of why I don’t love 80’s music.

But another song from the past kept floating in my consciousness – The Long and Winding Road. So, I decided to take lyrics from this 1970 Beatles song for a spin around the record player to see if it spoke sang to me.

The long and winding road
That leads to your door
Will never disappear
I’ve seen that road before
It always leads me here
Leads me to your door

I didn’t set out to become a teacher. Instead, I started out as a dance major in college. I struggled in the first two years of my dance program. The professors didn’t like how much time I was spending with my boyfriend. They didn’t like that I actually ate food. And on the first day of my junior year, I got sideways of my ballet teacher.

On that day, the teacher was disgusted by her students’ lack of preparation. At the end of class, she went around and demanded the names of some of us to report to the department chair. When she approached me, my face was flushed and heart racing. “What is your name?” she barked. The toes in my ballet slippers were tingling, and I packed up all that adrenaline and ran to the registrar’s office, where I proclaimed, “I want to change my major!”

You could do that back in 1984. Computers weren’t used for registration when I was in college, so you just told someone if you wanted out. “Well, what do you want to study?” asked the 25-year old registration manager.

I took a split second to think about the last time I was happy in a college class. “I love psychology because I’m totally into how people learn!” Enter the first bend of the winding road: I thought that meant I should be an elementary school teacher.

The winding road went from elementary school teacher to preschool owner back to elementary school teacher through a master’s degree in counselor education to staff developer to peer evaluator to a PhD in educational psychology to clinical assistant professor of education to research program director to assistant research professor in family/human development and – finally — to teacher of psychology. You know, that thing I told the registration manager I wanted 39 years ago.

But all along the road, there is one thread in my career of four decades: A fierce desire to honor the individuality of my students, to provide a visceral sense of safety for them, and to encourage a sense of belonging for all. To make my classroom a place students feel they have value and something to contribute. It should be no surprise that what I have been working on through the whole of my career is what I so desperately needed in that dance studio, on that fateful August day so very long ago.