The Dilemma of Choice
Most teachers have one main goal: the transfer of information. Anything that affects that transfer, for better or worse, poses the dilemma of choice. We like to think that we’ll always choose the path that offers the most education to the greatest number of students. Sometimes, however, that path is not so clear cut. Take, for example, the choice of whether to offer open or closed enrollment. That is, should we only allow new students to enter the classroom on specified registration dates/times, or should we accept a new prospect whenever he or she shows up at our door?
From an administrative point of view, closed enrollment is the obvious choice. The teacher sets a registration window, welcomes all students who appear during that time, passes out the required papers, administers the baseline tests, and scores them. There’s orientation, introductions, and maybe even some refreshments. For the rest of the semester, all class time is devoted to the transfer of information. Perfect!
That method works fairly well for most college courses, where the students have paid their money and have exhibited some sort of longer-term commitment to education. Their family is usually supporting them emotionally, if not financially; and their high school diploma affords them some level of self-confidence. If they can’t register for the course this semester, they’ll be back again because they really want it, or need it to graduate. But is that the same student who shows up for GED, or even ESL classes? Not in my experience.
Of course there are exceptions, but generally my students are much less committed. By definition, the GED students have not had much academic success in the past. Some are ridiculed, even by members of their own family, for having the audacity to make another attempt at education. And there is no financial commitment whatsoever. Still, for some reason, and maybe only for a moment, they gather the courage to show up at my classroom door. It may be the middle of the semester, and indeed, it may even be the middle of a class discussion on the recent solar eclipse! Now I must make a decision…open or closed enrollment. The dilemma of choice.
Then there are those who show up because the judge ordered it. Those folks usually don’t have a personal commitment to the classroom. Their choice was go to class or go to jail. But now they’ve transferred that choice to me. Do I register them on the spot, disrupting my class of marginally-committed students in order to accommodate someone who views the class as a small step up from a cell; or do I tell them to find another venue because we only register once a quarter? And if I decide then and there to give my class a break while I give the new student a crash course in enrollmentology, how many students will decide to call it a night, some never to be seen again? It’s a dilemma of choice.
So what to do?
In ESL, the choice is somewhat easy because the BEST Plus requires a significant amount of time with face-to-face student/teacher interaction. Asking the current students to do without a teacher in a class period that is already too short is, for me, unacceptable. That usually means I allow the walk-ins to sit through a class or two untested until I can get some time, or an independent tester, to administer the registration/BEST Plus. It’s my contention that the baseline test scores will not be significantly skewed as a result of a few hours of classroom participation. I’ll accept any criticism of that decision rather than run the risk of permanently turning away a student who has finally gotten the courage to knock on my door. And indeed, any student whose baseline improves over those few hours will most certainly show more gain after a couple of months of instruction, so the administrative risk is small. The argument against my ‘modified’ closed enrollment, however, is that ESL students truly need English to prosper in this country, so will likely come back even if turned away the first time. I recognize that, but solve my dilemma as I do.
In GED, the choice is more difficult because of the ease of administering the Locator and the TABE, versus the variable commitment of those students already enrolled. But I almost always opt for open enrollment.
When a new GED student sticks his or her head into my class, regardless of what’s going on at the time, I’ll stop what I’m doing to invite that person in. No matter what, the new person will get a few minutes of my time immediately in order for me to assess his/her situation. Then, depending on where we are in the lesson, the new student will join us for a while, or I’ll excuse myself from the classroom to start the enrollment process. I’m fairly comfortable with this approach because I remind all my students that’s exactly how their enrollment worked. For the most part they recognize the fairness of that, so I rarely get any negative feedback. And I’m rarely out of the classroom for more than a few minutes because that’s all it takes to start the registration, run the timed tests, or orient the newcomer around the building.
That’s how I solve my dilemma of choice, so I’m sticking with it. It took me a few months to get comfortable with these methods, but I’m satisfied now that they work best for the greatest number of my students. How do you solve your dilemma?
About the Author
Thomas D. Enright has an MBA in management and finance from the University
of Colorado. He currently teaches daytime ABE/GED and evening ESL at
the Northview Center in Universal City for the Comal, Guadalupe and
Kendall Counties Adult Education Cooperative. His class enrollment
typically runs the gamut from 16-year old court-ordered students, to
60 year-old grandmothers, to foreign-educated college graduates. Mr.
Enright enjoys working with them all!