I turn 71 years old today. That, of course, leads to the inevitable question, “Geez, how does anyone ever get so old?” After that conversation with myself , I decided to spend a part of my birthday doing one of my favorite things: Thinking and writing about teaching. For me, that is a pleasant birthday activity.
Because we are moving toward the end of this semester, my associate dean is organizing a lunch discussion among our six new faculty members to talk about their experiences and questions. She invited another professor and me to sit in and provide (I suppose) words of wisdom.
That made me think about what actual words of wisdom I might share with a new college teacher. What do I believe about teaching that I feel is worthy of passing along? After some thought, here is what I would like for a new teacher to consider. So, for those six plus one—OA, BC, CC, BM, AP, GW, and AS who will join us next year—this essay is specifically written for you.
Here is my advice for new college teachers in a rather random list.
(1) – Go to the student evaluation form. Look at every question carefully. Pick the one that is most important to you. Make it your long-term goal to have the best score of any teacher at your school on that one particular question. That will help you focus your teaching. That will provide an objective goal. “I want to be a great teacher” is simply so vague as to be useless. There has to be one question on that evaluation that really calls to you. Do everything you can to get the best possible results on that question. I have worked to grow as a teacher now for 47 ½ years by concentrating on one specific student evaluation question. Trying to become great at that question has guided everything I do. It has helped me align all of the other evaluation questions in a logical way. (And, no, I am not going to tell you the question that I focus on unless you write and ask me at ).
(2) – Students walk into your class expecting to be bored. Many have faced so much mundane education over their years in school that they anticipate nothing better. Constantly look for ways to make the material (a) interesting to them and (b) worth learning. Over the decades, I have developed files of discussion questions for that purpose. In your heart, you should start every class with, “Here is why I find this material so interesting and so important.” Without that, a robot can do the teaching.
(3) – Never forget what it feels like to be a student who has never seen this material before. It is overwhelming and confusing. New terms and new concepts fly at them like hummingbirds. I have learned so much about teaching by thinking about how I would have liked to have been taught. Just so I won't forget, I have taken a number of classes over the years to remind myself of what being the uneducated one in the room feels like.
(4) – Always have a mental picture of what you want the last class of the semester to look and sound like. That provides you with a clear class goal. I could write for an hour on the desired actions of my last class for this semester. I know exactly what I want. I design everything that I do during the semester to push the students to that final destination. If you do not have a vision of that last class, you will lack a guiding light for the individual classes throughout the semester.
(5) – The best classes are the ones where the students talk as much as the teacher. If you say much more than half of the words each class, then you are turning the class into a personal monologue. That is the quickest way to get the students to start thinking about something else. They might look at you and smile and nod their heads but they are pondering life outside of that room.
(6) – Never use PowerPoint. What student (what human being) wants to sit and look at your PowerPoint slides? I want to gag just thinking about it. One exception – PowerPoint can actually work if each slide is 15 words or less and has a question on it that you want the students to address. Otherwise, turn it off.
(7) – The way you test is the way students will learn. If you want brilliant students, you have to ask brilliant, thoughtful test questions. Never use a test bank. You are turning one of the key elements of your course over to some unknown writer sitting behind a desk hundreds or thousands of miles away who has no clue as to what your students should know. Use of a test bank should be outlawed. I am a big believer in open book tests (to be more specific, I allow 2-3 pages of notes) because that will force you to write questions that are not testing memorization. Never ask a question that is simply testing memorization.
(8) – Read the book Make It Stick. Then get your students to read Make It Stick. Quite honestly, I had a sophomore in my office yesterday telling me how much that book had helped him this semester. The more you and your students know about learning, the more learning you will create.
(9) – After virtually every class, almost all students suffer from what I call “Swiss Cheese Knowledge.” Their knowledge looks and feels rather solid so they feel confident. Unfortunately, at that point, the knowledge is usually full of holes that will only grow larger if not addressed. The most underrated aspect of teaching (in my mind) is what you do to push/help students AFTER each class session. If you do not offer help with their Swiss Cheese Knowledge, they are going to be upset and mystified when they do poorly on a test. They thought they had a strong level of knowledge but it was actually full of holes.
(10) – Anyone can become a great teacher if that person gets all of the students to be well prepared when they walk into the classroom. If the students are prepared, the rest is easy. If they are not prepared, the rest is impossible. There are many ways to get students to prepare. How you do that is up to you. I guarantee that the first day you teach where every student is well prepared, you will be absolutely stunned by the brilliance in the room.
(11) – When I first started writing about teaching many years ago, I came up with Joe’s Theorem – if it takes X amount of time to be an average teacher, then it will take 2X amount of time to be a good teacher, and 3X amount of time to be a great teacher. I suspect the proportions are off but the idea is still correct. It is hard to be good or great without spending some serious time. Trust me, I wish it were not so. But it is. Time invested improves most things and teaching is one of those things. If it is not going well, a bit more invested time can be helpful.
(12) – You must figure out some effective way to communicate with your students. If your sole communications is during 150 minutes per week in class, it is going to be tough to be much more than an average teacher. There are just lots of things you need to tell students and class does not provide much opportunity. Most people who read this blog know that I am obsessed with communicating with students. I use email because it works well for me. I email them about 10 times BEFORE the semester starts. I email them about once a day after the semester starts. I literally emailed my class yesterday morning five minutes before the class started as I walked toward the classroom. Have you not noticed that students all walk around with phones in their hands sending and getting messages? They really don’t view my emails as all that odd. My friends think I am crazy. My students seem to think it is normal (or at least close to normal).
(13) – You have to make many decisions as a teacher. Be transparent. “Here is my decision and here is why I made this choice” goes a long way to helping students understand what is happening. If a decision turns out to be wrong, then change it. However, once again, explain what you are doing and why. Every teacher has rules for a good reason, but that does not mean you should suspend all judgments. I tell my students, “If you don’t like something I do, tell me about it. I might not change my mind but I will listen to you and consider your opinions.”
(14) – Teaching requires a lot of faith because you almost never see truly positive results. Students sit in your classroom and you push them along. You think you might be making a difference but you really do not know. Then, they leave and you wonder whether you affected their lives at all. It takes faith to keep pushing so very hard. However, occasionally something will happen that will make you smile and you will realize that teaching really is the greatest profession in the world because you do make a difference in the lives of your students. Yesterday, I got an email from a student who was in my class 2-3 years ago. I remember him but not that well. I would have said that I had no real influence on his life. Nevertheless, he took the time to write.
“I read a quote today in a book that reminded me very fondly of your teaching style and it inspired me to thank you. I work at a mid-sized accounting firm just outside of DC and do everything from accounting support, to audits/reviews/compilations, to every type of tax work available. I use fairly little of the knowledge I learned in school for my daily work, but I do use the approach to learning you teach every day.
“I have been quite successful in everything I try, in large part, because your class allowed me to learn in a manner that produces results in a real world application. There is no static process in my life, no “read, memorize, and regurgitate”. Every day is essentially a “figure it out” moment with growing background, but close to none to start. Feel free to let your students know that they don’t have to get an A in every class, but that not cutting corners is where true value in education lies.”
That type of feedback does not happen often but in those moments when it does, you will realize that your life as a teacher does have a wonderful purpose.