I am now halfway through my 42nd year as a college teacher. This semester (like all semesters) had its ups and downs. There were days when every student seemed brilliant and days when no one seemed to be able to count to four. I don’t think I taught any geniuses but almost every student appeared capable and, hopefully, gained something of lasting benefit. I started with 73 students and a total of 16 finished with the grade of A. I always hope for more excellent work but 21.9 percent was not bad. I try not to contribute too heavily to grade inflation.
At the end of every semester, there are always a few students that I wish I had handled differently. I often ponder them long after class has ended. With 73 students, it can be difficult to get an accurate read on each student at the beginning of the semester. Some need carrots to do well and some need sticks. Often, I feel frustrated because I do not have the time needed to determine what buttons to push to get individual students excited about the learning process. In those cases, I am left wondering if I helped or hindered the student’s learning.
When I travel around the county speaking to teachers, I get to talk with a lot of folks. One common theme I hear is that students do not always appreciate what teachers do for them. “If I work them hard, they are unhappy.” “If I challenge them to go deeper, they rebel.” “Why should I work so hard when the students prefer the easy way?” Teaching can be really frustrating.
And, in truth, human beings (even teachers) need motivation. Everyone needs a pat on the back as often as possible. It is hard to beat your head against a wall if no one really appreciates what you do.
Occasionally, though, I am brought back to reality and reminded that many (if not most) students really do care about their education. But, they do not always have an easy way to show their appreciation for what you do. Last week, I got emails from two of my fall students, two students that I never expected to hear from because I was not sure whether I had taught them anything or not. Until I got their emails, I would have included them on the list of: “I didn’t get through to these students very well.” I guess that is my point: Sometimes you just never know.
Student A seemed extremely quiet. He was a student in my Introduction to Financial Accounting class. When I called on him each day, he would take a long time to answer and his answers frequently seemed very hesitant and unsure. As a result, if you had asked me, I would have said that he was not well prepared. I assumed his hesitancy was because he was not terribly interested in the material. From my vantage point, that was how it appeared.
The email I got from Student A last week was 1,276 words long. I cannot remember ever getting such a long email from a student. All semester, I thought he was a relatively nonverbal student when, in fact, he was just quiet. He was not uninterested, he was quiet. If this email was any indication, he was actually a very very verbal student.
This student that I thought was basically uninterested in financial accounting was, in fact, one of the most interested. I would have said that he did not appreciate what I did when he really did. I misjudged him completely. I am not sure how I should have taken advantage of that knowledge but I judged him incorrectly and probably should have pushed him harder.
Here are just a few (494) of those 1,276 words.
“I wanted to wait to message you until after I received my final numbers so I didn't appear as a brown noser pleading for a better grade. I just wanted to thank you for a great semester. Regardless of whether my letter grade ended as an A, B or C, I can honestly and confidently say that I walked away from your course knowing a great deal of new information about accounting. This class was unique for me- instead of studying just enough so I could pass a test and then forget everything I had learned, the accounting information became ingrained in my head. I began to, actually, like my accounting course. What impresses me most about your teaching abilities is that you instruct a course (accounting) that is considered to be boring/monotonous/dreary by so many people, and you manage to spark an interest within your students. . . . You ran a very tight ship, but that is what you told us to expect from the beginning. From day one, and through each and every email and paper you sent to us, you reinforced the fact that you would expect a lot of time and dedication from us. I appreciate your honesty. I appreciate your strategy of pushing your students to their academic limits. . . . The thing that had the biggest impact on my thinking was the comparison you made one day between professional athletes and business world professionals. You said that when we look at professional athletes, we automatically assume that they had put in countless hours of perfecting their craft to be where they're at now but, for some reason, the same generalization is not made about those who work in the higher levels of business. This statement was very true and I thought about it for a long time after class. I questioned my own efforts and settled on the fact that I had not previously been putting in the time to my studies that I should have been. I do not lack any work ethic in the athletic department, probably because it is what I love to do the most. A few hundred swings and hours in the weight room are no hassle to me. However, I could honestly say that during my freshman year, and during most of this past semester, I was doing enough to get by and do 'well enough' but was I really pushing myself to become substantially better in the classroom? The answer was no- not at all. Your words that day helped me redefine my work ethic when it came to school. I started taking a little more pride and setting aside a little more time for my studies. I kept my new approach through the end of this past semester and I was pleased with my final grades. I am not saying you are the sole reason why I did well overall this semester, but your lessons definitely helped me.”
Student B was in my Intermediate Accounting II class and seemed completely uninterested. His answers were almost flippant and I kept wanting to ask him why he was in the class if he cared so little. His work on tests was all over the place from a 71 to a 92. I fully expected him to make a D or an F on the final exam and perhaps a D in the course. In my own mind, I had him firmly labeled as “having not one iota of interest in accounting.”
But then, Student B made a strong A on the final exam, a test that I considered incredibly complicated. I was stunned. I wondered if he had sent in a clone to take the test for himself. I would have bet that he did not appreciate one thing about my teaching of that class so I didn’t understand that excellent work on the final exam.
Then, out of the blue, I got the following email.
“I just want to thank you for a fantastic semester. I can honestly say I enjoyed coming to your class every day of the week, as it was one of the only classes where I felt that I could sit and figure things out instead of scrambling to write down every word the professor says, to try and "learn" it later. After this semester I feel that I have grown much as a person, and more than ever find pleasure in things intellectual and thought-provoking. In car rides that used to be filled by whatever mindlessly popular music the radio station chose to broadcast, I now find myself either listening to talk radio or turning off the radio all together and pondering different facets of my life or humanity as a whole. Not only has this class enriched my ability to think about life, but I feel to have gained a real understanding of financial accounting. While during the semester I may have seemed somewhat uninterested, I promise you this was never the case. My problem was that I easily understood about 85% of the material, and thus didn't feel particularly pressed to immediately work for the other 15%. Interestingly enough, when I sat down to begin studying for the final, I found that going back through the material was not as stressful as I expected it to be. The concepts I had learned throughout the entire semester were clear and seemed to flow together perfectly. I honestly enjoyed the 4 hour final, as it gave me a chance to sit down and think through problems, and the fact that I was able to easily reason through them was actually fairly exciting for me.”
I had 73 students this semester. Only 3 or 4 chose to write me an email about the semester. And, much to my surprise, two of the most interesting emails came from students that
(a) I clearly did not understand too well during the semester and
(b) I would have labeled as not at all appreciative of the class.
As I have said before, I write these blog entries for me more than for you. So, what should I take away from these two emails?
First – don’t rely too much on external appearances. Work harder to get to know the students as best you can. One of the absolute great things about teaching is that every student brings his or her own issues and personality to your class. After all, you don’t teach a class; you teach people.
Second – don’t waste so much time worrying about whether students appreciate what you do. You simply may never know. If you work hard and if you understand what you want your students to learn and if you challenge them (but do so fairly), they will come to appreciate what you do. Yeah, there may never be a way for them to express that appreciation but it is there.