Happy Holidays!!! I hope this semester has been wonderful, one where your students were inspired to think deeply and find joy in learning. As I often tell my students: the more you learn, the more the world opens up to you. So, I hope you helped to open the world a bit wider for every one of your students. Could any job be more rewarding than that?
I needed an old picture last week for a project so I went searching through my college yearbooks. They have remained on my book shelf, rarely opened, for nearly five decades. Although I discovered hundreds of scenes of college life, my attention was captured by one tiny picture—about the size of a quarter. Oddly enough, it was a photo of a sheet of paper—a paper that had 8 words handwritten on it. The sheet looked like it might have been tacked to a wall. I have no idea why this particular photo was included in a college yearbook but the words on that paper certainly meant something to me.
“Will I be a teacher they never forget?”
I don’t know if those words had been written by a student who dreamed of a future in the classroom or by a faculty member who looked to that goal for inspiration. But, the message has been on my mind since I leafed through that yearbook. It stands at the heart of what you and I do every day as we enter our classrooms.
How do we make that happen? That is something that you might ponder over the winter break. My advice: Set out to make a real difference in the lives of each student. Then, your efforts will be worth remembering.
I like having a personal theme for each new semester. The above words seem like a great candidate for the spring of 2017. Make a real difference in the lives of the students and teaching becomes the greatest profession in the world. Yes, the students will probably forget our names over the years but they will carry our influence with them for the rest of their lives.
Will I be a teacher they never forget? That leads to a simple question with no simple answer: How can a teacher manage to make a positive difference in the lives of his or her students? That is a discussion that teachers should have more often. When is the last time you actually talked with a colleague about how to make a difference in the lives of your students? As we end the fall semester and begin to look forward to the spring, it is a question worth considering. Making a difference is a lot more than covering subject matter. At some point, teaching needs to go beyond content delivery.
I can describe my approach to working with students but that’s because I have thought about it for 45.5 years. But, in truth, these thoughts only apply to me. If you are serious about being a teacher your students will never forget, then spend some time coming up with your own insights.
With that disclaimer, here are four things that I always put high on my list of actions that can help make a real difference in the lives of your students.
(1) – William Faulkner famously said: “Don't bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.” I think that is a basic message teachers need to convey to their students. Don’t let them settle for mediocre. Many are happy to hide their talents. They focus on their limitations. A lot of students almost fight to avoid standing out. Too many would be delighted to accept a B or C and simply head back to the dorm.
To make a difference in the lives of your students, you have to convince them that they are capable of doing more than they ever thought possible. Occasionally, I save messages from my students and pull them out when I need to recharge my enthusiasm. Here’s one I received shortly after a student finished my course. “You have taught me how to be a better student and how to believe in my own potential to succeed. You have definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone, but by doing so, you've helped me push myself to become a better student and person.” That student never even mentioned whether I taught her any accounting. It wasn’t about content delivery.
How does a teacher push a student to go beyond their own self-doubts? First, you have to believe that what you are teaching is extremely important. If you don’t believe that, neither you nor the students will be willing to put in the serious effort necessary for success. Second, you have to push the students to work harder and think more deeply and you have to push them every day even when you get sick and tired of pushing. Third, you have to guide them. You cannot simply push—you must also guide. In my mind, teaching is often no more than “pushing” and “guiding.”
(2) – I find the idea of language to be fascinating. I have heard it said that the ability to use language was one of the most important steps in our evolutionary development. I can use simple words (spoken or written) to take a complex idea out of my head and move it into the heads of my students. Isn’t that marvelous? Almost sounds like science fiction. But words are necessary. We do not teach through telepathy. Students cannot read a teacher’s mind. To make a difference, you have to come up with an efficient way to communicate with your students. Without successful communication, you might as well be a picture on a wall.
My spring classes start in one month but I have already written 2-3 emails to the new students. I’ll write them every week until the semester starts and almost every day after classes begin. I want absolute clarity. I want no one lost and confused. I want students to understand what I want from them and why. I am beginning to create the environment that I want for the spring semester: challenging, interesting, requiring work, and requiring thought. Just yesterday I described a problem that one of my current students had posed. It thought it was a fascinating question and I emailed it to my new students. Company B directs Company C to send some inventory items to Customer A in China. Company C certainly records sales revenue but does Company B also record sales revenue or did that company do no more than pass along a message. I didn’t give them an assignment and I didn’t provide an answer. I just wanted to start tickling their curiosity.
When something goes wrong in one of my classes, I am always reminded of the famous passage from the movie Cool Hand Luke: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”
(3) – To convince students to invest time and effort, a teacher has to explain why he or she finds the material interesting and important. If it is not interesting and it is not important, why in the world should the teacher take up class time with it? A teacher should never discuss topics just because they have always been discussed in the past. Don’t take up class time purely because material is included in a textbook. The subject matter has to be interesting or it has to be important. If not, then skip it and move on. Removing material from a course takes some courage. But you are the teacher. Within reason, you have to make the decision on how to allocate class time. If material is interesting, then share that reason with the students. If material is important, then share that reason with the students. They have a right to know why you are taking up their time.
(4) – Finally, and maybe most importantly, it is difficult to make a difference in the lives of students unless you care about them as people. Yes, college students can be lazy and rude. You still need to care about them as people or you will never make a lasting and positive difference in their lives. Trust me, after so many years and so many students, it is easy to view students as interchangeable parts – like various pieces of inventory sitting in front of you. But, they are not unfeeling robots. They are real people who deserve a genuine shot at an education. You’ve probably heard the quote that is often attributed to Mother Teresa but was apparently written (according to Google) by Kent Keith: “People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway.” Maybe those 9 words should be the theme for the spring of 2017.
Will you be a teacher they never forget?
--Push your students to go beyond what they believe they are capable of accomplishing.
--Communicate clearly to them so they always know what you want and why.
--Share your excitement by showing them why the material being discussed is interesting or important.
--Don’t look at them as an anonymous group but rather as distinct human beings. Learn to care about them even if they don’t always meet your high standards.
And, once again: Happy Holidays. Enjoy your break!! Joe Hoyle