Wednesday, February 28, 2018


I had lunch with a friend recently who asked what I had learned from nearly 47 years in college teaching.   My initial answer was trivial (but possibly true), “Well, I certainly have learned you never get paid enough in this job.”  Later, as I thought about it more deeply, I came up with what I thought was a more appropriate answer.   Because I like ranking things, I decided to put it into a “David Letterman Style Top Ten Countdown” list.  Not sure why but I seem to think better when I am using lists with a ranking.  It makes me more observant or thoughtful.

Your mission, Mr. Phelps, if you decide to accept it (as they say on Mission Impossible) is to decide how your list would differ from mine.  We all work in different teaching situations.   How would your list look?  What have you learned from your years of teaching?

Here goes – the top ten things I have learned about college teaching after nearly 47 years on the job.

Number Ten – You always have to prepare for class.   I taught my first class in August of 1971.  If you had told me that first day how much time I would still need to invest to get ready for my classes in 2018, I would have been stunned.   I assumed that preparation would get easier over the years.   But, if you want a class session to go well, you simply have to be the best prepared person in the room.  There are no shortcuts.  The class has to feel fresh and that requires preparation time--not once in awhile but every time.  Here is a piece of personal advice:   When you are no longer willing to prepare adequately, it might be time to consider retirement or a new career.

Number Nine – If possible, engage all of your students every day.   Don’t let students sit around like stumps.  If you do, they will just daydream.  Ten percent of your students are dying to participate.  The challenge is getting the other 90 percent involved.  For years, teachers have let those other 90 percent slide.  They fully expect you to do the same.   Don’t!!!  I call on every student once or twice every day.   I want them walking in knowing that they will need to be actively involved.   How do you get all of your students engaged with the material?  That is aood question for each of us to address.  Class should not look like a movie theater where the audience sits passively and watches.   That misses completely the excitement of the learning experience.

Number Eight – Students rarely change over the years.  In 1958, I heard my sixth grade teacher tell another teacher, “Students today cannot read and comprehend.   They have to have everything explained to them.”  I literally heard almost those same words last week right outside my office.   Comparing finished students from previous years to your current students-in-process is not fair.  All students come into a semester uneducated and go out the other end educated if you guide them well.   Dismissing them as being inferior to previous generations creates a tension in your attitude that is not helpful.  You will start resenting your current students.  That sets up a roadblock to your own success.  I know some readers (maybe many) are going to write and tell me that I am wrong, that students in 2018 are not as good as they used to be.   I think your memory is playing tricks on you.  More importantly, I don’t that attitude helps you become a great teacher.

Number Seven – Memorization is not the goal of good education.  I cannot think of very many things that my students need to memorize—probably none.   Unless you can justify it, never ask students to memorize and never test them on their memory.   That just gives education a bad reputation.  Figure out a better goal – I always argue that understanding and critical thinking are the two things I want to accomplish.   Memorization has little place in that learning process. 

Number Six – Testing and grading have to tie in directly with your goals for the class.  The connection has to be clear.  If your goal is the development of critical thinking, then you must test/grade on the student’s ability to demonstrate critical thinking.   If you stress one thing in class and then test something else (memory, for example), you are going to (a) confuse your students and (b) irritate your students and (c) not accomplish your goal.

Number Five – Early in my career, I heard a professional football coach claim, “There is something in every person that wants to be pushed to be great.”  I liked that philosophy 47 years ago.   I like it equally as well today.   It is easy to claim that students are lazy or have no ambition.   I disagree.  I think at their very core most students want the teacher to get behind them and push them toward greatness.   Many of them might require an awful lot of pushing but they will thank you for it in the end.   I find this philosopht an interesting view of human nature.  I might actually prefer some other view.   However, that perspective has served as a foundation for much of my teaching.  Furthermore, few victories are as emotionally rewarding as pushing a poor student into being a great student.  When that happens, you know why you became a teacher.

Number Four – In this blog, I have often talked about the importance of helping students understand that they leave class each day with Swiss cheese knowledge – it looks solid but it is full of holes.  Student success depends on their ability to fill in those holes.   A book I read recently (I think it was Make It Stick) argues that students over-estimate what they know as they are leaving class every day.   I have a slightly different take.   I think students know that their knowledge is full of holes.  However, I think they under-estimate how much work it will require to fill in those holes.  To them, it is a casual concern rather than an urgent issue.  Teachers tend to make the material look learnable in class so students assume they can get it figured out.  That is why students often wait until the night before a test to try to put everything together.  By that time, there are just too many holes and they are way too big.  Teachers need to help students immediately start filling those holes as quickly as possible after each class.

Number Three – Nothing is ever going to go really well in a class unless the students have faith in the teacher.   Why should they work so hard if they don’t trust the teacher’s ability?  From Day One, you have to send a subtle message to the students, “I am going to ask an awful lot of you this semester but I am going to push you to learn this complicated material and be successful.  Have enough faith so that you will do what I ask.  If you do that, I will help you learn more than you ever thought possible.”   I have never seen a study of this but I have often thought that the amount (or depth) of student learning correlates directly with how much faith students have in their professor as teacher.

Number Two – At the very heart of great teaching is clear and understandable communications.   Students cannot read your mind.   If you want to guide them to success, you have to establish a method of communication that works for you and works for them.   Helping students to work efficiently and learn complex material cannot be accomplished through telepathy.  I use email.  I always say that my teaching improved dramatically when email became common.  I then had a way of conversing with my students beyond the first minute or two of class.  I email my students 5-12 times each week throughout the semester.   You might think that is obsessive (I might think that is obsessive).   However, I prefer to call that a strong level of communication that helps my students keep charging forward at a brisk pace and in the right direction.  It allows me to guide and enables me to motivate.   I can tell the students what they need to do and why.  Open and adequate communications are necessary for a strong marriage and for excellent teaching.

And, Number One on my list of things I have learned about teaching.   If you have read my blog for long, you already know what Number One is because it is always Number One for me.  I think great teaching starts when you can convince your students to be adequately prepared when they walk into class.   If they have done a sufficient amount of work in advance of class, then you can use the class time to heal the sick and raise the dead.  In other words, you can create miracles.   However, if the students are not adequately prepared, there is little you can do but lecture to them and have them take notes.  The difference between a wonderful class and a trivial class is student preparation.  Think about your classes right now.   What if every student spent an extra hour in serious preparation before each class.   Wouldn’t the level of discussion and learning simply skyrocket?  Too many students walk into class knowing nothing and end up wondering why they have trouble learning.   In my world, get the students to prepare adequately and your teaching will begin to rise wonderfully.

That is my ten.   However, I wanted a different perspective.   For many years, my brother was an outstanding middle school teacher and principal.   I posed the same question to him, “What did you learn from your years of teaching?”   I liked his response.  “You have to prove to students that you are going to be fair.  You have to show them every single time you get in front of them that you care about them as students and as people.  You have to live a life outside the classroom that shows them you walk the walk.”

There are obviously a lot of good answers.   Start with my list.   What would you add?   What would you delete?   What have YOU learned from your years in the classroom?   My email address is – let me know how your list would be different from mine.  I would love to hear from you.

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