NOTE: This is my 267th posting on this blog. Over all the years, the writings have never really varied. They have always been about my observations on teaching in college, which is, I truly believe, one of the most important professions in the world. We should all approach this job as if the fate of our planet depends on us.
I tend to author 5 to 15 new essays each year. If you would like to receive a short notification from me whenever I post a new essay, send me an email at Jhoyle@richmond.edu. I will not email you for any other reason – I respect your privacy. I will just let you know when I have posted a new entry to the blog.
Over the years, these 267 postings have had 450,644 page views (as of two minutes ago). That is approximately 450,000 more than I expected when I first began writing. Periodically, I feel a need to thank everyone who has read these postings, who has emailed me with comments/questions/suggestions, and who has passed along these thoughts to their colleagues. Spread the word. As teachers, we have a responsibility to share ideas about motivating and guiding students. College education can and should get better every day. Sharing thoughts is an important aspect of that evolution. (Start your own blog, for example.)
In case you are interested, here are the individual essays in this blog that have had the most page views over the years.
--What Do We Add? July 22, 2010
--What Is the Purpose of a Final Examination? May 12, 2010
--The Most Important Days of the Semester October 1, 2017
--Thinking About Teaching – How Do We Get Them Excited? December 7, 2015
--Two Words for Better Teaching January 7, 2015
--Be Daring September 14, 2015
When I talk with college teachers, I often notice that some tend to define themselves by what they believe they cannot do. “I cannot be a great teacher.” “I cannot make this material interesting.” “I cannot get my students to participate in class.” “I cannot get the students to think.” “I cannot convince students that this material is important.”
These teachers are frustrated. That is why they tend to focus on “I cannot.” Nevertheless, I am not sure how this mindset is beneficial. Dwelling on what you believe you cannot do is of no help to either you or your students. A good way to improve your teaching is to identify one basic goal that you CAN achieve and then begin the task of making that happen. As you get better in any one area, I suspect that your overall teaching will begin to improve. The many, varied components of teaching are interconnected. Get better at one thing and many other aspects of your teaching will also show improvement.
Okay, the next roadblock is that teachers tell me, “When it comes to improvement, I don’t even know where to start.” Change can be difficult to initiate. So, let me provide a suggestion. It is summer time. Hopefully, you have a bit more time to consider how to make good things happen in your upcoming classes.
After a semester is complete, I frequently get an email or two from students with a kind (but vague) message. “Thanks for a great semester.” “I learned a lot in your class.” “I appreciate all of your help.” I never fail to be grateful to any student who takes time to provide feedback in a positive manner.
A few weeks ago, I received an email from one of my spring-semester students. The note really made me stop and think because it was more specific. This student is from China and had worked hard in my class. She did not thank me for a great semester or for my assistance. She did not mention learning a lot. In fact, she wrote virtually nothing about the subject itself.
She had a different type of observation, “I hope that I can pursue things in my life with the same passion as you have for educating your students.” Over my 47 years in this business, I don’t think any previous student has ever said anything like that to me. She had come to see that I really did care about my students so that I genuinely wanted them to learn. She hoped eventually to find that same passion for things in her life. Maybe, I began to think, she had identified a foundation step for becoming a better teacher.
Simple question – do your students think you teach purely to earn money? Or, do they believe you have a passion for helping them to learn? Be honest – how much passion for teaching would your students say that you have? A lot? A little? Almost none? That is an interesting question to ponder. Moreover, here is an aspect of teaching where you can get away from “I cannot.” There is nothing to keep you from demonstrating an intense desire for each of your students to learn. That does not require a particular talent. If students believe you want them to learn, I believe they will be more likely to do the work that you ask of them. If they don’t believe you care about their learning, then why should they do more than the absolute minimum that is required? I had teachers in college who clearly did not care if I learned one iota and my feelings quickly came to mirror theirs.
We all get frustrated as teachers. There might be a lot of things about teaching where “I cannot” feels like the appropriate answer. But, there is absolutely no reason why you cannot demonstrate a genuine passion for educating your students. And, that passion might be the first step in making a lot of other things about your teaching start to improve. If you show a belief in the importance of education, I believe many of your students will respond with more effort than you might imagine.
How do you convince your students that you have a passion for their learning of the subject matter? Let me give you a couple of tips. I am sure we could list 20 more tips but these four will get you started on convincing students that you have a passion for their learning.
Tip 1 – You cannot fake it. Students can sense when you try to create a false enthusiasm for the learning of course material. You actually have to want each student (from the best to the worst) to learn what you are teaching. If you really don’t care, why should they?
Try this. About every 2-3 weeks during each semester, take your grade book and slowly read each name and pause. If your classes are small enough, picture the person in your mind. You want to think of every student as an individual person and not simply as a member of the herd. I usually look at their grades to date and try to decide whether that person is living up to his or her potential. I want to remind myself that I am working with distinct human beings who desperately need a good education (whether they want a good education or not). It is easy to mentally group students (“good students” and “bad students”), but I want to think of John Doe and Susan Dough as separate individuals and not merely as a part of the mass of humanity sitting in front of me each day in class. I don’t mean to sound like Mother Teresa, but I do believe she inspired the world because she was not faking it when she talked about caring for each individual person.
Tip 2 – You have to communicate. As I often say, students cannot read your mind. You have to tell them and tell them, “Here is what I want you to learn and here is why I want you to learn it. There is a reason and it is for your benefit.” As of this afternoon, I have already written 3-4 emails to the students registered for my fall classes that will not begin for three months. For me, that communication is vital. Will the students read every word? Of course not, but all I want is to start building up a sense in them of (a) the importance of the material and (b) my desire to help them learn.
Of all the things I ever write about teaching, the one that I probably believe is most true is that teachers tend to under-communicate with their students and then wonder why the students don’t do what the teacher expects of them. Don’t drive them crazy with useless information but make sure you establish a system of essential communication. Tell them exactly why you want them to learn the material.
Tip 3 – Be willing to be available to help. If you teach your classes and then go hide, there is no sense that you have a passion for your students to learn. Again, as I have written previously, you cannot urge them to leap tall buildings in a single bound unless you are willing to stick around and help them learn how to fly. “Here are my office hours. If you have a problem, I expect you to be at my office with your questions. We are in this together. I want you to succeed. I am on your side.” Most students are leery of seeking help from a teacher because it might make them appear stupid or lazy. Unless the material in your class is easy, most students will need assistance now and then. That is just a fact of life. You have to make sure that they know you are ready and willing to answer their questions and provide needed help.
Tip 4 – Be proactive. If a student is not doing well in your class, you simply cannot look the other way. If a student is not preparing for class, if a student is not able to answer simple questions, if a student is skipping class, if a student is doing poorly on quizzes and examinations, you cannot wait for them to seek help. Many will simply give up and fail. Before that happens, call them into your office. Explain your concern. Ask them, “Is there a problem that I need to know about? I need to see better work from you before the semester gets away from you. What can we do to get you on a track toward success?” If a doctor walks by a bleeding person, the doctor would try to provide assistance. The doctor would not wait for the person to seek help. A teacher cannot sit idly by as a student drifts off toward failure. No teacher can save every student but every teacher can make an effort.
Want to be a better teacher? For one semester, try these four tips. What do you have to lose? Don’t sit there and simply repeat, “I cannot.” That doesn’t solve any problems. There is nothing on this list that you cannot try. Just see how your teaching might be different. Convincing students that you really do have a passion for their learning might well be the key that makes other aspects of your teaching grow stronger.