(NOTE: This is my 269th posting on this blog. Over 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--maybe the most important. 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 other reasons – I respect your privacy. I will just let you know when I have posted a new entry to the blog.
And, as a wonderful new school year begins, THANKS to everyone who reads these blog essays and spends some serious time thinking about teaching!!!)
In 12 days, I begin my 48th year in the classroom. As always, I am looking forward to the challenge, to the fun of going into class and trying to help all my students learn, think, and understand. I hope you are at least half as excited as I am about the possibilities that come from the beginning of a new academic year. It is a great time to be enthusiastic.
I have two classes of juniors and one class of sophomores. Over the summer, I have emailed the sophomores about six times and the juniors eleven. Seems like overkill doesn’t it?
Why have I written to the students so often? Am I trying to drive them crazy or scare them to death??? Well, I will come back to my rationale, but first a story.
Yesterday, I was sitting at a coffee shop near our campus talking with a dear friend about teaching. I posed a question to her that I want to ask you. “I believe if you take all the great teachers you’ve ever known and think about how they taught, you’ll discover they have at least one thing in common. They all demonstrate this one thing. I don’t think it alone makes anyone a great teacher but, without it, I don’t think you have any chance at all of being great. What do you think that one thing is? Think about the great teachers you have known. How were they alike?”
Okay, obviously, I want each of my readers to stop right here and consider the question. What characteristic do all great teachers have? I think this is truly important because it forces you to consider the question for yourself. Don’t just listen to what I have to say. I might be full of nonsense. What do you think?
My friend and I discussed the question generally for a while until she turned to me and said, “Okay, I’m ready to hear what you think. You clearly have an answer that you like so convince me that you are correct.”
My answer is this. And, this is the basic reason for sending so many emails to my students before I even meet them. I believe no teacher can be great unless the students have a deeply held faith in the teacher and the teacher’s abilities. Few students are ever going to do their best work unless they have faith that they are not wasting their time. Think of the great teachers you have had and ask yourself whether they were able to establish a high degree of student faith. I am betting the answer is Yes. “This person really can teach me something worth knowing.” Here at the beginning of the semester, if you can begin to establish student faith, you open up the potential for a truly great semester. This is the perfect moment to consider the issue.
Well, this raises a more complex question, what do I mean by “student faith?” This is not a religious experience where you walk in and simply ask the students to have faith in you. What is it?
Here’s how I view the creation of a student’s faith in a teacher.
First, students have to have some understanding of what you are trying to accomplish. How is the course organized and what are your goals? Without that, you are just asking for blind faith. “Trust me because I am the teacher” is going to get you few converts in 2018. Students don’t want to see a day-by-day outline of the course but they need a general idea of how you work and what you are trying to achieve. Confusion does not inspire faith.
Second, and this relates directly to the first requirement, students have to believe that you have the ability to achieve your goals. When I was in college, I had a number of teachers who started the first day telling us about the wonderful things that were going to happen during the semester. However, within a week or so, it became obvious that the teacher simply did not know how to attain those objectives. If you promise the moon, you better be able to show them how you are going to get them together to make the voyage. Promises alone mean nothing. In fact, promises alone are just irritating.
Third, students must be shown why the goals you have established are important and attainable. Why should my students want to learn this stuff? Students are human beings. If you can show them that work has value, they will likely do the work. If you cannot show them that work has value, why would many of them ever do anything? This is common sense.
Fourth, the students must believe that you will be fair in everything you do with the students, especially the grading. Teachers can be easy and students will adapt. Teachers can be hard and students will adapt. But, if students come to believe you are not fair, they will never adapt to you and what you are trying to do.
Why all the emails to my students over the summer? In my never subtle way, I am trying to answer four questions for them.
(1) – What are my goals? What am I trying to accomplish?
(2) – How am I going to get every member of the class to reach those goals?
(3) – Why is the work worth the effort?
(4) – How am I going to treat them so that I am absolutely fair to everyone?
If I can come up with satisfactory answers to those questions before I meet them, I have a chance to establish student faith in me and what I hope to accomplish. I believe that creates the foundation for the construction of a great class. Without that faith, it is going to be a long, tough semester.
A new semester is beginning. It’s a good time to address these four questions with your students. Build their faith.