I find it amazing how many people believe that all you need to do is work harder and you’ll eventually become a better teacher (or a better student). If three hours doesn’t work well, it just means that you should have worked for four hours. You were a wimp. You were lazy. Any sign of failure simply indicates a lack of dedication and hard work.
Yes, I do feel that hard work is essential for success, but I think we can overstress that influence. In fact, I make the following point in my new book on teaching, Transformative Education.
“Angela Lee Duckworth provides her own observation in a popular 2013 TED talk:
"’One characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success and it wasn’t social intelligence. It wasn’t good looks, physical health, and it wasn’t IQ. It was grit. Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future.’
“I never dismiss the importance of hard work. Few people invest as much time as needed to maximize success. Nevertheless, advice such as ‘spend more hours’ and ‘develop grit’ seem too simplistic. Preparation and practice are certainly essential. My students are always encouraged to put in additional time whenever they are struggling. However, an increase in the number of hours worked is rarely the complete solution. Success in any field is more complicated.”
One advice I always give my students and other professors: Be careful of simplistic answers to complex problems.
So, I was pleased yesterday when I was reading the book, Lessons in Chemistry, by Bonnie Garmus, and came across the following quote, “Sure grit was critical, but it also took luck and if luck wasn’t available, then help. Everyone needed help.”
Everyone needed help. If I liked tattoos, that’s one I might put on my arm. Whether it is teaching or being a student, that is the absolute truth. No matter how much grit you have, no matter how hard you work, no one makes it through all the challenges of life and school without help.
As teachers, we both give and (hopefully) receive help. I set specific office hours and tell my students that they should come and see me at any time during those office hours. I am 100 percent available to any student during those times. When I give them a practice problem, I always suggest a time limit and tell them to come see me if they cannot get to the answer in the allotted time. “The answer for this practice problem is $47,400. I think you can work the problem in 15 minutes. If you don’t get that answer in 20 minutes, bring your work by during my office hours and I’ll give you a hint or two to help you move forward. You might need a little push.” It’s amazing how many students wander in with the plea, “I got close to your answer but didn’t get it all. Can you show me what I am doing wrong?”
Everyone needs help now and then.
So, how about us as teachers? When is the last time that you had a problem and asked for help? Do you never have problems???? If you do, why not seek help? As I tell my students (and members of my faculty), “You are not in this alone.”
Here’s a suggestion that I like. Pick out the one or two best teachers in your building. Most people have a sense of the people who are truly successful in the classroom. Go to that person. Don’t make vague inquiries ("How did you get to be a great teacher?") that often provide no benefit. Have one very specific question. “I’m struggling with this issue in my classes and wondered if you had any advice?”
My bet is that the successful teacher will be flattered and will probably give you some great things to think about. Then, of course, see if you can implement some of those suggestions into your class.
Wait a couple of weeks and go back to your successful teacher with another question. You are slowly beginning a conversation, a conversation with an excellent teacher built around those questions that are challenging your own teaching.
What can you ask? That depends on what is troubling you. Here are a couple of ideas (these are the kinds of questions that I worry about).
--My students never seem to be prepared when they get to class so I wind up lecturing too much. How do you get your students to prepare on a consistent basis?
--I want to stress the development of critical thinking in my classes. How do you cover the subject matter AND push the students to think more deeply about the material? Those are both difficult goals and trying to accomplish them simultaneously is never easy.
--My students seem to understand the material when we cover it in class, but they have trouble once they get to a test. How can I help them reinforce the class learning so that the learning will be more successful?
--I want to engage my students, but I wind up doing 90 percent of the talking in class. How can I get the students to be more interactive?
--My students seem more interested in their cell phones than they do in learning my material. What should I do about those phones in class?
There are a lot of great questions that you can raise with a great teacher. The resulting conversation will increase your understanding of the learning process and help you to make it more effective.
Yes, being a great teacher (and being a great student) certainly takes grit. Hard work is essential. Nevertheless, we all need help. And, from my experience, help rarely walks into my office. You have to go out and find it.
A last-minute reminder: I have an upcoming webinar on November 30, 2023. It is on the topic, “Eight Things I Have Learned in 53 Years of College Teaching.” If you are ready to begin the quest to become a better teacher, I hope you will tune in to this live program or watch the video at a later point in time. I am not going to talk about how to teach specific topics but rather examine college teaching in a general sense. Teaching is such an exciting vocation. We change lives each and every day. For that reason alone, we ought to work to get better every semester.
The eight ideas that I will discuss all come from my new book on college teaching titled Transformative Education. If you are interested in becoming a better college teacher, I hope you will join me on the 30th and consider eight of my thoughts on how to improve teaching.
Here is the URL to register for the webinar. If you scroll down a bit, you’ll find a short video I made to introduce you to the webinar on November 30.
To get a free download of my new teaching book (Transformative Education), go to the following URL although it is not, in any way, necessary for the webinar on the 30th.