This is the 300th essay on teaching that I have written for this blog. Thanks so much to everyone who has consistently read my thoughts over the years and passed them along to others. I hope they have helped you become a better teacher. At present, the blog has had 567,500 pageviews. That is, at the very least, half a million more readers than I would have expected when I first began posting.
On Monday, April 26, at the end of my third class of the day, I will complete my 50th year as a college teacher. 300th teaching essay. 50th year as a college teacher. Good time to take stock.
I tell people that developing into an outstanding teacher is like learning to be a chess master. The subject is so deep and complicated that a dedicated person can study forever and never do more than scratch the surface. That is one reason I enjoy teaching so intensely. The complexity is mind-boggling. Any teacher who does not embrace that complexity is destined for a frustrating career. The number of possible permutations to consider moment by moment during any one class period is endless. Student personalities vary from person to person day to day. They walk in the classroom (either virtual or live) happy or sad, prepared or lost, interested or distracted. Their needs and moods change constantly. The subject matter never stops evolving. Teaching, as the saying goes, takes “A minute to learn and a lifetime to master.” That is the reason I have avoided retirement. There is always more to learn.
In my previous blog entry, I included the teaching philosophy of Dr. Aswath Damodaran of NYU. At that time, I promised I would outline my own teaching philosophy in my next posting. After all these years, I wanted to put my personal teaching philosophy into words.
Consequently, I have been thinking about my teaching rather diligently for the past few weeks. I started with a question that has long puzzled me. I have known scores, if not hundreds, of outstanding teachers. I have listened to them and learned from them. One characteristic of all those teachers has struck me over the years: They each seem excellent in their own unique style. Some lectured in large classes. Some held seminars with only a handful of students. Some were gruff and demanding. Some were kind and comforting. Some were funny and engaging whereas others were not. Some gave lots of high grades. Some gave virtually no high grades. Some taught grad students. Some worked only with first-year students. Some taught with words and thoughts. Some taught with numbers and logic. Some motivated with carrots. Others motivated with sticks.
Nevertheless, somehow, they were all outstanding teachers.
With my fascination for teaching, I have long looked for a common thread running between all the excellent teachers I have known. Surely, some identifiable aspect of teaching cuts across all styles and is present in each of these outstanding individuals. What do they all have in common?
After decades of observation, I have arrived at the conclusion that at least one characteristic can be found in all great teachers. It forms the basis for my teaching philosophy.
Those eleven words seem so simple but I cannot think of a single excellent teacher who did not have this aptitude. Like soldiers being urged into a fierce battle by a great general, the students of these teachers seem willing to do whatever is asked of them and do it with an impressive degree of enthusiasm and tenacity. They work hard and love it. Those students study late into the night. They complete assignments on weekends. They do not look for short cuts. They do the work the right way. They willingly make sacrifices because they believe in their teacher with a faith that is unshakeable.
--If the teacher asks students to read a chapter in a textbook, they do it without question because they are convinced that the teacher would not make the request if it was not reasonable and important.
--If the teacher asks them to solve a complex problem, they put in their best effort because they trust that the benefit will outweigh the cost.
--If the teacher asks them to write out an explanation for a theoretical concept, they complete the assignment well and without question.
To be a great teacher, I must convince 100 percent of my students that what I am going to help them become is worth the effort that I will demand of them. And, if they do what I suggest, they will succeed. Those two sentences form the foundation of my teaching. Maybe most challenging, I have to earn this faith anew each semester. Student trust last fall has nothing to do with student trust this spring. Every new student walks into class as a skeptic.
If your students come to have this type of belief in you as a teacher, you will be amazed by the wondrous things they can accomplish. You can help them learn to leap tall buildings in a single bound. There will be no limit to what your students can accomplish if they believe in you.
That leads to the obvious question: What are the keys necessary to generate this degree of faith? I suspect all great teachers create their own unique paths to this goal, but I will list a few attributes that I believe are essential.
(1) – Clear and honest communication is absolutely imperative. This will always be number one on my teaching list. Communications can be used by the teacher to encourage and guide, to explain and intrigue. Or, to put this in the reverse position, a failure to communicate well is a deadly problem. Students cannot read your mind. Teacher must be transparent as to what they are doing and why. “Trust me, I know what I am doing” is never a winning teaching mantra.
The method you use to communicate with students is up to you. I rely on email. I begin emailing my students two months before the semester starts and about 7-10 times per week once classes commence. Keep the communications short and to the point. You are trying to be helpful and not a burden.
I want my students to know what I want from them each day and why. I want them to know what I believe and why I find the material interesting and useful. I want them to know why I do what I do. I want them to know that I have faith in them. That level of understanding can only be achieved through a successful communications strategy. By the time each semester is completed, I actually do want my students to be able to read my mind.
No student is going to believe in you unless you take the time to talk with them either orally or in writing. So much of the remainder of my thoughts tie back to the ability to communicate your reasons and intentions.
(2) – Teachers need to have a clear understanding of how they want their students to be changed by the last day of the class. If there is no intended growth, there is no reason for the course. It is all a waste of time. No one achieves greatness without clearly delineated goals. Never fall back on vague platitudes such as “I want smarter students” or “I want my students to be well educated.” Those sound fine, but they are not helpful in any practical sense. Focus on your vision of the last day of class. You are going to work with these students for an entire semester. At the end, how do you want them to be better? Until you can define that goal in specific terms, the students will sense that your aspirations for them are mediocre or, worse, nonexistent.
(3) – Focus on puzzles and questions more than the conveyance of content. I have long asserted that too many college classes have a 1950s feel where the communication of content was both the teaching method and the goal. Stenography and memorization were valued skills in those “good old days.” We live in different times. Pose everything to the students in terms of puzzles or questions so that you and the students can work out the answers together. Whether you create an entire class session around a single question or use a string of puzzles to guide students through a complex array of information, try to avoid telling your students the answers. As the saying goes, “The journey is everything.” In class, the journey to the answer should be more important than the answer.
(4) – Never, never, never waste the students’ time because they will resent that. They lead busy lives. Students are willing to share their time but only when they believe that the work has a worthy consequence. Over the many years of their schooling, they have suffered through a multitude of assignments that had no legitimate purpose. Teachers need to think about each reading and each problem and determine how they tie into the course goals. Sadly, assignments can become a rote part of a course long after they have become ineffective. It is never a bad idea to ask yourself, “How does what I am getting ready to ask my students to do today get us closer to my goals?”
(5) – Students want you to know them as individuals and not just as members of the hive. It is difficult to believe in a teacher who does not even know your name. I am lucky in that my class sizes are usually between 20 and 25. I try to call on each of my students at least twice each day just so they can hear me say their name and look directly at them. I want Mr. A or Ms. B to understand that I do know them as individuals. This can be one of the most difficult part of being a teacher over a long period of time. After a few years, hundreds of students become thousands of students and the current group starts to meld into the generic “spring class of 2021.”
It was said that when a person talked with Mother Teresa, she treated them like they were the only person in the world. She is not a bad role model. Ask your students to tell you a little about themselves so they stay real to you. Frequently, before class, I quietly read aloud the names of my students so I have a moment where I think about each of them as a single, identifiable human being. I find that helps me stay connected to them as individuals rather than merely thinking of them as indistinguishable components of a larger group.
(6) – Never underestimate the importance of good testing. Students are raised to believe in the absolute significance of testing and grades. That is not going to change suddenly when they enter your class. They are never more interested in you and your course than when it comes to taking a test. Spend time (a lot of time) writing test questions that are (a) fair, (b) challenging, and (c) interesting. Each question must be carefully crafted so that the students can demonstrate what they have learned and what they can accomplish with that knowledge. If the questions are too easy, students will assume that serious work is not necessary for the course and they will oblige you by not giving you any serious work. If the questions are too hard, students will question the reason for the disconnect. Were they taught poorly or was the question simply unfair? I have long believed that the more time and thought you spend learning to write great questions, the quicker you will become an outstanding teacher.
(7) – Nothing succeeds like success. I listened recently to Sal Khan (who I believe is one of the most influential people of our time) in a podcast and he stated that giving a student a learning boost provides confidence and that confidence then drives them toward success. I could not agree more. Students live up or down to their self-image so you want to push that self-image forward. “I know you. You can do this” will go a long way to improve one student’s learning.
In school and most of life, success comes from believing in yourself. There are many ways a teacher can help instill confidence but I think getting the student to prepare appropriately before class has to be one of the most important. If the student prepares prior to entering class and then does well, the chance of ongoing success immediately increases. A teacher can influence class preparation by telling students exactly what to do prior to class and then making sure that this preparation proves beneficial in class. Create success during the one class and the student will be ready to do even more and better work for the next class.
I give students a list of questions in advance of every class. They run the gamut from easy to complex, from verbal to quantitative, from easy puzzles to hard ones. Then, in class, I ask students to address each question. At times, it might seem like I cross-examine them but I want my students to succeed and I am trying to get them there. I am giving them the opportunity to show me that they did the work.
There is a wonderful feeling when you pose a complicated question to a student and, because they are well prepared, they provide the class with an outstanding answer. Teaching never gets better than that. Even if that student has previously thought of themselves as a dummy, you might well start to see a better self-image blossom forth. Once that happens, there is no limit to what a student can accomplish.
None of this is easy. That is why teaching is so challenging. Over the years, in this blog, I have often quoted the words from the movie A League of Their Own. “It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” I cannot think of a better description of the wonders of being a teacher. After 50 years, that is my philosophy.