Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Teaching Is Serious Business

I was asked, about four years ago, to write an essay on teaching. The following was my response. I believed this then. I believe it now. Joe


Teaching is serious business. We have wonderfully bright and talented students at every school. They have almost unlimited potential. For most, this is their one shot at college; they deserve nothing less than an excellent education,
an academic experience that challenges them to excel from their first day to their last.

Faculty members have a responsibility to the world to coax the very best from their students because they will certainly become the next generation of leaders. Where they go from here, what they accomplish, how they impact the world, depends in large part on how much we are able to push and nurture their development. I want every student to leave my class at the end of the semester saying, “I had to work very hard but I am so amazed by how much I learned.” Anything less is unacceptable.

If a teacher challenges students to think and do their best, word gets around campus quickly, but having a tough reputation is both good and bad. When students walk into my class on the first day, they tend to be very quiet and pay attention right away. On the other hand, I am always so disappointed when a student says to me “I hear you are a good teacher, but I didn’t take your class because I know you are very demanding.” Isn't that just incredibly sad? I think all of college education (as well as the world in general) will be better when students become convinced to sign up only for classes where teachers push them each day to do their best.

During each semester, I occasionally point out to my students that the grade of A, according to the University catalogue, reflects “outstanding” work. A student does not earn the grade of A for a good effort, only for consistently outstanding work. That’s a great goal; it inspires a wonderful level of effort. Grade inflation has hurt college education across this country and could be fixed simply by faculty members saying, “You earn an A when the work that I see is truly outstanding.” Don’t fool yourself; students are well aware of the difference between “good” and “outstanding.”

I use the Socratic Method. I call on every student every day in class. I don't ask them to regurgitate material; I ask them questions that I believe will cause them to think and reason—on the spot. That is what adult life is like. I then follow my initial question with others based on their answers. If I don’t get good replies from a student, I don’t just nod and smile; I demand better of them. A student once compared my class to a contact sport. Students should be ready, willing and able to discuss and debate issues. This is college, not high school.

I want a reasonable effort from my students because students get back based on what they put in. I expect them to study four to six hours each week outside of class so they’ll be ready to participate in class discussions. I use carrots and sticks. I say, “Good job!” when a student gives me a thoughtful, well-conceived answer, and I say, “Listen, you can do better than that!” when a student gives me a bad answer. I don’t view that as being disagreeable, although I do realize that it injects a bit of tension into the class. But this is not Sesame Street; a bad answer is a bad answer. There is only one primary goal in my class: to improve each student’s ability to think, reason and understand. Students realize how capable they are, but human nature loves to take the easy path.

A good basketball coach adapts to the talents of his or her players. A good teacher does the same. You cannot take an identical approach with every student. Some love to be pushed and pushed hard. They enjoy “in-your-face” challenges. Others are more fragile. You have to coax and nurture them. So toughness comes into my class where toughness is necessary. You teach each student, not each group. However, every student needs to be willing to prepare and to think. That is not negotiable.

One of the keys to becoming a good teacher is learning to walk into a room of students and “see” what is happening to the individual members: Billy needs a few extra seconds to formulate an answer, Susan loves to be called on, Andy doesn’t know what is happening right now, Ellen is not prepared. You have to be able to adapt to your students on the spot every day. What a wonderfully exciting job.

Our students can do amazing things, but if we don’t challenge them fully, they will never realize what marvelous talents they truly possess. Signing up for demanding classes might hurt a student’s GPA, but which is more important: developing a good mind or a good GPA?

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