Saturday, February 25, 2012

Do They Appreciate What You Do?

This is my 125th blog entry in the last 25 months. When I started this site, I promised myself that I’d try to do at least 15 entries. My guess is that I would have quit long ago were it not for the many kind emails that I have received. Thanks – I love hearing from people who tell me about their own love of teaching and the challenges they face each day.

Today’s entry is broken into several individual parts.

PART ONE – I travel around the country 3-5 times per year to give teaching programs and presentations. Invariably, at each stop, some teacher will ask in complete exasperation “why should I even try to do better? The students do not appreciate what I do. They certainly don’t appreciate when I try to make them work and think.”

It is very tough to spend the time necessary to move toward excellence if you believe that no one appreciates you. It is hard to put out so much energy if no one cares. I often think deans and department chairs ought to be required to pat as many teachers on the back as possible each semester. However, the people who really benefit from your work are the students. They are the ones who should care the most. Do they truly appreciate your effort? That, as Hamlet says, is the question.

PART TWO – In one particular class that I teach, most of the students are junior accounting majors. It is a challenging course but virtually all of my students are capable. They can learn enough accounting to do well after they graduate. Interestingly enough, it is not the knowledge of accounting that often makes a difference in the level of success they achieve in their chosen careers. It is their ability to supervise others that can really count the most.

Within the first year or two after graduation, they will move into a position where they have to supervise other (younger) individuals. Instead of being responsible for just themselves, they suddenly become responsible for 2-5 associates. Suddenly, it is the ability to do well in that supervisory leadership position that starts to become important. We teach group work and team work in college but we don’t often address supervisory leadership.

One of the problems for them is that they don’t have many role models. If I mention the word “leadership,” they will tell me all about presidents (Roosevelt, for example, or Lincoln) or a great general (U.S. Grant or R.E. Lee) or a corporate executive (Bill Gates or Steve Jobs). But none of those individuals (at least when they became famous) were supervisory leaders. George Washington was not trying to motivate and guide 2-5 people under his direct supervision. Those leaders are on a different planet from the students.

Although it is not exactly the same, the closest role models that my students have for supervisory leadership are their teachers. The teacher walks into the room each day and is responsible for motivating and guiding 10 to 30 students or more. In most cases, how well the students do is largely based on how well the teacher does.

For that reason, I want my students to spend some mental energy thinking about how teachers manage to accomplish what they do. Most college students have been in class for roughly 80 percent of their lives. They have interacted with dozens of teachers in a very direct and personal way. They have observed both good teaching and bad. However, they rarely consider how a teacher works and what makes one person particularly successful. For a young person, who will soon be in a supervisory position, there is a lot that can be learned from their teachers.

I recently started giving my students a series of three exercises to help them consider how a good supervisor motivates and guides the people who fall under their care. The first assignment is simply to pick the best college teacher they have ever had and write a paragraph or two to describe why that person was the best. Notice, I specifically do not use the term “favorite teacher.” That is something entirely different. I want them to focus their attention on what makes a person the very best teacher they have ever had in college.

PART THREE – When I get the results of this assignment, many of the answers are genuinely touching. It is hard to read them without feeling a sense of real pride and admiration for teachers and how they affect the lives of their students. My guess is that the students would never say such things directly to a teacher (heavens, that might be embarrassing). However, in a written assignment, they have a chance to reflect on what a particular teacher did and talk about the impact that the teacher’s work had on them.

I tell the students that they should think a lot but they can keep the written assignment short. They are busy and I don’t want them spending too much time on this one task. Despite that suggestion, many of them write long detailed essays praising the best teacher they have had in college.

Here are just a few quotes that I picked out, almost at random. I have 52 students; I could have given 52 quotes similar to these.

You cannot read these without being proud that you are a teacher. When you read students saying things like this, you realize what a great career you have chosen. Teaching is the most wonderful and important job in the world because YOU have the chance to have this kind of influence. Read these and realize that this is what you have the good fortune to do every day.

--“If I could describe his attitude towards his students in one word, it would be egalitarian. He made each and every student feel as if they were important. Whether you were the best student or the worst student, he still gave equal attention to all.”

--“As for his expectations for the course, he did not hold our hand – he inspired us to do our own research in order to make the connections that would elevate our performance to an A level.”

--“Not only is her class a joy to be in – filled with discussions regarding everything from race to culture shock – she is also a great role model with diverse experiences to back up her advice.”

--“He made each and every student push themselves to the limit and use critical thinking that they had probably never used previously. There were times where I would walk out of that class and I would feel like my mind just got blown. That was partially because of what he had said but mainly because of the amazement I had at how he was able to guide me into thinking in ways that I never known I could do.”

--“The distinction of excellence comes from his ability to connect to and motivate students. He helped me to not only learn the material, but to want to learn the material. This admittedly tough accomplishment was achieved because he made sure to get to know me.”

--“She was patient, especially with someone like me, who is not used to writing papers that do not contain some type of mathematical equation.”

--“He didn’t mock my writing abilities, though they were clearly lacking. Nor did he act discouraged. Rather, he told me he wanted to give me an A, but I needed to do A work.”

--“His passion for his subject is unmatched by any other professor I have had while at the University of Richmond, and it rubbed off on everyone in the class.”

--“Often times we would have long, time-consuming assignments. However, as long as I had shown initiative and spent time thinking critically about a problem, (the teacher) was willing to work with me to understand the concepts that I was applying.”

--“He is extremely friendly and approachable and almost always has a smile on his face. All of his students can see how much he loves teaching (the subject) and this makes them want to work harder.”

--“(The teacher) clearly articulated his expectations and requirements to succeed. He went beyond telling me what to do, but actively pushed and engaged me. His confidence in me, as well as his general desire to see me succeed, drove me to perform extremely well in this class.”

--“She posed challenging and thought-provoking questions in class that made me dig deeper into the text which gave me a better chance to write a paper with substantial content.”

--“We would often get emails from him at 4 or 5 in the morning with very complex Excel models and/or regression methods that helped us better understand and practice using the material.”

--“He focused more on the actual learning of concepts as opposed to memorization and grades.”

PART FOUR – I do not think you can read any of these (or all of the remaining papers that I didn’t have room to quote) and not realize how much students appreciate your hard work. Yes, they will whine and they will complain and they will moan about the work load. That’s human nature. That’s just what college students do. But I’m convinced that it is like strenuous physical exercise. In their hearts, they really want to be pushed to be great and they appreciate it. They might never walk up to you and say thanks but it is clear when they write about their teachers how very much they appreciate the ones who try the hardest and care for them the most.

PART FIVE – My students in this class make up well below 2 percent of the entire student body on our campus. Consequently, there are many, many great teachers around here who they never get a chance to have in class. For that reason, many of our best teachers do not get mentioned because these students had never been lucky enough to be in their classes. However, I want to give a huge shout out to all of the folks who were named by my students. These were students who had been at the University of Richmond for six semesters and felt that YOU were the very best college teacher they had ever had. That just has to feel wonderful. That is the reason you get into this business. You are changing lives in a very positiv way. Congratulations!!!

Tom Arnold
Ed Ayers
Harold Babb
Julie Baker
Patti Carey
Will Case
Arthur Charlesworth
Alex Checkovich
Oliver Delers
Frank Eakin
Al Fagan
Jan French
Della Fenster
Marshall Geiger
Volker Grzimek
Linda Hobgood
Kim Marie McGoldrick
Manuella Meyer
Jim Monks
Randolph New
Bob Nicholson
Angel Otero-Blanco
Elizabeth Outka
Daniel Paik
Rob Phillips
Randle Raggio
Phil Rohrbach
David Routt
Louis Schwartz
Daniel Selby
Thomas Shields
Monika Siebert
Stephen Simon
Melanie Simpson
Jerry Stevens
Akira Suzuki
Andy Szakmary
Jonathan Wight

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