Any teacher will tell you that classroom learning goes both ways. Not a day goes by that I don’t learn something from my students.
I’m not just talking about the times someone ambitious digs up a helpful source I end up using in future classes — I’m talking about bigger and more valuable lessons on adopting pedagogy, relating with others, and even understanding myself.
Here are 12 lessons I’ve learned from my students.
This is particularly true for younger students, but even in college, a good teacher exhibits many traits of a good parent — namely, clearly stating expectations and the consequences of not meeting these expectations (and then following through on those consequences if necessary). The course syllabus — a document largely ignored by far too many kids — is the professor’s contract with the students, much like the contracts some parents create with their children. For example, my mom used to draw up similar documents for me as I crossed important thresholds, like getting my driver’s license. The syllabus clearly states how grades are calculated, how many absences are permitted, whether late work is accepted, and what the penalties will be for exceeding the absence limit or submitting a paper four days late.
Harder than drawing up the contract is upholding it. There are always students who claim to have extenuating circumstances (often, these are run-of-the-mill college stresses, but sometimes they’re truly extenuating). There are students who say they didn’t know what the penalties were (this excuse never works) or that they didn’t understand them (this one doesn’t either). A good teacher, much like a good parent, is firm and fair, yet compassionate when the situation calls for it. I’ve given grade reductions to good students whom I like a lot. I don’t want to, but if I said I would take off points for a particular infraction, then I have to stick to it.
When I first started teaching, I became acutely aware of just how important it felt that my students like me. I wanted them to find me funny, accessible, and interesting. When, for whatever reason, some of them would make it clear that they didn’t like me, I’d feel wounded, even rejected. I found myself revisiting feelings I hadn’t experienced since middle school — namely, wondering what I had to do to get a teenager to like me.
In my early teaching days, this sometimes resulted in me cutting students too much slack and compromising my own authority in the classroom. Once that happens, a teacher’s efficacy is shot. While it’s never good when a student despises an instructor — clearly, something’s wrong if that’s the case — some of my most rewarding teaching experiences have involved students who weren’t crazy about me or my class, but learned in spite of that. In fact, many of the evaluations I’m most proud of are the ones in which kids grudgingly admit that they learned something. While it’s great to feel the love from them, that is not necessary to being a good teacher.
Not taking something personally is much easier said than done. Back when I taught high school, students sometimes yelled at me or sat sullenly in class shooting me the stink eye. It’s disconcerting, especially given our desire to be liked. But invariably, the explanations for such unpleasant interactions ranged from teenage hormones to a situation at home to a fight with a boyfriend or girlfriend. In college, stress, anxiety, and homesickness can cause a student to seem angry or disengaged in class. The vast majority of the time, students’ attitudes during class have nothing to do with me.
I experienced my fair share of stress and pressure as a college student, but I think students these days have it far worse than I did. College tuition has risen way above what it was 20 years ago. Admission is more competitive (in some ways. There’s always room for compassion in teaching, and I’m better equipped to help students whose difficulties I understand.
As much as a teacher shouldn’t desperately vie for the affection of her students, connecting with them is nevertheless important. Those five minutes before class starts are a perfect opportunity to ask students about what’s new and interesting in their lives. The before- and after-class chats have been so helpful that they’ve become part of my teaching strategy. I find something — hockey, video games, travel, whatever — to talk to the most disengaged students about. Asking them about their other classes or whether they saw the Republican debate or the latest episode of “The Walking Dead" may get students talking, and this can set the tone for them in the class that follows.
Back in elementary and junior high school, I always felt awkward and nervous when I bumped into a teacher in a restaurant or grocery store. I never contemplated teachers’ existence outside of school, as though they lived in the building where they taught. I don’t divulge personal details, but mentioning a recent trip, the score of my last soccer game, or my Halloween costume reminds students that I don’t sleep under my desk.
More importantly, I commiserate with them about the difficulties of writing. I admit to having writers’ block, to getting frustrated with editors, and to sometimes hating what I write and wanting to throw it all away. Because I know what that feels like, I have techniques to cope, and students are far more receptive to hearing these than if I just incorporated a list of strategies into a lecture or lesson. Even a well-placed expletive helps make a teacher real.
This is another aspect of being real: Sometimes, I screw up. Maybe I uploaded the wrong reading to the course website, or missed part of office hours because of traffic. Or maybe I completely missed a counterargument in a student’s paper and graded it down because of that. Whatever my mistake, I have to own it.
Sometimes that means owning it publicly, in front of 20 or even 40 students. So be it. One of the most important lessons that students can learn in college is to take responsibility for their learning. Teachers model that behavior, so it’s important not to make excuses or pretend to be perfect.
The older I get, the more my pop culture references sail over students’ heads. Even though I’ll never prefer Miley Cyrus to Madonna, my students provide valuable pop culture lessons that help me understand and teach them better.
My science fiction students regularly introduce me to comics, video games, and movies that fit perfectly into the readings and themes we discuss in class, and sometimes even into the papers they write. Without my undergrads, I would have no idea that “Fallout 4" riffs on Ray Bradbury’s “And There Will Come Soft Rains." I also wouldn’t know that there’s a HAL-inspired alarm app. And I would be worse off for my ignorance.
In a research seminar five years ago, students showed me Reddit, which has turned out to be invaluable both in and out of class. I’m lucky that modern pop culture dovetails with what I teach — students can do research for my courses by watching movies such as “The Martian," “Ex Machina," “Her," and “Gravity." I wouldn’t know or be able to leverage these instructional opportunities if my students didn’t keep me current.
I once fought against it, but I’ve learned from students that resisting change is an uphill battle for a teacher. Instead, I require my students to use Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook for research. We share sources with a class hashtag, and students regularly tweet out their thesis statements to classmates for feedback. They compile lists of people and publications to follow and groups to join on Facebook.
When I taught high school, I had students create Facebook profiles for the characters in “The Iliad," and they had to post on each other’s pages as well as send private messages back and forth. I’ve had students translate paragraphs into text-speak and emoji as a way to examine how communication is evolving. I still have students monitor Wikipedia and technology, by contrast, gives material undeniable and often exciting relevance.
I teach 9 a.m. classes this semester. I know my students would rather be in bed; I would too. But I’ve learned that my vibe and demeanor set the tone for class. If I walk in tired or sad, my students absorb that and feel inclined to act similarly themselves. For this reason, I’m bright and chipper at 8:45 a.m. as they file in. They don’t need to know I’d give anything to be snoozing, just as I don’t need to know if they’re not really interested in the subject I’m teaching.
None of my students argue that learning to write is pointless — they all understand how important it is to be able to communicate effectively (and without glaring errors) via writing. I didn’t, in fact, expect this. I’ve also been surprised to learn how self-conscious they are about their own written work, although they are increasingly upfront about their shortcomings as writers and genuinely interested in improving. Still, some students are painfully shy about submitting drafts, even though I tell them rough drafts are supposed to be rough. While I hope to help them get over that shyness, it indicates that they care — and that is always a good thing.
I have an unfortunate tendency to be judgmental. I often categorize my students: There’s the guy who raises his hand a dozen times per class but who claims he has no idea what to write in an essay. There’s the student who does background research on every author we read. There’s the one who stares out the window for 15 minutes per class, the one who relates everything back to video games, the one who yawns countless times even when the class meets at 2:00 p.m., the one who gets tongue-tied and red in the face when called on.
Professors absorb so much information in the classroom that it’s easy to think we understand what makes our students tick. But I’ve had students I thought were disengaged who have told me that they’re preoccupied because of family problems. I’ve had students who seem to care less about class discussions, but who later tell me that their silence is due to insecurity. I’ve had students I doubted read the material but who craft the most original and perceptive papers.
Because I want to understand them so I can teach them better, I make assumptions and draw conclusions that sometimes turn out to be inaccurate. It’s important to remember that not every student is a type. Just as they may be wrong about me, I may be wrong about them, too.
Ultimately, what I most strive to achieve with my students is an "aha" moment in the real world, when they reflect back on something we discussed in class. The most significant learning often occurs when students make connections and discover the widespread relevance of skills and approaches, whether these are academic, social,or emotional. Similarly, one of the greatest rewards as a teacher is when I have these moments myself at unexpected times and in unexpected places. I'll hear a student's voice in my ear or understand a comment in a new way, surprised yet again at how much learning happens outside the classroom walls.
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