February 27, 2011
What My Professors Really Taught Me
Now that I am teaching, I keep in mind what it was like to be a student; and I find I have learned many valuable lessons about teaching simply by being in successful- and unsuccessful- classrooms. When I think about the world of academia as a whole learning process, I remind myself that my students are at the beginning of that process, and I am in the middle. Not at the end. PhD and all.
Most of the important lessons I learned about teaching were from my professors:
If you want real students, give them real challenges. Students rise to challenge. I had a professor who tested on anything and everything covered- if it was in your book, if it was even briefly mentioned in class (whether it was in the books or articles or not), it might appear in that exam. As students, we often bemoaned the hours in the library digging up items that weren’t in our books, but we learned how to do it. How do you start with a photo, and end up with full identification of an object? How do you track things and information down? (And this was before Google!)
If you want students to meet a challenge, make sure give them the tools to do it. That same teacher had a little corner in the library where she had a box. If you paid attention to the syllabus and went to that box, you found photos of every single thing she mentioned in class or was in any book or article you read for her. Every. Single. Thing. So at least you had a place to start to track it down.
Be holistic. When you are teaching students to think, analyze, and communicate, don’t over-emphasize any one of those elements at the expense of another. Don’t ignore one just because a student excels at another. Work to have your students present with a whole package- that’s education. You have to think to analyze. You have to analyze to understand. You have to be able to communicate those thoughts to be taken seriously in the world. All three are skills that can be taught.
Be present. There is nothing more frustrating to a student than actually having a question, and not being able to find the professor. In this day and age, there is no excuse for it. Email is open 24 hours a day.
Share. Why is research considered so important to Universities and to academia? It gives you something new to share with your students, new perspectives for you and for them to explore. Any student can read a book. They’re college students, after all. They are paying your salary to get you in front of them, to have you share your perspective and knowledge and understanding, and train them to do the same.
Even as a hired gun, these ideas are important to teaching, and getting real education to the students in front of you. Teach them to give and meet challenges, look at the world as a whole, be truly present and truly experience the world, and share that experience with others.
We only have one lifetime, and it seems it is never as long as we think it should be. Unless we become educated and alive, we risk missing that lifetime. And what would it really mean, if we don’t bother to pass it on?