Embrace Your Students

It is useful to remember that students often enter our classes completely terrified of us. They also never seem to know (for better or worse) that we are also terrified. The good news is that is doesn’t have to be that way at all.
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Loving your students well is a question of focus. Most beginning professors and secondary education teachers are far too worried about their own performance and far too little focused on meeting the students where they are at.

It is useful to remember that students often enter our classes completely terrified of us. They also never seem to know (for better or worse) that we are also terrified. So if we aren’t careful, our first few weeks will devolve quickly into a bizarre comedy of mutual terrors. The good news is that is doesn’t have to be that way at all. 

The key to staying inspired to teach is to mesh your own gifts as a teacher with your students’ deepest needs without killing yourself—or them. You must make uniquely personal discoveries about how to do this, and it takes time and experience. 

For example, I discovered from the feedback on my course evaluations that many students find me intimidating. Really? lil’ ole me? To combat this, I commit a ton of extra office hours during the first two weeks of class and ask every student who has not had me as a teacher before to come in for a ten-minute chat. They get into my office, which for many of them is scarier than skydiving.

I listen to them. I laugh with them, occasionally cry with them, and always learn amazing things. I learn about the student from Korea who transferred because he was tired of the party school atmosphere at the state school he attended (The school where I teach, Wheaton College, is routinely ranked in top three of “stone cold sober” schools). I learn about the one who is interested in a career in fashion—and I tell her not to look forward to my class attire, which is destined to disappoint. I learn about the one whose family farms flaxseed in North Dakota, and who is planning to return, Wendell-Berry style, after graduation. The world, sitting across from me!

Lately I’ve started taking notes after their names in a beautiful hardback journal, because it helps me remember them when I hear about things they’ve done later in their lives.

There are all kinds of benefits to these meetings. They give me a chance to answer specific questions. They give me a chance to tell them I’m bad with faces and names, so please be patient if I blunder. Ultimately they see me as a human being, which makes them less afraid to be human themselves in front of me.

All of us would do well to remember that teaching is not about imparting knowledge to underlings. It is about inspiring fellow learners to want to think deeply about a subject that you know can transform them. If it cannot, then why are you teaching it? It is time to get a different career.

Since you know that your subject can be transformative, you need to set up your classes accordingly. You need to embrace win-win thinking. See my next post for an example of how win-win thinking could revolutionize your first day of class.

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