October 27th, 2010

Why Being a Student Made Me a Better Teacher

By:

Congratulations! You’ve accepted a position as a professor, instructor, or lecturer. Now comes the hard part. Unless you have spent your professional career studying curriculum, instruction, assessment, online learning, classroom management, and the many other topics with which you now face, you have stepped into a whole new world. Your subject matter expertise or technical knowledge that got you the job is simply not enough.

When I decided as a second career (or third, depending on how you look at it), that I wanted to teach at the postsecondary level, the first step was to enroll in a doctoral program. Because the field I teach encompasses several disciplines, I chose an education program to pursue. Over the two-plus years of classes, tests, papers, presentations and the final dissertation, I learned much about myself as a student that has transferred to my teaching of adult students.

Here are just a few of the things I like to keep in mind as I teach:

Be organized. As a student I rarely appreciated an instructor who was disorganized, didn’t meet deadlines, or who rambled during a lecture while appearing completely unprepared. If you want me to meet deadlines, then meet yours as an instructor, too. If you say you will respond by e-mail within 24 or 48 hours, do so. If you promise to have papers back within a week or two, then you need to meet that deadline. And, well, if you aren’t prepared, then say so because my time is valuable too and I can spend it working on something else. As an instructor, I try to follow this to an extreme, because I remember how valuable timely feedback and responses were to making feel that the professor was concerned about my learning.

Your experiences are interesting, to a point … Many of us are hired because of our background and history in business and industry, our prowess in a subject, or just our general sparkling personality. However, if you ask me as a student to read three chapters and do preparatory work for a class, I am not entirely thrilled to sit and listen to one, two or three hours of your experiences, your political opinions, or your problems with university administration. Ah yes, you can be the sage on the stage, after all that is what you are getting paid for, isn’t it? But limit your rambling to that which is relevant to the class. Otherwise, as an adult learner, my mind will soon be on what I need to pick up at the grocery store on the way home and why the heck I paid so much for this class. I use this philosophy to keep classes on task, and sprinkle in my experience sparingly.

Make it clear. Both students and instructors routinely dread the first test, paper, or quiz of the semester, primarily because we are still getting used to each other. As a student, I always wondered if a professor would appreciate my writing style, whether I studied the right things for the test or quiz, and how this would start my semester. That’s why I love rubrics and checklists! Come whatever, I felt like as a learner, that I had control over my learning, and that I wasn’t writing some paper that would be so far off the mark that I would never dig my way out of that hole. Studying for tests became more organized with checklists and the chances of using my time wisely and well were generally rewarded.

I do the same favor for my students. I post rubrics for everything – discussions, short papers, term papers and projects. Are they fun to put together? Not necessarily. But as an instructor, it forces me to think long and hard about my definition of exceptional, good, fair and poor. It gives me a more standardized tool to give back to the students rather than just a paper covered in red. It takes time in the beginning, but as rubrics are refined and tightened, it makes grading those large amounts of paper on the same topic infinitely more enjoyable.

Life does get in the way. We all set assignment dates, hoping against hope that we will have some breathing room between the classes to grade all those assignments and papers. It is the closest thing to control that we have as instructors during a semester to make sure the learning goes forward. However, I learned early and hard two weeks into my doctoral program when I broke my ankle and couldn’t drive to my classes that you can’t plan everything. Students (especially adult learners) have jobs, kids, families, cars, bills, illnesses and all the detritus of life that gets in the way. It doesn’t hurt to give a little, especially early in the semester. A little leeway earns a lot of student loyalty. However, students can and will take advantage, so set your own limits.

Talk to me. I encourage students to talk to me throughout the semester, whether I am their primary advisor or not. The reasons are explained in the previous section. Disappearing into the twilight and not making yourself available to your students can lead to student retention problems. So, dear students, please talk to me. I may not like what you say, but if you just disappear, or get frustrated and leave, I can’t help you. I had several professors that had that policy, and while I tried not to abuse their open door, ear, and telephone, it certainly sustained me during those days when I wondered why I was even trying.

It’s about learning…not teaching. I came in with the grandest of notions to the teaching profession … opening minds, inspiring the next generation, spreading my love of learning, etc. What I found is this profession is not about me, my ego, or my knowledge. This profession that we have chosen is about learning and how we can help our students be successful. I really don’t care if every student in my class gets an A and sometimes I am thoroughly disappointed to have to give anything else. Grades are a measure like anything else, and if my students are learning, then I am successful.

That’s it in a nutshell. My experience as a student taught me that taking classes to get the degree is the goal of some students. But, I try to instill the fact that this stuff is important to your future, you need to learn it, and I can’t be there two, five or ten years down the road to hold your hand. You, the student, have to learn it and take responsibility for the learning. You are certainly paying enough for it. I am here to guide you down that road and keep you moving. I hope to be here doing just that for a long time.

Vickie A. Kelly, EdD, is the program director and assistant professor of technology administration at Washburn University.