March 22nd, 2013

Reflections on Teaching: From Surviving to Thriving


Editor’s Note: In part one of this article, the author shared openly some of the mistakes he made early in his teaching career. In this entry, he outlines some of the changes he’s made to his teaching over the years and the principles he uses to guide his teaching.

I had known it all along at some level, but now it suddenly became glaringly obvious to me. Deep down, sometimes out of conscious reach, students want to be transformed and their lives made more useful, productive, and powerful. I added the following new goal to my personal mission statement:

“My goal is to be a wonderfully inspirational teacher, always available to my students, and constantly encouraging, supporting, and challenging them. I intend to provide my students with a life-changing experience. I want to be renowned for my exceptional teaching skills and for getting my students actively engaged in their own learning.”

Now with this goal in mind, I now strive to follow three main principles of teaching.

My first principle of teaching is that the professor must care deeply about the class and be fully invested in the students’ learning. To show my investment, I show up early for class, respond quickly to emails and phone calls, and try to give substantive feedback on students’ work. I learn my students’ names early on. I intentionally convey my passion and enthusiasm through my words and my body language. I work hard to avoid being that clichéd professor who drones on and on, as bored by the material as the class is. I tell my students that I expect to learn as much from them as they from me, and I ask for their input on how to improve the class. In everything, I try to remind them that we are there to make massive progress on their intellectual and professional development.

That leads me to my second principle: the importance of encouraging complete student engagement and empowering students to take ownership of the class. At the beginning of the semester I lay out the purpose of the class, what the expected outcomes are, and how grades will be calculated. As the semester goes along, I ask for feedback every month via anonymous questionnaires and adjust the class according to the needs of the students. I have learned that even when students are doing fine with the material, they appreciate the opportunity to weigh in and have their opinion heard on how the class is going.

I have found that some seemingly pedantic aspects of teaching make a significant difference in the quality of student involvement. Many professors believe it is the students’ responsibility and choice, as adults, to attend class or do the homework. However, we have to remember that students have many valid obligations fighting for their time. If attendance is not mandatory, sometimes students will make the choice to skip. If reading is never referred to, sometimes students will not get around to opening the book. If I want my class to be truly rewarding, I need to set high standards for attendance and study habits.

My third principle is the importance of encouraging students to work together and learn from each other. I met so many of my lifelong friends and developed numerous relationships important to my career in school that I wanted to give my students every opportunity to do the same. Ice breaker exercises, encouraging students to learn each other’s name, and having frequent class discussions create an environment in which students feel comfortable working with each other. They learn the essential skills of networking and collaboration while also engaging with the material of the class.

Of course, even with these three principles, challenges always remain. But keeping these in mind helps me strive toward the goal in my personal mission statement. I am now much more comfortable running a class and encouraging student involvement. It is a pleasure to teach when the students are engaged and interested and when they speak up, ask questions, and even make arguments.

Here are my favorite specific tips from peers, students, and pedagogical experts for creating a positive learning experience for your students:

  1. Syllabus. Make the learning outcomes as specific and clear as possible, and relate these to the assignment and to your grading metrics. Spell out expected student behavior, including professionalism (meet deadlines, show up on time, participate in class, etc.)
  2. First Classes. Make a serious and obvious effort to learn your students’ names. Ask your students to address each other by name, rather than “he” or “she.” After you introduce yourself, ask your students to introduce themselves. Have the students fill out a questionnaire about themselves, including goals, interests, passions, and expectations for the course. Meet one-on-one with all students within the first two weeks of the semester and discuss their responses to the questionnaire. Some of the best teaching is done outside the classroom.
  3. Classroom Atmosphere. Convey your passion and enthusiasm for the subject and your willingness to provide individual help. Foster a sense of belonging and respect. Encourage high performance and promote active engagement. For a small class, give the students a sense of community by sitting in a circle. Create a safe, nurturing environment in which students feel free to experiment and fail.
  4. Classroom Specifics. Show up early for class, take attendance, and end class on time. Start class by asking a student to summarize the main points from the last class, and end by summarizing what was accomplished. Write the plan for the class on the board. Have students stand up and stretch, occasionally play brief games, and, when possible, take field trips as a class.
  5. Classroom Interactions. Make the class as interactive as possible to transform the students from passive observers to active players. Constantly call on individual students by name to answer questions without first asking for volunteers. This keeps the whole class alert. Encourage the shy students to speak; don’t allow long-winded or loud students to dominate the conversation. Listen to students actively during discussion.
  6. Beyond the Classroom. Manage your office hours: encourage students to drop by even if they don’t have specific questions; have a sign-up sheet on your door so students don’t have to wait. Reach out to students who miss a class. Be responsive to emails and calls from students and give students meaningful and meaty comments on homework assignments.

If you would like to receive a more detailed list of ideas for inspiring students to be enthusiastic and motivated in the classroom, please e-mail me at with “Handout” in the subject line.

Professor Chris Palmer is on the full-time faculty at the School of Communication at American University.

  • Old School

    I'm one of those professors who believe it is the students’ responsibility and choice, as adults, to attend class. I have found that relatively many students choose not to come to class or do the work necessary to pass. As a result, many students don't pass and have to retake the course. It is during the second time around that something really important happens: students take responsibility for their own learning, come to class (not because I said they had to, but because they choose to), and very frequently do extremely well. I believe that this "life lesson" of taking responsibility for your own success is perhaps the most valuable lesson learned in class. By requiring attendance, I would deny students the oportunity to learn that lesson. I teach a large lecture class, so issues may be different in smaller, discussion-oriented classes.

  • John

    I have seen students who are exactly as Old School says – they choose not to come, they fail, and the second time around they have awoken to reality and they become significantly stronger for it. However, I also have students who do not come, fail, retake the class, do not come, and fail again.

    If only there was one key way to awaken all of the 'sleeping' students.

  • NDJ

    I took a class from Professor Palmer as part of a graduate program in Documentary Film at American University. I don't think I've had a teacher that gave so much time to his students outside of class. He really cares about his students and was an inspiring educator.

  • Marissa

    Professor Palmer is everything he has set out to be as a professor, mentor, and kindhearted individual. I graduated from American University four years ago and even now when I achieve a personal goal or need advice, he is one of the first people I reach out to. With so many other incredibly important commitments he still always answers in just a few minutes. His class taught me how to network, how to collaborate, how to be confident in front of a crowd and a number of other life lessons that have made me a successful business owner at 25 in a field that I didn't realize I was passionate about until he helped open my eyes. He cared about my goals and ambitions, not only the information on the syllabus. He pushed me to be my best, and because he expected it of me and believed in me, I couldn't disappoint either of us. He teaches his students to strive to be the best version of themselves, and I only wish everyone could be so lucky to have him as their professor.

  • I met Professor Palmer the first year he came to American University. I was in one of his first classes and I remember learning so much and valuing every class, as if it were an expensive workshop that I was lucky my tuition was paying for. Chris helped get my career started, I learned extremely valuable networking skills that helped me land my first job at the National Geographic Channel. That job helped shape the next 7 years of my life, as I made contacts that eventually led me to move across the country and work on some highly rated cable television productions. I credit Professor Palmer with being one of the most influential people in my career. You only dream about having such an involved and helpful mentor in your life. As I now pursue a venture in entrepreneurship I still remember lessons of connection, funding and tactful follow up that Chris taught me many moons ago. I'm so happy to see that Professor Palmer has continued to grow, anyone who has him as a Professor and is willing to put in the effort will truly be rewarded.

  • heartfeltassociates

    Great article, Chris, and sense of responsibility in the classroom. I taught as adjunct faculty for 35 years at three universities and struggled with many of the same areas of concern. I eventually required attendance and have a fairly simple point of view about it. I view learning as a conversation with everyone listening to each other and learning from each other. When a bright student would say, "I can get the grade I want without being here, I suggested, "We need your voice, your mind and ideas in the conversation. I can't let you out of that. I like Viktor Frankl's assertion in The Search for Meaning that freedom has to be balanced with responsibility. I don't know of jobs where showing up or participating is optional. Even those who work at home are expected to be engaged and involved. I'm not teaching these days, but will store your article for its well stated ideas. I hope to teach again one day when consulting slows down. Tim

  • Pingback: Thought you might be interested in my two… « Professor Chris Palmer, School of Communication()

  • BirdmanHD

    When I taught part-time at a small university, I rapidly became frustrated with student behavior. There I was pouring my heart and soul out – working hard to be a great teacher and not make the same mistakes of my professors. There were several students who took the option of being totally unengaged and did poor work. Since it was a small class, I could see that one individual was literally dragging down the attitude of the rest. One morning, the student came in obviously after an "all-nighter", sleeping through much of the lab. We had a talk afterwards, but it did not help.

    After the semester, there were no "A's" given. The dean called me -particularly about one of the students- who had been the best but failed to achieve any tangible level of excellence, her parents were wealthy and had been contributing. I refused to budge citing grades and participation through the semester. No one had done excellent work.

    The dean was clearly upset that I was standing firm.

    About that time I received a very nice full-time job offer from a non-profit organization, and feeling the new excitement for the future and standing askance- watching politics interferring with the ethics of teaching – I made a clear and swift choice.

    Even though I was asked to apply later for a wildlife filmmaking professorship to teach at a nice university , because of my earlier negative experience, I never did. Happy with that choice.

    Like Tim before me, I too see the potential to teach looming as a final means of giving back. The importance of apprenticeship however, has been lost on our culture and may provide an alternative approach.

    • fairlady68

      Interesting that you are still reading higher education periodicals like this…

      • BirdmanHD

        I love education. Teachers and professors have been the most important influence in my life. When they have seen the enthusiasm in response to their teaching methods – they responded to me. Now I am producing wildlife television. The most important thing I can do with my life is to create shows in a responsible manner which in turn create impact on the audience to in turn create change in human behavior.

        After 6 years of struggle to finance a film for PBS, we are nearly complete. My first whole contribution is near.

  • Craig C. Downer

    Very insightful!

  • Sheila Laffey

    Chris – Having taught Film Studies for many years,errr decades, I see myself in just about every one of your observations and appreciate being able to think about them in this organized fashion. I have initiated only some of your suggestions and am seriously considering the other ones. They all make great sense! I am going to recommend this to all faculty at my college! Thanks for sharing your all too common challenges in the classroom and insights!

  • Roger

    Chris, I had several teachers that were very much engaged with their students and not simply going through the motions. It makes all the difference in the world to a student that is attentive and pulls in some that may not be so inclined to participate. Clearly you are of that ilk. Kudos to you! It's nice to know that there are still educators with such passion teaching at our schools and universities. I'm think en stand-up fits into this somewhere?
    Best wishes,

  • Pat Tucker

    I wish I could take a class from Chris. I especially like the tips list. If only everyone in a teaching position (professional and otherwise) would adapt these to their "classrooms" where ever they may be.

  • mindshiftmentor

    fantastic article…well written! I experienced the same setbacks and growing pains this past year as I developed my teaching business…an added difficulty was learning to do all this for virtual classrooms as well as in person. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

    as always…much love and respect!


  • Chris Palmer

    Chris Palmer here. I deeply appreciate all these thoughtful, constructive comments from friends and strangers alike. Thank you so much!
    Best, Chris

  • Gregory Hunt

    I have attended your presentations for facutly and I have learned a lot from you. This article keeps me on track to consistently update my teaching.

    • Chris Palmer

      Gregory, thank you!