This article first appeared in the Teaching Professor on July 19, 2017. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.
It is time to bid farewell to a career I have loved for so long that it now seems entirely too short. Reflecting on 42 years of teaching and some of my missteps, I share here a few of the major lessons I’ve learned.
1. Start with the students. This seemingly simple dictum is surprisingly difficult to apply consistently. As teachers we naturally assume our own perspective, often starting with the “what” (the content) or “how” (the method) rather than the “who.” In planning and in instruction, we must always begin with the students—by understanding who they are, where they are cognitively, emotionally, and socially, as well as why they act as they do. On a daily basis, this involves listening and observing them, and being in touch with campus events and situations that are part of our students’ lives. It means getting to know students as individuals and as a class.
Recalling a time when I totally ignored this principle best illustrates its value. I still distinctly remember that period in early August 1977 right before I started teaching high school Latin. I diligently filled my empty plan book with two weeks’ worth of lessons for my second-year language classes only to discover that they knew very little of first-year Latin. Although teachers will always have to do some planning without specific knowledge of our students, it’s when we truly get to know them that our instruction improves. We become more effective. Teaching becomes easier and learning more relevant and meaningful. I know now that missed the mark in those early days when I planned everything in detail before ever meeting my students.
Even more basic than this notion of keeping students as the focal point of our planning is maintaining a perspective of genuine affinity for students. If we do not like students and communicate that in our words, actions, and most importantly our nonverbals, they can tell! Starting with the students means enjoying being around them. It means keeping in mind the ultimate goal, which is their independence and future career success.
2. Savor the interruptions. A knock at the door, a ring of the phone, an “urgent” email on the screen—some days are nothing but a stream of interruptions. It is easy to become frustrated with those moments that take us off track. However, it’s within these interactions where the real work of teaching often takes place. When students stop by our office or send an email query, these can be powerful teaching opportunities. Some of our best teaching happens in these brief encounters. Some of our greatest joys will arise from these one-on-one visits with students in our office or in those short exchanges before or after class. To welcome student interruptions opens us up to insights that may enrich our teaching and reveal what’s most important about our work.
3. Connect with colleagues. Over my career there have been periods of isolation from my teaching peers. Asking for help did not come easily for me. New faculty are particularly vulnerable to separating themselves from others. Busyness quickly becomes the essence of our existence as teaching professors. With all the demands of a faculty position, who has any extra time? Yet taking time to interact with colleagues within our department, across campus, and at conferences can yield significant payoffs. Some of my best teaching ideas have come from these interactions. Some of my strongest support has sprung from collegial relationships with coworkers.
It’s important to select colleagues of different ages and experiences so that we’re not drawn only to those most like us. The richest conversations and exchanges can come from those who seem most unlike us. Eat lunch with a colleague, take a walk across campus, attend conference sessions together, start a book group—the activity doesn’t really matter—just carve out time to get to know at least a few colleagues well.
4. Remain a learner. No doubt, as teaching professors we are committed to ongoing learning about our disciplinary areas through personal study, research, and participation in conferences. The kind of learning I am referring to here, however, is tackling something out of your comfort zone—something different! Putting ourselves in the role of learner helps us understand and recognize what our students are experiencing as they learn something new—the fears, anxieties, frustrations, and triumphs. It took me years to find the time to do this. The luxury of post-tenure has allowed me more time to truly be a learner. Among other activities, I have taken classes in art journaling and Tai Chi, joined a choral group, and read books for pleasure outside of my usual genre. I think it’s important to share our learning experiences with students so they see us as learners as well.
5. Do a communication sound check. Before performing a concert, musicians always do a sound check to make sure they’re in tune and balanced, and what’s being amplified is clear. If musicians fail to do this pre-show check, the concert will be a lousy experience. As teachers we need to check, doublecheck, and continually re-examine our written (and oral) communications for clarity. And this sound check must be considered from the students’ perspective. Things that are perfectly clear to us can be confusing to students. A teaching colleague or perhaps a former student can be excellent sounding boards for these periodic checks.
6. Keep the “why” central. When we lose sight of why we do what we do, we are more likely to become discouraged, disengaged, or disenchanted. To devote some attention to thinking about our overarching goal, we can start by completing the popular Twitter stem: “I teach because…”. (See #whyiteach for inspiration from other teachers on Twitter.) Knowing our particular “why” will help us keep things in perspective when the daily demands seem overwhelming.
7. Be the one and only you. It does not take long to realize that we can only be ourselves. Doing otherwise takes too much energy. Over the years I’ve seen how my primary role has evolved from being a giver of information to an influencer of development. Now I view teaching primarily as serving students in fulfilling their dreams. (In other work I talk about the joy of teaching and equate “JOY” with the expression “Just Offer Yourself.” For more, see Journey of Joy: Teaching Tips for Reflection, Rejuvenation, and Renewal.)
Each day I try to ask myself: “What gift can I offer my students today?” Although knowledge is a major component of my gift package, even more vital are my gifts of encouragement, high expectations, enthusiasm, and hope. Some students are very discouraged and don’t expect the future to be much better than the present. I aim to help them see a more positive future and to facilitate their ability and independence in reaching their life goals. We must always be aware that the messages our words and deeds communicate to students endure long after they’ve forgotten much of our content. We may truly become the future inner voice that students use as a compass in considering: “What would professor X do?” That is an awesome albeit somewhat scary responsibility. How and when we reply to email queries, what kind of comments we make in class (or outside of class), what values we portray in our attitudes (e.g., acceptance, care, humility)— these behaviors are what impact students most and form our own unique contribution.
Farewell to the BEST Profession: The decision to retire from teaching is never an easy one. However, they say you will know when it’s time. They were right. With mixed emotions, I depart a lifetime of teaching. I doubt I’ll never fully leave the field of education and have started making plans to tutor at the middle school near my house. In the end, it all comes down to doing what matters most—supporting our students. May we not wonder if we have done so.
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Dr. Patty Phelps will retire in May 2019 after having taught at the University of Central Arkansas for 30 years where she prepared countless middle and high school teachers for their careers in education. She was also involved in the creation of the campus faculty development center.