What Happened When I Stopped Policing and Started Teaching

I’m not sure how to say this without appearing either arrogant or ignorant, but I have discovered that there is a difference between being a police officer and being a professor. I have recognized the difference for some time now, but it has taken me the better part of my 40 years as a college professor to feel fairly comfortable in my new skin.

For many years, I taught more like a police officer than a professor. I didn’t want anyone in my classes to get higher grades than they deserved. I was a vigilant protector of academic integrity. I looked for students who did not come to class or who might be breaking the rules. I set traps with quizzes and tricky test questions. Many of the multiple-choice questions I wrote focused on detailed, technical knowledge of facts. I paid little attention to the relevance of those facts. To pass these tests students needed to know exact terminology and specific definitions.

In addition to my “gotcha” test questions, I kept a close eye on the problem students—trying to catch the ones who were not learning or those who looked as though they might sneak through. Nobody was going to steal a grade in my courses. I was the police officer, and I made my students the criminals.

Taking this approach did not make me unique. But at this point in my career I have finally stopped being one of those educators obsessed with “catching” problem students and now focus my energies on the students who work hard and want to learn.

Keeping my attention focused on the slackers made me more tense and angry about my teaching. I was often discouraged, and my classrooms were not friendly places. Being a police officer did not make me happy.

Now I walk into class as a professor. I believe that the students in my class are there to learn. They want to know more about life and the world around them, about the environment, jobs, and careers they can enjoy for years to come. And I believe if we make learning fun, it brings out their creativity. A relaxed mind can think better.

Seeing their creativity inspires me—it makes me a better professor. Now I devote my energy to the students who are getting it, those who are bright, cheerful, relaxed, and interested in learning more. The shift has made teaching so much more enjoyable. And I’m convinced that more learning goes on in classrooms taught by professors, not police officers.

Peter Kakela is a professor at Michigan State University.

Excerpted from Police Officer or Professor?, The Teaching Professor, Feb. 2008.