Robert L. Veninga, Ph.D.
I happen to think that teaching is the best gig in the world! But I know it can be discouraging: Difficult students, bureaucratic rules, large classes can take the joy out of a good job. What can you do - in spite of all the challenges - to make this academic year the best one of your life? Here are four suggestions:
First, demand more from your students. How to do it? I recently observed a track coach helping athletes jump over the high bar. First he placed the bar low, so that everyone could succeed. Then he gradually moved the bar higher. I could see the determination on the faces of the young athletes as they approached the bar. They wanted to soar higher than before!
It is important to keep the academic bar appropriately high. How to do it? Here is one of my favorite strategies: At the University of Minnesota I give my students an assignment and ask them to bring it to my office when completed. I do this because it provides informal conversation. And it provides me with a great opportunity to challenge my students to greatness.
Before accepting their assignment I ask this question: "Is this paper your best work?" 99% of the time students sheepishly indicate that it isn't their best product. I ask them to keep the paper and return it when it is their best work.
The students don't like this exercise! But years later alumni will tell me that it was the single most important learning moment in their college career. If you want this year to be great, challenge your students to soar higher than ever before. This is true no matter the age or grade level of your students.
Second, if you want to make this the best school year ever, give students a creative assignment. How to do it? Ask the students to teach the class - with your help!
A college professor told me an interesting story. She asked each student to teach one class during the semester. The students weren't too happy with the assignment but they agreed to do it - provided they could bring some food to class which began at 8:15 A.M.
One morning a student-teacher brought orange juice to class. The next class a student-teacher brought bagels and coffee. Then one brought a huge breakfast with scrambled eggs, bacon and hash-browns potatoes! On a fourth occasion the breakfast was more modest consisting of sweet rolls. And so it went in this class.
What the Professor didn't know was that the student-teachers were telegraphing to classmates how prepared they were for teaching - by the bigness of the breakfast! If the student-teacher was prepared to teach then something simple was offered, like orange juice. But if the student-teacher needed a lot of help from the class because they were unprepared, they had to bring in a huge breakfast!
"The class was incredible," said the Professor. "The students had fun teaching. They developed deep friendships. They learned a lot. It was the best class I ever had." Make learning fun.
Third, if you want this to be the best academic year of your life, keep your sense of humor. If you get to serious about teaching you will disappoint yourself and your students.
I recall a story of a college professor who received a letter from a spouse whose husband he taught. The letter read: "My husband took your biology course. He loved the class but hated the textbook. He would bring it to bed every night and say, 'This is so boring. This is so boring.' Today, I am six months pregnant and I hold you personally responsible!" The student added a P.S. to the letter: I thought you would enjoy my humor. I'm telling everyone I know about my good news!" Keep your sense of humor!
Finally, if you want to make this the best academic year of your life, remember this: it is not what you teach that students will ultimately remember. What they will remember is how they were treated. As Poet Maya Angelou said: "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."
I say this from my heart: If you are a teacher, you have one of the greatest callings on earth! Enjoy the moment. Let the frustrations slip away. And when a student or a parent of student says a heartfelt thank you - cherish it forever. You have made a difference.
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Noel K. Estenson
President and CEO (retired)
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