Things my students told me

MATH_teacherAs I retire from the college I feel the compulsion to share some hard learned lessons. To all teachers, newbies and old hands, sooner or later someone will say…

“You are a bad teacher”

Since I don’t know you, perhaps it’s true. But if you are reading this on a student survey, or hearing it from a tear-stained student who is failing your course – the truth has not been established.

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines the verb “teach” as: “To cause or help (someone) to learn about a subject by giving lessons”. To cause someone to learn? Cool! But this definition creates all sorts of angst for teachers. I’m not sure I can “cause” another person to do much of anything (lead a horse to water and all that) – but that is a discussion for another day. This definition implies that our success is dependent on the outcome. By this definition we cannot have taught unless someone has learned.

And I agree.

If the student cannot meet the course outcomes then, by definition, you have not taught that student. However, that does not mean you are a bad teacher. It is not proof that you are not doing your job.

Merriam-Webster tells us that a student is “one who attends school”. By that definition, some of the people on my student list weren’t students. An alternate definition of a student is “one who studies”.

A teacher is someone who guides, who clarifies concepts, illustrates, demonstrates techniques, and gives feedback and evaluation. That is much different from “a person who causes someone to learn”.

Do not define yourself by the outcomes. Practice your craft. Learn new techniques. Try something different. But your worth as a teacher is not defined by the student’s failure to learn.

And just so you know – your value is not defined by the student’s success either.

As teachers, we are the conveyance. We attempt to teach. The learning? That’s on the student.

“You’re boring”

Maybe. Certainly some of the course content is. Some of the most important things – the real need to know stuff – is boring.

There is a trend now for teachers to be entertainers. And some of the most admired teachers are creative and often funny. When you can pull that off it is a bonus for the students. It makes you – and the class – more interesting. But it does not equate to effective.

You may have heard that “good” teachers find a way to make the dull stuff exciting, that they bring their passion to the lesson. Sure – okay. But in any course at some point there is material that is important – but not interesting. It is hard to be passionate about the mundane.

I like to think of it as the framework for the interesting stuff. But when all else fails – plod on.

That’s why they invented memorization, rote memory, and mnemonics. And by the way – how did rote learning get a bad name? It’s not like it’s easy. Memorization is a useful skill. It makes the dull stuff stick. I would never have mastered the times tables if I hadn’t memorized them. But I did – and they have come in very handy over the years.

So some stuff is boring. That does not mean you are boring. And even if you are – you can still be an effective teacher.

“I am an honours student”

You will hear this from some very good, very serious students (or their parents), at some point – guaranteed. Most likely you just gave them their first B or 80% and clearly you are mistaken – after all they are an A+ student.  Assuming that you have marking criteria (if not – get on it – it will make your life so much easier) you have not broken this otherwise perfect human being.

In response say – “Don’t define yourself by your marks. They are grades assigned to work you have done and not to you – the person.”

What a terrible burden for someone to carry – that their value is directly tied to anyone else’s judgement. You will save the student a fortune in therapy if you help them to separate themselves from someone else’s somewhat arbitrary evaluation. But you do no one a favour if you give high marks to bolster self-esteem or reward for effort. If you do, perhaps you are a bad teacher.

“I tried really, really hard”

I’ve written about this before. As a teacher I am in a poor position to determine the amount of effort (although I have my suspicions). I can only evaluate the outcome and then only against the marking criteria. I have seen work that likely was the result of effort but it failed to provide the desired results.  [Really, if you ask a student to bake a cake and they bring you a beautiful home-made quilt do you give them a gold star?]

And I have seen satisfactory work that may have been dashed off on the way to class. So “A” for (next to no) effort – but isn’t that just the way it works sometimes?

“It’s really hard!”

Yes indeed. In response I quote Tom Hanks as Jimmy Dugan in A League of Their Own.  “Hard? It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”

By the way, try to avoid saying, “No – really – this is easy.” It is only easy because you already know how to do it. And once you say it some folk will go out of their way just to prove you wrong.

“I have a unique situation”

Sure you do. We all do. We all know that “reasonable accommodation” is a tricky concept but necessary in an inclusive society. However, it does not mean that anything and everything goes. Keep this old saying close at hand, “Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” In fact, post it on your wall.

Make your expectations crystal clear, stick to what you say and have an exception policy. Last – and most importantly – make sure exceptions do not become the norm. Honestly, if the students can hand things in “whenever” – just say so. Don’t pretend to have a deadline if you won’t enforce it. Keep in mind that the world still has expectations, rules and deadlines. In order to learn to be a productive member of society we all have to figure out how to deal with our own unique situations.

“Can I do extra work for marks?”

Some students nearing the end of the term finally seem to notice that they are not likely to pass. They will come to you, all good manners and sweet face, and say: “So can I do an extra assignment to make up the marks?” This student will tell you, “I know I should have come to class more often, done the homework, or studied harder.” The good news is that this student has learned that the world likes people who will take personal responsibility. Excellent. Now it is time for them to learn that behaviour has consequences. Sometimes there are no do overs – no extra lives. “Please Mother May I?” doesn’t always work. I acknowledge the short comings they have listed and express my pleasure that they realize that they could have done more. We talk about that a bit. When it comes to the extra assignment I say no. I point out that what they are doing is acknowledging their failings and expressing their willingness to do extra work to compensate. I then point out that I did my end of things – I was in class – I marked homework and assignments – I answered questions. It isn’t reasonable to ask me to do extra work.

I sometimes say that they can hand in the big assignment late and I will mark it so they know what they did wrong – but they will still get zero. I have only had one student take me up on that offer.

So when you don’t accept the assignment after the deadline, when you refuse to allow a student to rewrite a test, you are not being mean. You are being a good teacher.

I’m sure I didn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know. But sometimes it is good to remind ourselves – just to keep from going crazy.



4 Replies to “Things my students told me”

  1. I saw your videos on taxes and I really like your method of teaching. I was wondering whether you offer online classes in accounting and taxes?

  2. Great article, Michelle, and a timely reminder that the worthwhile stuff is rarely easy. That includes trying to be a good teacher.

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