Sunday, January 14, 2007

On Being A Great Professor

When I got my first teaching gig, I attended a briefing session so we could get our heads around the basics. A lot of it was common sense, of course, but one activity has stuck with me. We were asked to write down five attributes of a good teacher, and likewise for a poor one. I quickly thought of the uncaring, snide and demeaning profs I’d had as a student, and these memories helped me fill that side of the page in no time.

Conversely, I flicked back to the great classes I’d taken – in each case by a passionate yet level-headed and inspirational teacher – and wrote down this list of traits: knowledgeable, approachable, respectable, patient and fair.

I keep these five words in mind whenever I teach, and funnily enough, my evals have been near identical – both in the near 100% approval ratings, and the handwritten comments I receive. Why is this? Because from the moment a student steps into one of my classes they realize I’m the real deal: I know my area, I genuinely care about their learning, and I advocate mutual respect from the moment I call the roll. I also let them know from the first class that I won’t be lied to about late assignments, or manipulated into giving extensions for no reason. I remind them I was an undergrad myself, and that it’s not worth their time (or mine) to try to bullshit me.

Do I get rude students questioning grades they deserve? Sure. Do I have students who throw all the effort I’ve put into each class back into my face when something doesn’t go their way? Hell yes! And like everyone else, I get the cheap shots in my evals about what I wear to class or how I need a haircut. But at the end of the semester I get glowing evaluations that outscore everyone in my school for a good reason: I care about what and how my students learn, and they reward me for it.

Crap profs will always hide behind the argument that their students don’t know their ear from their elbow and have no right to evaluate their performance as an academic. But until these people wise up and treat their students with respect, show passion for their discipline, and take the time to create classes they are challenging, worthwhile and on task, they’ll get the derisive evals they deserve.